The First Language

Hablo español bastante bien para engañar a los que no lo hablan.

Which means: I speak Spanish well enough to fool people who don’t speak Spanish.

I’m not a native speaker. My mother is from Panama, but never taught us to speak her first language. I’ve been taking lessons for years because I love my mother. And I’m scared of her.

She admitted that it was a mistake not teaching us, but she said it was up to me to fix it.

She said to me, “You’ve got brains! Stop blaming me and take a class!” You don’t say ‘No’ to Ma. So I’ve got a friend teaching me, and I’ve got grammar books, and I’ve got novels and radio shows and podcasts and the Betty La Fea telanovela on TV.

But it’s not just for Ma. It’s because I’m power-hungry. I’m worst than a mad scientist. I’m a sucker for a power grab. And language has power.

I suspected it in my 6th grade class when the neighborhood was beginning to change faces and change accents. I saw it when sitting next to Brian and Jason and Cindy were Alfredo and Marcos and Fabiola.

I used it when one day when the kids came in from recess and I said, “Bueno, estudiantes. Sientense en sus escritorios por favor. Ahora.” (Which was actually the sum total of the Spanish vocabulary I remembered from high school at the time.)

And Brian and Jason and Cindy looked up at me smiling as if I were playing a game. But Alfredo and Marcos and Fabiola looked up at me as if I had called them by name.

I said, “Fabiola, some people in our class don’t speak two languages. Can you tell them what I said?”

She said, “She wants you to sit down. Now.”

And Fabiola was smiling, unafraid of her power.

I had been told that the parents of Alfredo and Marcos spoke very little English. I had them help me to write a note home telling them how happy I was to have students who could help me with my Spanish! I told them, in Spanish, how excited I would be to meet them and thank them in person for sending me their children who would also be my teachers.

Those parents came to back to school night, and I’m sure I sounded like a two-year-old trying to hold up my end of the conversation, but they were so patient with me as I babbled in Spanglish. They helped me with a phrase. I helped them with a phrase. I said, “Somos un buen equipo.” We’re a good team.

We were. We didn’t understand everything we said to each other. But we understood what we were to each other. We understood what was important.

We understood that each of us had to reach toward the other like a team passing a ball. It was my job to show them in whatever small way that I could that I needed them.

It was my job to make them welcome and to make their children understand how special they were; as all my children were. This you can make clear through the power of the universal language of children and what we owe to them. This they understood.

Caring parents. Caring teachers. This is the language our children learn before all others.

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