daily preciousness

Thursday, June 21, 2007

little Pedro

One thing I love about teaching is watching children invent language. They have an astounding ability to express themselves, even if they lack the vocabulary or grammar to share a thought. They just make it up as they go along.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when little Pedro came up to me and tugged on my lanyard. A round-faced, cherubic little guy from El Salvador, I often worried about him. His family was very poor, both parents working several jobs, and he only got practice speaking English while at school. Would he develop his language skills OK, despite his home life?

We were in the café-torium. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s a god-awful idea that could only be dreamt up by public school architects. (These are the guys who couldn’t cut it designing things like courthouse bathrooms and got demoted to public school buildings.) The café-torium is the unholy union of a school cafeteria and an auditorium. It has the acoustics of an auditorium during the lunchtime rush, so that the screaming is amplified. During assemblies, when it is used as an auditorium, all the tables and chairs are pushed aside so that children and adults can sit on the floor… the floor that has been infused with decades of spilt, soured milk, (both the 2% and chocolate variety). Every nook and cranny of the floor is also crammed with overcooked peas, carrots and cauliflower. That includes all of the outlets: cable drops, electrical outlets and microphone hookups. Think of the fun being the A/V go-to man at a place like that; they’re all filled to the rim with desiccated food. (Makes for crappy connections, too – thank goodness for WiFi!)

So, anyway, Pedro and I are in the café-torium when he yanks on my lanyard and motions for me to kneel down to his four-foot height. I do and he whispers in my ear that he’s found a something, saying, “I saw a dead cat behind the school!” He was so excited by the find that I wanted to be happy for him, but I was a little skeptical. “Are you sure it was dead, Pedro? Maybe it was just taking a cat nap.”

“No, no – I’m sure it was dead,” he assured me, nodding resolutely, hands fiddling with his pockets.

I still wasn’t so sure. Pedro’s English was OK, but not all that great. Maybe he saw a possum and just didn’t know the word for it. After all, I had no idea what “possum” was in Spanish. I figured he saw a possum and it was just, you know, playing itself.

“I know it was dead because I pissed in its ear,” Pedro explained with a straight face.

I was totally floored. Put yourself in my shoes for a minute and just envision a little four-foot Salvadoran kid, peeing into the cranial orifice of a dead house pet. Imagine it. Use your sense memory to consider the sound of the liquid splattering. The off-putting scent of the urine. The golden color filling up the downy fur of an unmoving, triangular ear. Just imagine it.

Flapped beyond my usual unflappability, I inquire, “You did WHAT?”

Again, fiddling with his pockets, he said, “You know, walked up to the cat, leaned over, and whispered, ‘Psst!’ into its ear. Then I patted it on its head to wake it up. It didn’t move, so I know it must be dead.”

“Oh, OK. Well, go wash your hands, Pedro. Safety first!”

From that moment on, I no longer worried about Pedro’s language development. He was doing just fine, inventing the language that he needed to get his point across.


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