About Life

My American Education

I had just turned 11 years old when I arrived in NY after a month-long trip over land – illegally – from El Salvador. It was February – winter. Cold!

Family members who had at some point or another, before me, taken the same trek over land seeking a better life all lived in the same roach-infested house on Clinton Street, Hempstead, NY. We occupied the first floor of the house. We also had the basement, though we rarely used it for living, as it was very, very humid down there. The basement was more of a storage area than anything else. Even the roaches opted not to hang out down there. On the first floor we had one large bedroom, a waiting room between the main door leading to the inside of the house and the door that led to the street, a living room, a kitchen and a bathroom. The small room that was the waiting area between the main door into the house and the door to the street served as my mother’s bedroom – cracked windows and all – and the large bedroom served as a dormitory for one of my 2 sisters and her son, and 3 brothers. Another sister slept on the sofa bed in the living room and I slept on a fold-away mattress in the hallway. At some point other nephews and another older sister joined us in the same house but my mind has blocked out the sleeping arrangements made then.

On the second floor of the house lived another family. In what should have been the garage lived yet another family. Ironically enough, a Nassau County police officer was our landlord. Surely he knew that there were way too many people living in his house. Given the bad state of the house and the number of roaches crawling all over the place it was certainly a fire hazard. Still, rent was cheap, and we had no other choice.

Since we were all brought to the US by human-trafficking “coyotes”, my mother, brothers and sisters all had to work very long hours in order to pay back the money owed. After all, the trip was not for free. Initially I spent most of my days alone in the house. Eventually my mother registered me in the local elementary school; Washington Elementary School, about 5 blocks from the house.

Hempstead – at the time and now – was/is mostly composed of blacks and Hispanics. There were lots of newly-arrived Central Americans, blacks, few Asians and about 2 whites. Throughout my life in Hempstead there were always racial issues dividing the community, and schools were where problems usually got started.

It was decided I would enter into the 4th grade at Washington Elementary. It was primarily because that grade was the only one with enough space for another body and not really because of my age. Besides, it was already February, and very late in the school year. I was put in Mrs. Washington’s class. She was an older sweet looking black lady. A large woman she always wore flowery dresses and had a pair of glasses on her face complete with the chain used to hang them on her neck when she was not using them. I didn’t understand English so I have no idea what she was saying, ever. Because of that I can’t say for sure whether she was nice, funny or mean. I like to think she was nice.

I was mostly bored in class. I was the only Hispanic kid there, and all the other kids were black, including my teacher. No one spoke Spanish and I was far from starting to understand any English. I felt isolated.

During breakfast – as a poor family we qualified for school breakfast – and lunch I stayed to myself pretty much the whole time. Often I would get into some sort of fight or argument over a black student saying something in my direction that I did not understand and laughing right after it.

My sister’s son, the one living with us, is a couple of years younger than me. He arrived in NY some time before I did, so he knew more words in English than I did. At one point he shared with me a trick he used to get out of class all the time. He told me to raise my hand and when the teacher looked my way I was to say “ken-a-go chu-la-bachu”. I had no clue what this meant, but I was determined to try anything to add some range of excitement to my day in school.

The next day in class, after we were done putting our hands on our chest and just standing there while someone said some words at the front of the class; I raised my hand while Mrs. Washington was writing something on the green board. She looked at me and nodded. I said “ken-a-go chu-la-bachu” and she responded by saying something and at the same time pointing to the door. I understood this meant I was free to leave the classroom. I did. I was not sure where to go, for how long, or what to do while I was outside of the classroom, but I was happy I could walk out and do my own thing. I left the classroom and walked the halls for a while. I finally sat on a staircase and wondered about what I was supposed to be doing, or whether I was meant to bring something back to class with me when I returned. Not knowing these details made me feel a bit anxious about returning to class. Eventually I made my way back. Mrs. Washington stopped talking and put her hands on her waist as I walked in. She said some things in my direction, but I had no clue what she was saying. I walked past her while she was talking and I returned to my seat in the back of the room. In the afternoon I tried to get out of the classroom again, but this time Mrs. Washington said “no”. That word I understood.

That afternoon at home I asked my nephew what the phrase meant. He told me I was asking for permission to go to the boy’s room, and that I should not take too long to return to the classroom. I understood why Mrs. Washington was not very happy that I had taken so long to return. From then on I asked to go to the boy’s room once in the morning and once in the afternoon. I rarely used the boy’s room at all, but I used the time to wonder around the school and discover spaces I had not seen before. The multi-use cafeteria/theatre/gym space was my favorite. I always got back to the classroom in good time, I think, because Mrs. Washington never received me with her hands on her waist again.

