A retired teacher’s experiences teaching in a multicultural school.
“Aum” is the first sound she utters every morning. Before dressing, she engages in thirty-six brutal yoga poses that stretch her body into unimaginable positions, followed by thirty minutes of subline meditation where she hardly seems to be alive. She does this every day, at five in the morning when the sun and the moon are fighting their appearance, while Michael sleeps restlessly upstairs. She closes her practice by saying “namaste,” and then pours herself a strong cup of coffee.
She holds the coffee mug with one hand outstretched, while she lays out her clothes with the other. She carefully picks out jeans and a blouse that will accentuate her rear and her bosom, and she puts them on the bed. She looks at her naked body in the mirror, sighs but thinks “not bad,” and then she runs a bath. Always a bath, never a shower.
Michael will sleep until she gets out of the bathtub. Later, while she’s getting perfumed and dressed, he will plop out of bed like a corpse falling from a coffin, and he will sluggishly make his way to the toilet and the shower. She will not repeat the sounds he makes.
“Good morning!” she yells behind him. He grumbles “hello, hello, hello” and then tells her (once again) that his head is spinning. She thinks to tell him he should not have drunk so much last night, but she decides against it. She doesn’t want to start yet another day with an angry fight with her husband of forty years.
"What are your plans for the day," she asks him once he's out of the bathroom in his dripping hairy body, wrapped in a towel and laying out his things.
He has decided to wear a crisply laundered shirt and freshly ironed pants. He likes to look neat and proper, whether he has any appointments or not.
“I have no set plans,” he tells her as he wipes himself dry. “But I want to call our financial advisor.”
Michael micromanages their finances. He was made “redundant” from his job five years ago. He had been working for a British firm for more than fifteen years, and he had been expecting the call for quite a long time that would put an end to his career. As a supervisor, Michael knew the firm was not doing well in the United States, and he had already been instructed to lay off two-thirds of his staff. He knew his turn was coming.
His manager stationed in London called Michael on video chat, on a Monday afternoon. “I’m afraid you’ve been made redundant, Michael. Sorry old fellow.” They always let you go on a Monday so that you will not fret over the weekend. And they fire you with a cheerful English accent.
“You mean I’ve been fired,” answered Michael, in the most grating New Jersey twang he could muster. He preferred the cold and harsh “fired” to the euphemism of "redundancy." To be called “redundant” made him feel that he was “unnecessary,” an “extra,” a spare part, superfluous, rubbish to be disposed of. That's how Michael felt after they fired him. He was sixty at the time. Too old to find a new career, too young to retire. So, he made managing the household finances and micro-managing their investments his full-time job.
Celia kept working after Michael was terminated. Her salary as a teacher paid far less than what Michael was making, but the health insurance was good, and they needed to keep Michael on it. Because life is a bitch. It wasn’t enough that Michael got fired; that same month he found out that he had prostate cancer. “Isn’t life sweet,” said Michael to anyone that asked. He tried to give new meaning to his life by studying the market, learning to day trade, religiously following the Wall Street Journal, and talking with lots of financial advisors. But it wasn’t enough. Pretending he was a sort of investment banker, with only one client (himself) was not sufficient to keep Michael from feeling forgotten.
She has known Michael since they were sweethearts in high school in 1972, growing up in a semi-blue-collar town in Northern New Jersey. She had only been in this country a couple of years, and things were still strange to her. Michael invited her to his house one Sunday night for a family dinner. Celia was horrified when Michael’s mother appeared at the door with house slippers on her feet. In Celia’s home, governed by Latin American customs, when guests came you would put on your best clothes and polish your leather shoes. However, Celia was pleasantly surprised when Michael's mother presented a beautifully set table and an elaborate dinner of German food that Celia had never eaten before. The menu included purple cabbage, sauerkraut, doughy dumplings, and a gold-leafed platter heaped with sausages. Everything was served on porcelain plates and fine silverware, crystal glasses, and pressed napkins. Michael’s father was not home that night, as he was driving an overnight trailer truck. “Eat, eat,” said the mother to Celia.
