Spanish Spoken Here

I entered the New York public school system in 1960, and from the get go, I began my education facing an obstacle, one that I was completely unaware I had. That is, until second grade, when I heard my teacher, Mrs. Green, bring it to my mother’s attention. It seems I was having trouble understanding the lessons and I wasn’t speaking up in class.

Mrs. Green smiled politely as she said this, but then turned decidedly serious. Carefully enunciating her words, she asked my mother whether English was ever spoken in our home.  I cringed. Why was Mrs. Green asking?  Was it my mother’s heavy Spanish accent that was giving us away? I had hoped no one would notice, so it was crushing to suddenly realize our secret was out.

Still, I couldn’t understand why it mattered what language was spoken in our home.  What did it have to do with my ability—or lack of it—to learn? Yes, my parents spoke only Spanish, but I thought my father’s English was quite respectable. He seemed comfortable speaking it outside our home and did so often. If you ask me, he spoke it with a charm reminiscent of Ricky Ricardo in I Love Lucy and we all knew how well Little Ricky had turned out.

Mrs. Green's Second Grade Class, 1962. I'm in the second row, second from the left.

Though my mother was another matter. She understood English, but went out of her way to avoid speaking it.  Which was kind of a relief to me, as it was mortifying to hear her struggle for the right words.

And here we were admitting the obvious to Mrs. Green, that we lived a double life. English in the outside world, and Spanish at home. Seemed perfectly natural to me. Which made it hard to understand why it was an issue now.

Although, I did recall Mrs. Green once giving us an assignment to write about shops in our neighborhood and I had to write about a delicatessen. Delicatessen? I had no idea what that was, and rather than ask, I just made something up: “The delicatessen is a fine place to shop for delicate things, especially when you’re not in any hurry.” Of course, had I asked, I would have discovered that delicatessens served cold cuts, pickles and the like, and that some people just referred to them as a “deli.”  So maybe that’s why Mrs. Green wrote in my report card,

Language Arts Reading: Monica is reading at first grade level. Monica does not contribute much to class discussions. I am trying to get her to speak more freely. It would help her language skills if she used the public library.

My mother started dropping me off at the library every Saturday morning. I’d make the most of these visits, enjoying story time in the children’s section, then browsing the shelves where I discovered Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, Encyclopedia Brown by Donald J. Sobel, and Homer Price by Robert McCloskey. It became a thrill to be in the library, with my own library card, which made me feel very grown up.

Written Expression: Monica has difficulty in expressing her thoughts in sentences. She has learned to use a capital at the beginning of a sentence and a period at the end.

Given how much I love writing, it’s tough for me to imagine I once found it hard to express myself through the written word, and that I was stymied by the proper use of punctuation. Yet, I do remember the sense of doom I’d feel when Mrs. Green gave us writing assignments. My mind would blank and I’d keep my torment to myself. Anything, than have to admit that I was at a loss for words.

I struggled a lot in second grade and there were times I really felt I’d never be more than just average. Knowing that I had a language barrier to overcome didn’t make it any easier, but it did give me new determination.  Thanks to my teacher’s report card, I learned that the key for me was to read and read often, and I’ll always be grateful that Mrs. Green suggested I use the library. For it was through my library visits that I became a passionate reader.  So much so, that in the last report card of the school year, Mrs. Green wrote, “Monica is now reading at second grade level.”

Finally! And in the nick of time, too. For third grade was just a summer away.