Francisco dreaded second grade after last year. However, his mother said, “It’s important you go to school.” He was the oldest. His parents demanded it he must learn.
“Francisco, wait. ”Alberto his cousin called. They walked to school every day. He and Alberto had been best buds forever. They lived on the same street, their mothers were sisters.
Francisco knew his parents came from Mexico seeking a better life. His mother crossed the border at 15. She met his father. They married and went to work at Dole in the citrus groves.
He was born here. He must be proud he was an American citizen papa told him again and again.
Until last year, being American was easy. He had a nice home, he had friends. His mother was known for her tamales. During the holiday's neighbor’s came to buy them for Christmas Eve.
Francisco and Alberto arrived at school. Mr. Reese, the principal, stood holding the door. “Hurry, boys, the bell’s about to ring get to your room, or I’ll see you in my office.”
Francisco scurried down the hall. “Which room, Alberto?”
Francisco wondered how his cousin knew this. He followed, glad to have a leader. The principal’s words were harsh. Francisco knew he’d be in trouble if he didn’t obey.
Last year he watched as some who didn’t were sent to the office. Some came back crying, Alberto told him they were paddled, and their parents told. Francisco shuddered. He wouldn’t mind a paddling but if his papa found out his punishment would be worse.
After that, most behaved. Except Damien, he made many trips to the office. One day he announced, “I hate school. When I’m old enough, I will leave and work.”
Francisco worried. He must learn to read but HOW? A trickle of sweat ran down his back. By day’s end, his shirt was soaked. It was as warm inside as out.
At home his mama had him strip off his school clothes. He had three sets, and his mother laundered them so he was ready for school.
“Uf, Francisco, tu apestas.” His little sister held her nose.
“Yes, Francisco, go wash and put your old clothes on.”
His mother asked about his day, he shrugged, “She shows cards with pictures.” Sometimes he knew what they were, like when she showed one of a gato. He didn’t raise his hand, Alberto did and answered, the teacher smiled at him. Alberto turned and grinned. Francisco imagined he said, “See I am smart. I knew the answer.”
He hoped this year was better. He wanted to answer.
“Here,” Alberto pointed at a door. It had numbers on it. Francisco recognized a 1 and two 2’s.
They walked in the room, a blonde woman approached them, “Hello boys, I’m your teacher, Miss Chapman. Who are you?”
“Alberto,” Alberto said. Francisco gave his name. “Francisco,” his voice shook.
“Alberto and Francisco, find desks.”
Francisco followed Alberto. Alberto chose a seat, Francisco sat behind him. He liked to hide behind Alberto hoping the teacher wouldn’t call on him. He set his supplies down: Pencils, crayons, paper, and a notebook.
Miss Chapman stood at the front. She passed out books. She opened one with a picture of a boy and girl on the cover. She called on Ramona. Ramona read. Francisco strained to hear and hoped he wouldn’t be picked.
When the day ended he, and Alberto raced to see who could be the first home. Francisco burst through the door and ran down the hall. He smelled the spicy aroma of enchiladas, his stomach growled.
“Madre estoy en casa.”
His mother turned. She put down her spoon. “Francisco, how was school?”
Francisco swallowed, “I have a new teacher. She is pretty. See all my books. “Francisco laid them on the table.
“Oh, take good care of them.”
A cry sounded behind him. It was Dede, “Cisco, you home.”
Francisco laughed and patted her, “Yes, I’m home.”
She scrambled up on a chair and squealed, “book.”
“Dede, no! Don’t touch, if you get it dirty, I must pay.”
Dede stuck her lip out and sobbed.
“Don’t cry. Come. We will look at the book.” Francisco picked the one with the boy and girl on the cover. Took her hand and pulled her into the living room. He sat on the sofa patted the spot next to him. “Sit.”
Dede crawled up and snuggled close. They looked at the pictures.
Two weeks passed. Francisco managed to keep his teacher from noticing him. He hid behind his cousin and stayed close to him at recess.
Monday was beautiful. It was cool, recess was fun. One of the boys had a football and imitated what he saw on television.
“Alberto, tirame me la pelota,” Francisco wanted to get the ball and run. He’d score, and the boys would say “good job.” As the ball sailed toward him, he saw Miss Chapman. She wore a red dress. Her hair was golden and eyes blue he thought her beautiful.
Now, her look made him squirm. The ball reached him and struck him in the stomach. “Ooof!” The ball fell.
After recess he kept his head down. Ms. Chapman strolled the aisles when she came to him she stopped.
“Francisco, turn to page six and read please.”
He looked up fear washed over him. He struggled against tears.
“Francisco, do you understand?”
He lowered his head. He didn’t want her to see his tears.
Alberto said, “Ms. Chapman, he doesn’t know English. No one has teach him, on our block we speak Mexican.”
Francisco shook, what was his cousin saying. He heard a deep breath.
“How can this be? He’s been in school a year.” Francisco, esta bien elAlberto. ¿No entiendes inglés?“
Francisco looked up. “Si.”
“Well,” we’ll fix this.”
Francisco shook. Was he in trouble?
Ms. Chapman wiped his tears and smiled. “No, it’s not your fault.”
Francisco smiled. He wasn't in trouble he didn’t know what she said but recognized Miss Harris’ name, she was his first-grade teacher. She made him afraid. She spoke loud and glared at him.
On his way home, he passed the office and heard Ms. Chapman’s angry voice.
“You had the child a year and never knew he didn’t speak English. What kind of a teacher are you?
“I thought he was retarded.”
“Retarded! Why? I saw his intelligence. Why when I think how he managed to avoid my attention. He’s smart.”
“Ladies, please,” Mr. Reese interjected. “We have a problem, what’s the solution?”
“I’ll send a note to his parents explaining I will keep him after school to help him.“
And how much will you charge,” Miss Harris said haughtily?
“I won’t charge. His family doesn’t have spare money. Is there a reason I can’t do it, Mr. Reese?”
“No, it’s your time. Use it as you want.” He turned to Miss Harris, “You can go now. We’ll talk later.”
Miss Harris strode to the door. Wrenched it open. Then slammed it.
“Mr. Reese, would you like to know my action plan?”
“Yes, but I have a parent coming. Can you put it on paper and bring it Friday.”
“I can do that. Thanks.”
Months passed Francisco spent an hour daily on English. At first, he answered in Spanish.
“Francisco, por qué estas asustado? Don’t be afraid I am here to help.”
Confused at first soon he learned many words and knew gato was C-A-T and spelled cat. He wrote it in his notebook. Now he ran home happy to tell about his day. Dede was four, but she learned too. Soon they understood the shows on TV.
By January he read with his class. Sometimes slow he’d sound out the words. When he took home his report card, he had B ’s. His teacher wrote notes. He had to read them to his parents.
He didn’t hide behind Alberto now and said, “Berto, from now on we speak only English when we are together.”
“Por que, cousin?”
“Because I’m American.“
“You’re funny, but you’re mi amigo, so I will.”
Now they spoke English and used Spanish only around the wise-ass boys from other schools.
At the end of the year, Francisco’s English was great. He had an A in reading. The last day of school he got a certificate: Most Improved Student.
When he brought it home, mama smiled and sent his papa for a frame. It hung in his bedroom ten years. When he finished his first year of college, he took it down.
“Why, Cisco?” Dede asked.
“It’s time, and in three years I will hang my college diploma there.”