Speaking English

by Sue Granzella

A week before the 2016 Presidential election, I was listening to “This American Life” while brushing my teeth. The featured story was of a Somali woman, attacked at a Minnesota Applebee’s because she was speaking Swahili. The blatancy of the anti-immigrant violence so appalled me that I put down my toothbrush and listened for twenty minutes, perched on the edge of the tub.

The attacker first approached the Somali woman, Asma Jama, with the admonition that when in America, people must speak English. When Jama ignored her, the attacker began yelling that Jama should go back to her home country. At this, Jama began addressing her calmly, in English.

Then the attacker smashed a beer mug into Jama’s face, and pandemonium ensued. As Jama’s children screamed, the attacker stormed out of Applebee’s, leaving Jama gashed and bleeding.

That portion of the radio broadcast ended with the words of a witness to the attack:

Talking to other people about it, they say simple things like, ‘Well, you know, she could have just been speaking English.’”

                                                                                    This American Life, episode #600                           

As I wondered how a person could feel such rage because an immigrant wanted to talk to her friend, I found myself remembering another immigrant, a very young one, and the treatment he received long ago in my classroom.

***

When Zayd showed up in my fourth-grade class in December of 1990, Arabic became the tenth native language and the third written alphabet in the classroom of thirty-four kids. Zayd was from Yemen, a country I’d never even heard of back then. None of us understood a word he said.

Zayd was adorable, a contradiction of angles and circles. His profile was all pointiness—thin, prominent chin, long, narrow nose. Curving eyelashes ringed his golden eyes, and his hair fell in soft loops of brown. His smile was frequent and electric. Though the students hovered over him, I felt sorry for Zayd. All day, every day, to speak without response, to listen without understanding.

The classroom itself was a contradiction, too. Built in the ‘70s, it had an accordion wall shared by the room next door. It was designed for flexibility and community, allowing us to open up into one huge room, but the teacher on the other side of the wall was cynical and bitter, so it remained a divider between us. The countertops and cabinets were all yellow-and-white Formica brightness, but the light from outside was blocked by cloudy shatter-resistant windows, covered with a heavy mesh of metal.

The hippie-design room was not nearly big enough for the number of students crammed into it. There was hardly space for the beat-up wooden shelf, upon which I placed my similarly beat-up books from thrift stores and stacks of discards from the Oakland Public Library. Besides my teacher desk and the thirty-four individual student desks, the only other furniture was a set of two small nesting tables, clunky wooden blocks with grooves carved into them by generations of students experimenting with scissors.

At the front of each side wall were two tiny alcoves pushing out like Mickey Mouse ears from the otherwise-square room. Our reading corner was stuffed into one ear and I made it cozy, hanging posters of book covers and tossing plump homemade pillows across the drab patch of indoor-outdoor carpeting. The larger nesting table was wedged into the corner alongside the weary bookshelf. 

One day, I heard whispering during the supposedly-silent reading time. Irritated, I traced it to the cramped library corner, and headed over for a showdown. There I found Zayd pressed up next to Dominic, their heads on the floor, jammed together under the nesting table. Their four hands clutched the cover of a book called Zoo Animals.

Dominic pointed to a page, and said, “Giraffe.”

Zayd giggled. “Zhuh-duf.”

Dominic nodded.

Then Zayd pointed. “Za-ra-fa.”

Dominic repeated in a whisper. The two boys grinned, and flipped the page.

A few months after Zayd arrived, we were studying multiplication. The kids had piles of plastic colored squares on their desks, and they were building arrays, adding one row at a time. Even kids who usually floundered during math could move tiles and count; the kids were buoyed by success, their energy high. Amid chatter and clatter, they added rows, while I questioned them rapid-fire, jabbing my index finger at individuals.

“How many rows? How many in each row? How many squares in all?”

They cried out responses, and students cheered themselves with hisses of, “Yes!

And then came the sixth row.

“How many rows?”

I saw it first—Zayd’s face bursting into light. His hand shot into the air, his legs propelling him upward. He’d never spoken before the class. I’d never heard him initiate a word of English.

I pointed to him.

See-eeks!

The class gasped as one.

“How many in each row?”

His hand an arrow, straight into sky.

Trree!”

“How many tiles in all?”

Ay-deen!”

I put down the chalk.

But Zayd wasn’t done. No one else even raised a hand as I tossed out questions and Zayd tossed back answers, number after number wrapped in the gentle curves of his voice, the voice I’d hardly heard before that day.

Until finally his words stopped, and Zayd met my delighted smile with a huge grin. Then thirty-three kids began to applaud. Outside, there were broken appliances in the creek and gunshots at dusk, the sidewalks sparkling with bits of shattered glass. But inside, nine- and ten-year-olds cheered for the curly-haired boy whose English-speaking voice, finally gone quiet, had just begun.

 

This piece was previously published in Civil Liberties United and excerpted from a longer piece published in The Masters Review.