“You will not believe what Michael’s mother was wearing on her feet,” laughed Celia, when repeating the evening’s events to her father.
“Was the food good and were you made to feel welcomed?” asked the father in his thick Spanish accent, to which she answered, "Yes, of course.”
“In that case, forget the slippers,” said the father. “It’s a different way of living. Be merciful. No hay que criticar.”
After Michael was fired, Celia continued to work for five more years. Last June, when she reached age sixty-five, she retired and she has been home with Michael ever since. She is unaccustomed to being with him almost all day, and she misses teaching. She had taught English as a second language for nearly forty years, and her students were immigrants from all over the world. The school never provided her with a budget for the tools and supplies that she and her students needed. Celia could not expect her students or their parents to provide pens and paper, rulers, glue, and anything else required for elementary class. So, she dipped into her own pocket.
The first year she started teaching, she invited her students to decorate the classroom with photos, clothes, memorabilia, or anything else they chose to represent their native lands. Each child brought something different and unique, and together the disparate objects from across the globe formed a cohesive story. She was so proud of her decorated classroom, that she invited the other teachers to come visit.
“This is very interesting, Celia,” said one of the teachers after seeing flags, souvenirs, and customs from around the world decoratively placed on the walls and tables of Celia’s classroom. “But you really should be focusing on Americanizing these kids. Otherwise, they will never fit in."
Celia knew about Americanization. She migrated to the United States in 1970 as a teenager. She worked endlessly to modify her habits and correct her accent so that she would not appear to be “other than” American. Her efforts to conceal her foreignness worked so well that most people did not realize that she had been born in a foreign country and assumed she was from New Jersey. Except, the accent was not always quite perfect. Inevitably, after meeting someone new, they would ask, “Where are you from? I detect an accent.”
When she tells people that she is from Argentina, it is evident to Celia that most of them never heard of that country. They will ask, “Is that in South America, and do they speak Portuguese there?” That’s Brazil she tells them, but by then they are no longer listening. They caught her non-American accent, and that seems to be all that matters to them. She feels judged by these people; labeled as someone who is “not one of us.”
Father had warned her not to set aside her foreignness. “Perhaps you should not try so hard to lose your accent,” he said to her more than once with his heavy accent. “Maybe you are losing your identity when you do that.”
Celia did not let the nay-sayer teachers dissuade her from decorating her classroom with paraphernalia from around the world. At the beginning of each school year, she would hold a party with her students and their parents, and each family would bring their native food to share and colorful items to decorate the classroom. It was a joyful event, which Celia and her families loved. The students called it the “party of the year,” or “la fiesta,” or “fête de l'année,” or “hafi.”
It was during one of these annual events, two years ago, when she met Mohammad and his mother. Mohammad was seven years old at the time, in third grade, but he was much shorter than the other students. He was thin and frail, and his hair was spotty with bald patches and rust-reddish highlights caused by malnutrition. While Mohammad’s physique was small, his smile was large and enchanting. Celia was immediately drawn to his happy face, even though he would rarely look her in the eye. He was shy and tended to look away. He and his mother had immigrated from Somalia a few months before Celia first met them. They were allowed to stay in this country as refugees, after having lived in a refugee camp for nine months in Kenya.
Mohammad's mother explained that she had three other children still living in a camp in Kenya with their father, but that only she and Mohammad had been able to escape and procure a safe passage to the United States. She worked as a nanny for a local family, and she regularly sent food, clothing, and money to her relatives back home even though it meant Mohammad would have to do without.
Mohammad had learning disabilities. For example, he did not know how to tie his own shoes, and he would transpose letters and numbers. Celia spent many hours before and after school providing additional help to Mohammad. He was slow in understanding what was being taught, but he was always grateful and appreciative. When he learned and understood something that Celia would teach him, he would give her a little bow and say “shukran lak,” which Celia learned meant “thank you” in Arabic.
