The news of Castro’s passing today takes me back to a day in 1971 when I hesitantly accepted my first teaching position at an inner city school 30 miles east of Chicago.
It was a cold January day in the Midwest, mid- school year, when I walked into a classroom of 13 hostile Cuban boys and girls, ages 8 to 14. Their families had recently fled their native Cuba through Miami and ended up in the steel town of Gary, Indiana. which had a fairly large Cuban population. They did not want to be in the city nor did they want to learn English. Today, ESL has a wide curriculum with countless lesson plans. At that time there were none. My second hurdle: I did not speak Spanish.
I accepted the position as a favor to the district coordinator who was looking for a teacher with a strong language background who did not speak Spanish. I did have a degree in English with a minor in French and spoke a Slavic language-Bulgarian. I had substituted for her previously when a Russian language teacher was elected to the Indiana State Senate and had to be gone for four months to serve in the legislature. I guess she thought I was up to another challenge.
These newly arriving Cuban children attended Jefferson Elementary, historically the first school in Gary, a US Steel settlement in 1906. The Spanish teacher they hired to teach them was not successful because once the Cuban children knew she spoke Spanish, they refused to speak in English. Hence, I was to be the compromise solution.
I did have, as my assistant, a kind and gentle Spanish-speaking aide. However, she was from Mexico and we both soon discovered that the Spanish spoken in Mexico was different from the Cuban Spanish. For example, the Mexican word for “grass” was interpreted as “weeds” by the children. They had a fierce pride in their language and their country and defended their language. They became so angry over the discrepancy in the above word that they would not speak to either one of us the rest of the day.
With no teaching materials yet developed, I recall many sleepless nights wondering what I would do with the children the following day, not only to teach them English but to earn their trust. My challenges were many.
What often appealed to the eight-year old girls was considered baby stuff by the fourteen- year old boys who were quite mature beyond their years. (These children had been encouraged by the Cuban government to inform on their parents if they were not displaying allegiance to Castro’s dictates.) I thought I had found a solution, of sorts, with a program out of Tennessee, the Peabody Language development program. Designed for pre-schoolers, it incorporated a funky little puppet named P. Mooney to teach them colors, numbers, sight words. I found that the children would often talk to the puppet when they would not talk to me. However, the older boys soon guffawed at the “baby” stuff, yet when I put P Mooney away for a few days, they asked for him. “Donde es P Mooney?” I realized they were not above having fun after all and started to trust my instincts.
I was not the only teacher encountering resistance as these students were put into age-appropriate classrooms for half-days. A Cuban lawyer who lived in the Jefferson School community spoke to the teachers one night, trying to help us understand the Cuban culture. He said, unlike the children who came from the Mexico and responded positively to kindness and affection, the Cuban children had no respect for that and responded best to discipline and authority. One parent told me to spank her child if she disobeyed. As a new teacher, I was dismayed and disillusioned. Perhaps I had chosen the wrong career.
Further challenges. The older girls were falling asleep in class. I discovered they were staying up until midnight to watch the Spanish soap opera-the only thing they
could understand on TV. They came into the classroom after having only black coffee for breakfast on little sleep.
I often sympathized with these children. Although they had assimilated into a Cuban neighborhood, they longed for their countryside of lush green land where they played outdoors waiting for their father to return from his work in the fields and then ate their evening meal outdoors over an open fire. Quite a contrast to their present environment--miles of concrete with postage-stamp yards, frigid temperatures off of Lake Michigan and the steel mills of Gary belching out their pollution on a daily basis.
One day I ate lunch in the cafeteria and discovered that although they allowed the servers to fill their trays with a hot meal of “American” food, they would slide it to the end of the serving line and then dump the entire contents immediately in the trash can. They then went to the candy machine and stocked up. This was disturbing as their hot lunch was paid for by food stamps.
Although I questioned if they were learning English, I was learning Spanish at a rapid rate. For example, I had not lost the pregnancy weight from my two-year
old and I found out quickly what “ Ella es Gorda” meant. I’m sure that was spoken in the most endearing way. Right. Also, when I would give my two-year old her bath in the evening, I found myself saying, “Sientete, sientete,” as she stood up in the tub.
One day, in frustration, I asked the children, through my translator, “Why don’t you want to learn English?”
“We’re going back to Cuba,” they responded joyfully as if they were on the next boat.
“Really?” I asked. “When?”
“When Castro leaves,” was their reply.
Today Castro has left and I can’t help but wonder—do they still consider Cuba their home? Will they now return?
As for me, did I return to the classroom? Yes, I did, many years later. A regular high-school English classroom complete with teaching materials and no language barriers. But none of those students have stayed in my memory as much as the little Cubans. As they asked, Donde es P Moony? , I have often asked through the years, Donde estan los ninos?