The First Time I Loved English
I am a first generation immigrant who took to English like lead weights take to water; I sank to the bottom of things, such as school and life. Then I met a teacher, the one and only teacher I remember, because she changed me.
Junior high school cafeterias can be battlegrounds where poor kids, who don’t have money to buy food, and unpopular kids, who don’t have friends to provide safety in numbers, often take body shots. One teacher, Mrs. Gardner, ran a lunchtime refugee camp for kids who didn’t have much to eat or any place to go.
I managed a little carton of chocolate milk and a soft pretzel for lunch one day and went to Mrs. Gardner’s room. Among the rejects and the hungry, I felt rich that day.
Sometimes, Mrs. Gardner would give extra credit assignments to the “lower rungers” on the academic ladder, an added chance to make up for bad marks. The devil’s humor was that at the time, I was considered a decent, if not good student. The secret was I was reading at least three grades behind my level but not flunking out because I could memorize entire sections of books. But comprehensive learning is a wholly different animal, and it was beating the shit out of me every day. Writing was its tag team partner, the meaner beast of the two.
As was her habit, Mrs. Gardner walked around the room to check on people’s work. She was tall, wide, with very short salt and pepper hair and Coke bottle glasses rimmed in thick plastic frames. When she spoke, a gold crown glittered at us from the dark cavern of her mouth. She could scare us kids to death with her booming voice or the heat of her laser beaming eyes then turn us quizzical with her curious Irish brogue and chuckling laughter.
She approached from my left munching on a green apple and looked over my shoulder at my writing assignment. My syntax was non-existent; my spelling, atrocious; my vocabulary, anemic; my punctuation…What punctuation?
I was in seventh grade, and five out of seven teachers had called me stupid. To my face. In front of the class.
I braced myself for the usual then heard, “I know you like to use words.”
She didn’t criticize, she didn’t lecture, didn’t pity or humor. She broke through stupid and gave me a gentle, “Hello. I know you’re in there. I know you’re trying.”
I looked up at her and, for the first time in my life, I understood not why teachers exist, but why they must exist. For the very first time in my American life, words, rather than binding, had freed me.