When I was in El Salvador, I remember that school was very different. I was in a multi-grade classroom, so there were various ages in one room with one teacher. We did a lot of writing exercises, we repeated those exercises many times during class, and when we thought we were finished, we had to go home and write some more. Literally I would wear my pencil down to the nub. I also had to use both sides of the notebook page. We were very poor. Buying a pen was considered a luxury, so I was given only one pencil and had to use it all up before I was given another. I had the one thin notebook, and had to take very good care of it unless I wanted to get a beating. I had one pair of shoes for everything, and not only for school, but for everything! I had one uniform shirt and one pair of pants to take care of during the week. These things were not renewed unless I was no longer able to wear or use them.

Back at Washington Elementary I had several nice, thick notebooks, different clothes to wear almost daily, and many colored pens and pencils. While in Mrs. Washington’s class I spent the day doodling on my notebooks. If she were ever to check my notes all she would have found would have been senseless, but colorful, doodles.

During the early-to-mid 80’s in many urban cities in the US, crack was fast becoming an epidemic. Hempstead was not spared. There were crack vials left on the ground all over the place, especially parks and school grounds. Without knowing what these things were I used to collect them on my walk to school. These vials looked like shortened Bic’s pens, and had different color caps. The caps were green, red, blue and, every-so-often, white. Sometimes there were tiny bits of white powdery stones still left in them, so I would sit in the back of the class and empty these vials on to a couple of clean notebook pages. Parallel to this, I was still getting used to living in a heated house, and the hot water showers in the morning were doing a number on my scalp and skin so I would often go days without showering. There I was, in the very back of the classroom, mixing my head dandruff with the white stuff coming out of those vials to see how much I could collect on a given day. This is how I filled my days; collecting vials and playing with crap on my notebook in between bathroom breaks. Good thing Mrs. Washington never discovered what I was doing back there; else I would have had a lot of explaining to do, in Spanish.

Throughout those first few months in school I had no clue what I was supposed to be doing. I learned about getting out of class every once-in-a-while, and about collecting those little colorful vials to play with. I also enjoyed having more paper, pencils and pens than I had ever seen in my life. But class, I had no clue what class was about.

The next year, in 5th grade, I was put into the first all-Spanish class there was at Washington Elementary. I had no idea there were so many other Spanish kids at school. I had never seen them. I was finally in a classroom full of Spanish speaking kids. Even the teacher spoke Spanish. Well, she spoke Spanglish, so it took me a while to fully understand her. She was a very mean teacher, though. Of course we didn’t help our cause, as we were always speaking out of turn and searching for new ways to tick her off. Her name was Mrs. Panuco, a Puerto Rican lady; short, stocky and also wore glasses. The school text books were all in English, but she spoke Spanglish most of the time because none of us spoke very good English. Once a day I was pulled out of class and taken to one-on-one English classes with a very pretty young woman whose name I cannot recall. I do remember her face, though.

The only things I remember learning in 5th grade were English words with the pretty teacher, how to avoid getting a book thrown my way by mean Mrs. Panuco when she had a fit, and that I loved computers. There were a couple of Apple computers at the back of the classroom. If we hurried to do our work and finished early, Mrs. Panuco would let us go to the computer to play word or math games on it. I loved it. Finally something I could really dig my teeth into and not have to worry about speaking the language to be able to do. This fun was short-lived, though, as I did not see or touch a computer again until well past high school.

Middle school was not easy. In the sixth grade at Alberta B. Gray S. Middle School (I can’t remember what the B and the S stand for) I was put in Mrs. Moore’s class. We were mixed Spanish and black students. Most of us where of age, but there were some older kids in there, too. Mrs. Moore could not have been past 32 years old. She was beautiful – in a manly kind-of-way – black, thin, dressed well, did not wear glasses and was always acting like she was about ready to kick someone’s ass.

Mrs. Moore was a tough cookie. If we did not do our homework she would make us squat against the wall and stay there for the better part the morning’s first period. When it was cold outside, and we were repeat offenders of not doing our homework, she would make us squat against the hot room heater. The heater was the old type, the kind that is made of heavy steel pipes and has hot water running through it. It hurt. Both my back and thighs hurt. I was constantly on that thing because I never did my homework. Mrs. Moore was so mean and tough she even challenged the bigger and older boys in the classroom to take arguments outside to the field a couple of times. None of the boys ever took her up on it, but I bet if they did she would have kicked some butt. This is how tuff Mrs. Moore was.