Most days during recess, while the other boys played in the playground, Mohammad would come to Celia’s classroom to clean the blackboards and help organize papers. “I like to help,” he said to her. She introduced him to graphic novels about the Wild West, with lots of illustrations, and gave him several books to take home. Mohammad’s mother read the books to him at night, in broken English mixed with Arabic. She imagined what the story should be based on the words she understood and the pictures she admired.
“It’s not right,” said Mohammad to Celia. “She is not using the right words. She’s making up the story.”
“That’s a way of reading too,” said Celia. “Let your imagination help you understand what the book is telling.”
Celia grabbed one of the Wild West picture books and opened it to a colorful scene of a bank robbery in a mining town. “Let’s read it in English,” she said to Mohammad, pointing to a sentence dealing with thieves using dynamite to crack open a safe. “What do you imagine this word should be?” she asked him.
“Safe,” he said. “This word should be safe.”
Sometimes the family that employed Mohammed’s mother needed her to work late into the night. She was afraid to say no to her employers, as they were her only source of income; so, on those nights Mohammed’s mother would lock him inside their apartment. She would feed him Mushaari (porridge), with butter, nuts, and sugar, and instruct him not to open the door for anyone until she came back home. On those nights, Mohammad hid in his bed under his covers, and he would read the books that Mrs. Celia had given him. As he read, he envisioned the following day in school and imagined that Mrs. Celia would take care of him and protect him.
One day in class, Mrs. Celia was again teaching the students about the Wild West. She was explaining that many of the settlers in the frontier lands of the Western United States between 1865 to 1895 were from other countries. Immigrants from China and Ireland did most of the construction of the railways. Hearing that there were people from other countries in the United States in the 1800s, Mohammad raised his hand and asked “Mom, were they refugees like me?”
He had meant to say “Mrs. Celia,” but in his admiration and respect for his teacher, he called her “Mom” by mistake.
The other students laughed like wild hyenas and unabashedly made fun of Mohammad for his slip of the tongue. “He thinks Mrs. Celia is his mother!” they said, pointing fingers at him and mocking him for his feminine sensibility. “Baby girl misses his mommy,” said the ring leader of the class bullies.
Celia noted that Mohammad’s skin, which was normally a caramel brown, turned deep purple and his olive eyes watered with tears.
“Children,” she said. “In a way Mohammad is right. While you are in this class, I am a mother to all of you, a caretaker, and I want you to feel that way.”
Mohammad was thankful to Celia for defending him, and the other children in the class, including the toughest bully, were happy to be able to think of Celia as their co-mother. Everyone has mother issues in elementary school.
That evening, when Celia retold her “mother” story to Michael, he grumbled and responded, "Don't bring any of those kids home. There is a reason we decided not to have kids.”
After she retired, Celia remained friends with some of the teachers, the ones who were kind to her students. She sees them for afternoon tea or for walks at lunchtime. Last week they all took a long walk in the Morton Arboretum. Grace was complaining about the weather, Rose about the flu, and Kim about Covid; and then the conversation diverted to politics. Celia was not paying attention because she does not like to discuss politics. Instead, she was thinking about what needed to be done at home. The laundry. The shopping list. And Michael. Always Michael.
She thought of Michael as he used to be, before the layoff and the cancer scare. He used to prepare dinners for them and they would laugh until late into the evening. It has not been that way for a while.
While she was ruminating, she vaguely heard one of the girls mention “the wall,” and another one “the China virus.” A third one mentioned “shithole countries.” Celia couldn’t tell who was saying what. What was the topic of the argument? Some of the women were against it, some for it, and some were neutral. All of them were agitated.
“And what do you think about all this, Celia?” asked one of them. “After all, you taught those people for a long time.”
