Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Mrs. Sanders

Photo: Albany bulb artwork by Penguin Scott

The year was 1981 and I was in seventh grade. Paul Revere Middle School had just opened for seventh and eighth graders. In fact, during the first few weeks of classes, there were still a few minor construction projects still under way.

Yet, for being a brand new school, it had a rough quality to it. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that at my previous school, the elementary, my class of several hundred sixth-graders were at the top of the food chain and had no negative influences reigning down on them, whereas the eighth-graders had come from a middle school in a rougher part of Houston, where they had different values of behavior. Being in a new building was nice, but I didn’t like the energy of the other students.

I was assigned a class to learn Spanish. The room was located on the second floor of the new school, near the front of the building. The newly-scrawled graffiti was a bit more prevalent in this part of the school, which I thought was odd since it was closer to the principal’s office. I largely ignored the graffiti, in part because I didn’t understand what much of it meant.

The thought of learning Spanish intrigued me, so I was at first eager to take part in the curriculum. Walking into the room, I found a seat near the center of the room and laid eyes on Mrs. Sanders. I knew it was Mrs. Sanders because her name was written on the green chalkboard at the front of the room. The lettering was exquisite. I don’t know that I’d ever seen a teacher with such nice chalkboard script.

To my young eyes, Mrs. Sanders seemed to be a hundred years old. Round spectacles hung on her tiny nose, which was framed by wrinkled cheeks and a forehead full of horizontal lines etched deep in her skin. She had to be older than my grandparents and I wondered if she’d still be alive by the end of the semester.

Her hair stood high and rounded from being teased, and apparently had been dyed, as she had roots of a slightly lighter color with some grey evident throughout. Skinny legs seemed to dangle from beneath her blue polyester skirt and on her feet were wimple and sturdy low-heeled sandals, like any typical person of her age might wear, with a large gold buckle and squared fronts. Her bony arms formed points at either side of her body, with its bulging tummy, as she listened to a student with her hands rested on her hips.

As she listened to the girl speaking to her, her brown eyes would squint, seemingly to better concentrate on what was being said. This created more wrinkles on her face, which seemed very unnecessary to me!

When she spoke, she did so with an old, gravelly voice. She had no accent, which I think I expected from someone about to teach me Spanish. But she spoke with a careful consideration of what she was saying, deliberate in her pronunciation and sure to be understood so as not to need to repeat herself. And I would come to find that she had a habit of looking downward towards the end of her sentences, as if she was looking down on the person being spoken to.

The room quickly filled and the new-styled electronic horn sounded , announcing the start of class. It would take some time getting used to hearing this horrid dual-toned beep after hearing bells for so many years.

I said a quick hello to Tim and Bill, friends of mine who sat in nearby seats. Our rectangle desks with their storage shelf just under the simulated wood grained tops were arranged in five rows of six desks in each row. I put the books from my other classes in the wire shelf and readied my notebook for class.

Mrs. Sanders started class by saying something in Espanol, and then followed with the English translation. Nothing like feeling lost in a class from the fist words out of the instructor’s mouth. It’s a feeling that would not be replicated again until I would reach college, when I enrolled in algebra! Carrie, who sat just behind me seemed to understand, though. She showed off by giving a little laugh after the teacher’s opening statement and before the translation.

Her first order of business was to rearrange the class in our seats according to a diagram she had already made. This was so she could better remember our names, as she could easily look to it and match the child with the corresponding box, which represented the seat the child sat in. But it was because she was too old to remember us any other way. My name came towards the end of the list, so I lost my nice seat near the center of the room and was now in the row furthest from the door and near the back of the room.

Mrs. Sanders’ next duty was to assign us all the Spanish equivalent of our Americanized names. I started to get excited at this prospect. I wondered what my name in Spanish would be. I liked my name, but it didn’t seem to have much flair. I did like that it was not a too common name. But after hearing it for so many years, I liked the idea of hearing something new for a while.

My friend Tim, while within the four walls of this room for the rest of the semester, would be known as Timmy-TAY-oh. Neat. Linda was now Leenda. Here, Mrs. Sanders took a moment to comment that her name meant “beautiful”. I like that, since that is also the name of my mother. John was assigned to be Juan. George became Hor-hay, there was Carmen, Rosa, Tow-mahs and I loved how Bill became Guiermo.

This was so exciting. What wonderful names. We were to use these names at all times during this class. My turn was coming up, she’d gone through almost the entire class. I sat up a little higher in my seat and presented a good, clean image to the ancient one. She got to me, first looking down at her list for my name. She looked up, hardly giving thought of my new name much consideration . Her lips parted and air from within her old, wrinkled lungs pushed through her vocal chords and they produced my very own name, as I’ve heard millions of times before, but only now with a slight accent over the O, coming out rhyming like something between hot and scoot. I could hear Leenda snicker.

And just like that she moved on to the next student and for an hour each day I would simply be called, Skoht. I slumped back down a bit, the smile from my face faded, my anticipation dashed. I hated Mrs. Sanders. And Leenda, too!

The class would be fun at times; trying at others. During the year we had a few celebrations, even going outside to finally burst the piƱata that had been hanging in the class all semester. We had a field trip to a flamenco guitar concert and visited a Mexican bakery. Mrs. Sanders taught us to conjugate verbs, how the language had masculine and feminine words, and I became very good at the pronunciation of the words of the language.

But I never really came to like Mrs. Sanders. I don’t think it was the way in which she carelessly threw out my name with an accent on our first day, nor was it the fact that she was a small, scrawny ancient woman. She was an abrupt woman. She was very strict when it came to her familiarity with her routine. We were often required to state classroom answers “en Espanol”. I was a slow learner and not very motivated. She was constantly calling me out on my lack to answer in Spanish to the ability that she thought I should have.

However, after all these years, twenty-eight, to be exact, I now see that Mrs. Sanders was actually a wonderful teacher and a nice woman. I still think about her when, for fun, I will read a paragraph in Spanish with the proper pronunciation. I don’t know what the words mean, but I know how to say them.

I now appreciate her routines. I see that she was not yelling at me or talking down to me, but that she was pushing me to become a better student. But I was too busy learning the bad habits of the adolescents who shared the halls of Paul Revere; who had a rougher upbringing than that of mine.

Surely she’s expired by now, or in a state that she’d certainly never remember me. But I’ll never forget that class, that meticulous old woman, and the way she would call my name…Skhot.

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