During my middle school years I was constantly bullied by various bigger students, I did very poorly in my classes, and there were fights all the time between Hispanic and black students. At one point the fights got so bad the school had to be closed for 3 days while the community figured out what to do about the racial issues. We were on the evening news and everything. The fights were always between Hispanics and blacks, always.

Aside from the fighting, raging hormones and the bullying, there were a couple of classes I did like in middle school. The classes I liked the most were French, Spanish (because I could mess with the teacher who had never traveled outside of the US and spoke Spanish with almost as bad an accent as I spoke English), and music because the teacher always paid special attention to me for some reason. Still, it was in middle school that I swore I never wanted to be a teacher, especially to middle school students. I was 1,000% sure of it!

The classes I liked were never because of the content, but rather because of the treatment of the teachers. Few things interested me at school. What I enjoyed most was going home to tinker with things one of my older brothers fixed. He took apart TV’s and other electronic things to fix to make extra money. This is what the basement in the house was used for in addition to storage. It was his shop. Most of the fixing work took place during the weekends when he did not have to be working at one job or another. During the week I had the run of the place since I was mostly on my own. Being a latchkey kid had its advantages! I would try to see if I could make a motor spin while connecting it to the wall socket. I would try the same thing with small light bulbs. Lots of sparks, and nothing worked, but I didn’t kill myself or burn down the house in the process. The teachers whose class I liked were the ones I often told about my experiments in the basement. These teachers would listen, smile, and pat me on the shoulder while encouraging me to continue with my crazy experiments. Surely they had no clue what I was talking about since my English was still rough, but they were nice enough to listen.

If school were to have been more hands-on, more about the things I wanted to tinker with and learn about I would have been a better student, I am sure of it. At home I read books about electronics, computer programming, about lasers, airplane designs, about musical instruments, about how radio waves travel, and about how microphones work. This is why I never did any homework. I was reading the stuff that I actually liked and cared about. My mother and older brothers and sisters would not get home until about midnight on weeknights so I had little problem getting away with not doing my school work.

At school it was always about very complex and unreal rules about speaking that I seldom heard practiced given the ubiquitous Ebonics and Spanglish both at home and at school that surrounded me. Things in school text-books were foreign and out of context for me; out of reach. Things such as electronics where it for me as I was fascinated by circuit boards, electricity, signals and how wings create lift by taking advantage of their design.

So it was that school never interested me. It was the bitter pill I had to swallow in order to keep myself away from beatings and being screamed at all of the time by my mother. Sure, I understood what it meant to be uneducated as my mother never made it past 2nd grade and most of my older brothers and sisters never graduated from high school, and their jobs were about cleaning this or that office or parking lot from 6am through 11pm. But I still hated school.

It’s funny how now I dedicate myself to working in schools. Growing up in a time when the immigration explosion in the US caught many off guard and being stuck in a one-language classroom throughout elementary, middle and high school taught me a lot. It taught me about what to steer away from when defining my own approach to teaching.

Now I find myself addicted to the energy, curiosity, and imagination – and sure, the lack of focus/attention and silliness – of middle schoolers in particular. Sure, I very much enjoy working with loving and energetic elementary students, as well as seeing adulthood begin to take shape in high schoolers, but I love teaching middle school students. Mostly, because I have the opportunity to mend my past teachers’ shortcomings at the time when I came to hate my middle school years. My lessons are not overly filled with boring text-book academics but by experimentation and discovery. My kids know they can mess up in my classes – in fact it is one of my assessment criteria; that they venture into their unknown and experiment. I love that they are never afraid to try new things, that they love to create stories and that they (particularly boys) gravitate towards the technical. Girls tend to stick more to story-telling and graphics creation/manipulation endeavors and I take full advantage of their questions to ensure they are always learning what they wish to learn and not what the book tells them to learn. I enjoy seeing them take their learning seriously.

Of the things I swore I would stay away from when I was growing up – drugs, driving drunk, going to a Backstreet Boys concert – I find myself doing the first thing on my list; teaching middle school. Life has a way of making you swallow your own words at times. It’s a good thing the Backstreet Boys have not announced a reunion tour yet. Wait, have they?