Celia did not respond to her friends. Instead, she took a phone call from Mohammad. That’s the name that flashed on her iPhone when it rang, but when she answered, it wasn’t Mohammad calling but Mohammad’s mom. When she retired from teaching, Celia gave her cell phone number to most of the student's parents. She took each parent's number in turn but recorded it on her phone with the name of the student.
“Mrs. Celia,” said Mohammad’s mother on the other side of the phone. “The new teacher is no good. Mohammad is not learning to read. Please help Mrs. Celia.”
Ms. Legg, the teacher that replaced Celia when she retired, was an earnest young woman, well-intentioned but inexperienced. After receiving the call from Mohammad’s mother, Celia called Ms. Legg and chatted her up. “Do you need help?” she asked. “Is there anything I could do?”
Fortunately, Ms. Legg asked Celia if she could help with some tutoring on Tuesday afternoon. “Mohammad will be here then,” said Ms. Legg. “I know he’s one of your favorites.”
The following Tuesday, after yoga and her meditation, after a walk with her girlfriends, Celia informed Michael that she would be going to her old school for the afternoon, to help Ms. Legg tutor some children. Michael was sitting in his office, struggling. His two computer monitors were open to several graphs tracking the family’s investments and finances. She saw financial magazines spread over his desk, as well as a handwritten list of numbers he planned to call that day. She also saw a web page open to “prostate cancer.” He was running his fingers through his thick, gray hair; the luscious hair he inherited from his German mother. Seeing him helplessly surrounded by his obsessions, she thought she could read his mind. She imagined there was worry and uncertainty in his heart.
“Don’t fret all day over the finances,” she told him as she kissed him on the head. “Be free today.”
To which he grumbled, “Ok, ok, ok.”
When she arrived at Ms. Legg's classroom, Mohammad was by the door, waiting for her. Ms. Legg had told him Celia was coming. He was glad to see her, but he kept his eyes downcast. It was his way.
“Don’t be shy,” said Celia. “Show me how you are doing with your reading skills. Can you read a passage for me?”
He chose one of the reader books he liked so much, the one about Pecos Bill and his adventures in the Wild West, but he stumbled after the fifth or sixth word. The long words were difficult for him.
“Do you remember what I taught you last year? When you come across a word you are not sure about, use your imagination,” said Celia to Mohammad. “What does it look like? What could be the next word? Let your imagination guide you.”
Mohammad nodded but answered nervously. “Mrs. Celia, sometimes I don’t remember how to pronounce a word, and I’m afraid. I know I will not say it right.”
Celia smiled. She remembered her father who, with a thick Spanish timbre, convinced her not to hide her accent.
“Mohammad, just say the word as you imagine it should be, and even if it’s not perfect, it is your word.”
Mohammad imagined that Pecos Bill would probably be “paralyzed” from the fall off his horse, and he would likely “recover” from his long rest. One time he imagined that Pecos Bill would be “dismembered” for losing his horse in a stampede, but Celia showed him it said, "disappointed.” He laughed. At the end of the lesson, Mohammad hugged Celia, and said sweetly in his Arabic accent “not disappointed, ana last bikhaybat 'amlu.”
“Thank you for coming Celia,” said Ms. Legg after all the children had left. “I think that Mohammad will continue to progress and that someday he will be teaching someone to read. Maybe he will become a literature professor, and he will tell his students that a Latina named Mrs. Celia taught him to read and taught him to be the best Mohammad he could be.”
While putting on her coat, before running back into the cold Illinois weather, Celia fantasizes about Mohammad's future, but she is also thinking about what is awaiting her at home. She tells herself that she will not fight with Michael tonight. She imagines that he will not drink tonight. She envisions that Michael is home, wearing his slippers and a dinner jacket, preparing a beautiful meal. He is preparing German-style sausages, cabbage, and potatoes, which he will serve on their very best China. Michael will be jovial, and he will not worry about the cancer anymore. Then the next morning she will wake up relaxed, and she will do her yoga.
November 29, 2022
© Ernesto Beckford 2022
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