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English, South-of-the-border style

Dennis Paul Morony

We're living in those heady, early days of Salinismo, and in a Mexican public elementary school an excited young woman teacher is explaining to her enthralled class of fourth graders that a middle-aged and "so-distinguished" gentelman from El Norte has come to graciously share a little of his expertise in....Gasp! you got it! ENGLISH!

Never mind that this would-be Paragon from some other and superior planet just so happened to have been ambling along a nearby street after a late breakfast and casually dropped in on the little inner-city school to see how things are done.

Because by now it's too late!

Clapping her hands together in front of her face for greater emphasis the maestra then gives her delighted audience a clincher: this hapless turista is about to teach his little Mexican friends how we pronounce the word for that delicious junk food made of toasted corn that every movie-going kid of any age likes on either side of the border.

Result? Panic....or as the shrinks are always so fond of telling us, "an acute attack of performance anxiety."

Taking a deep breath I find myself mumbling, "Uh, yeah, sure uh--O.K."

I take another deep breath, and finally blurt it out, "POPCORN!"

With a ravishing smile and elegantly twirling around again to face her class the charismatic senorita peels out like a bell some- thing that sounds like "POP-CONE!" She pronounces the last syllable with a charming lisp.

In a flash all forty-something little voices scream back with gusto their interpretation: "PO'CAWN!" Learning is truly an exhilaratng experience; triumphs come easily to the young.

But as for me, well, at this moment -- all I want to see is the floor open up beneath my feet, the better to swallow both me and my embarrassment.

But it doesn't. Instead, time flows by. And before long I come to realize that I'm in a brand new career.

Three years have come and gone since my traumatic introduction to the field of teaching English as a foreign language, and now the scene has changed to another Mexican state. This time we're close to the south bank of the Rio Grande.

About fifty fidgety fifth and sixth graders are momentarily engrossed in their latest exercise, straight out of a level III E.S.L. adult textbook, which deals with such mind-boggling all-American adult themes as "John washes his car. John washes his car every day. He is washing his car now."

It seems we've barely started when a bronzed arm shoots up and a peremptory command rings out in crisp, no-nonsense Spanish.

"Pale-skinned man! Come quick! Tell me: how am I doing?" To which I dutifully reply, "Hey, look, Omar. We don't talk that way to our English teachers down here in Mexico. This isn't the good old USA, remember?"

But neither Omar nor I take this all too seriously as I brush past the quietly snickering youngsters sitting side by side in truly ancient desks painted a sort of slime blue, the boys in clean -- if worn -- blue jeans and khakis, the girls in pigtails, brown skirts and white blouses.

As usual, Omar is well ahead of his classmates, but because he is a boy he can't bring himself to belong to our "Future English Teachers Club," which -- of course -- is all girls!

Out of some fifty students there are no less than six or eight of these young ladies who get to help me each class day reviewing their classmates' homework and even grading the weekly tests.

That makes my own work much easier, and I always try to be sure that there's a good supply of dulces and paletas -- candies and suckers, respectively -- to reward my hardworking little compañeras de trabajo, or my lady coworkers.

A year or so later we're in an evening class for young adult maquila workers -- proletarios in Spanish -- striving to better themselves after a long, grinding twelve-hour shift in some American-run factory, or maquiladora, in Ciudad Juarez.

The tough, gangly, thrity-something Anapranense slouches up to the front of our store front class in Basic English for Electrical Workers, disdaining to heed the derisive hoots and good-natured jibes of the dialect speaking inner-city Chavena crowd.

The catchphrase "train robber" seems among the milder epitaphs.

For indeed, many are the Anapranenses who take a sort of surly pride in the war of words between Mexico's diplomatic representatives and the American FBI over the frequent train robberies that take place across the thin line separating their impoverished far northwest Ciudad Juarez neigborhood of Anapra from the tempting target of U.S. boxcars obligingly parked overnight on the Sunland Park side.

Tonight, however, a few perfunctory snarls of admonition by the cabecillas or class leaders representing students from the two rival Juarez neigborhoods restore order as Armando the Anapranense shows off his versatility at the marker board with the phrase "To keep in good condition," as in "I keep my tools in good condition; He keeps his tools in good condition, Eva keeps, etc."

Smiling in triumph, his demonstration of cerebral machismo a certain hit, Armando marches smartly back to his seat positively glowing in the spontaneous and warm applause now granted him by both suburban factions.

It's now 8:30 PM. Another day of teaching English is drawing to a close. There's just one more class tonight at another location, then we'll be done.

That is, until seven a.m. tomorrow....

Published or Updated on: April 1, 1998 by Dennis Paul Morony © 1998
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