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Friday, April 17, 2009

The Teacher


En otro lado, también, tengo esta reminiscencia de mi madre. De nuevo, la versión en español la agregaré luego.
My mother died August 12, 2008. Whatever good I have in me I owe it both to her and to my father, who died April 15, 2004. Anything bad I am or have, of course, it's me... only me.
The way my family tells the story I learned to read at a very early age. Long before I was ready for school and perhaps even longer that school, and teachers were ready for me. As it should be clear to anybody, I don’t recall how it happened. Which probably helps me for the purpose of this story, as the idea is not to provide a detailed account. Needless to say, I cannot tell you either why or when or how did I become conscious of my ability to make sense of the alphabet. And by that I mean not only the skill to identify the individual letters, but also the ability to make sense of how they were to be spelled out once they were strung together into words. Most likely at the beginning it happened with words written in chalk on a blackboard, although I certainly cannot discount the possibility that they were first handwritten on pieces of paper while my two aunts (both my father’s sisters on his mother’s side and both still in elementary school) cared for me and did their school homework. Fresh (should there be anything to be so called after more than half a century of having first happened) is the memory of sitting on their laps and following the rhythms of the spoken word as they learned, practiced and polished their reading skills.
This is not however about me. At a certain point in my life, I’m sure, there may have been some boasting attached to my reading skills. Children, after all, are like that. Go ahead and tell your tot how good he or she looks while frowning or squinting and there will be no end to frowns or squints followed by roars of laughter.
As the story goes, it was at that time of my aunts doing homework when my grandmother discovered my precocious ability to read. Not because of my parroting whatever they were reading at the time. We lived at my grandmother’s house in this semirural town in South-Eastern El Salvador, either by coincidence or design next to the elementary school for girls where my mother was one of the teachers. At times, when my restlessness would make her patience run short and perhaps in an effort to soothe my demands to see my mother—whom I knew to be there just a few steps away, caring for children that weren’t hers—Ma Menche or some other relative attending us (there was already my brother, Reynaldo, to take care of) would carry me to gaze at my mother through the open window, while she labored on showing her pupils the wonders of the alphabet. "Teacher, teacher, your son is at the window again!", the girls would yell. And it was there next to the banana plants and the cashew tree, not far away from where the mango tree shaded the wooden sink where Ma Menche did the laundry later to dry al fresco that I would fall asleep in her arms, while looking at my mother write on the blackboard and lead her pupils in reciting the alphabet and learning the wonders of language through words that in their simple structure had in them hidden the complexity of discoveries yet to be made.
And so it is hyperbolically how one day I was babbling baby-talk and the next I’d be reading off the first-graders book. And sooner than most children, be anxious for the daily paper to arrive to chuckle with the comics. Gazing at my mother while she was busy teaching to other children was not, I think, the only way I learned to read. At bedtime The Arabian Nights stories would come alive with her retellings. Her words I believe did more than just calm down whatever fears you go to bed at night when you are little. Perhaps a better way of explaining this would be to say that by the time I got to see in books or magazines pictures or illustrations of the things that Mayita narrated to me at bedtime, I was not actually looking at something new. More of a side-by-side comparison of images with the ones already planted in my mind by my mother’s words.

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