WRITING FROM RESEARCH

62 WRITING FROM RESEARCH

Mqica, Mauro, and Robert Underwood. “Should English Be

the Official Language of the United States?” CQ Re-

searcher 19 Jan. 1996: 65.

National Education Association. “NEA Statement on the

Debate over English Only.’’ Teacher’s College, U. of

Nebraska, Lincoln. 27 Sept. 1999 <http: //www. tc.unl

. edu/enemeth/biling/engonly.html>.

Price, David. “English-Only Rules: EEOC Has Gone Too

Far.” USA Today 28 Mar. 1996, final ed.: A13.

Underwood, Robert A. “English-Only Legislation. ’’ U.S.

House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., 28 Nov.

1995. 26 Sept. 1999 <http://www.houae.gov/

underwood/speeches/english. htm>.

COMING TO TERMS WITH LANGUAGE

Conain, to an Awaveness of Lan8Hag.e MALCOLM X

On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X, the Black Muslim leader, was shot t o death as be addressed an afternoon rally in Harlem. He was thirty-nine years old. In the course of his brief lqe, he had risen from a world of tbieving, pimping, and drug pushing t o become one of the most articulate and powerful African Americans in the United States during the early 1960s. In 1992 his lqe was reexamined in Spike Lee’sofilm Malcolm X. With the assistance of the late Alex Haley, the author of Roots, Malcolm Xtold hisstory inThe Autobi- ography of Malcolm X (1 964), a moving account of his search for fulfillment. This selection is taken @om the Autobiography.

All of us have been in situationsin which we have felt somehow be- trayed by our lanfluage, unable toofind just the rkht words t o express ourselves. “Words,” as lexicographer Bergen Evans has said, “are the tools for the job of saying what you want t o say.” As our repertoire of words expands so does our ability t o express ourselves-to articulate clearly our thou&ts,fielinas, hopes, fears, likes, and dislikes. Frustra- tion at not being able t o express himselfin the letters he wrote drove Malcolm X t o the dictionary, where he discovered the power of words. W R I T ~ G TO DISCO^^ Write about a time when,someone told you that it is important t o have agood vocabulary. What did you think when you heard this advice? Why do you think people believe that vocabulary is important? How would you assess your own vocabulary?

 

 

64 COMING TO TERMS WITH LANGUAGE

I’ve never been one for inaction. Everything I’ve ever felt strongly about, I’ve done something about. I guess that’s why, unable to do any- thing else, I soon began writing to people I had known in the hustling world, such as Sammy the Pimp, John Hughes, the gambling house owner, the thief Jumpsteady, and several dope peddlers. I wrote them all about Allah and Islam and Mr. Elijah Muhammad. I had no idea where most of them lived. I addressed their letters in care of the Harlem or Roxbury bars and clubs where I’d known them.

I never got a single reply. The average hustler and criminal was too uneducated to write a letter. I have known many slick sharp-looking hustlers, who would have you think they had an interest in Wall Street; privately, they would get someone else to read a letter if they received one. Besides, neither would I have replied to anyone writing me some- thing as wild as “the white man is the devil.”

What certainly went on the Harlem and Roxbury wires was that De- troit Red was going crazy in stir,* or else he was trying some hype to shake up the warden’s office.

During the years that I stayed in the Norfolk Prison Colony, never did any official directly say anything to me about those letters, although, of course, they all passed through the prison censorship. I’m sure, how- ever, they monitored what I wrote to add to the files which every state and federal prison keeps on the conversion of Negro inmates by the teachings of Mr. Elijah Muhammad.

But at that time, I felt that the real reason was that the white man knew that he was the devil.

Later on, I even wrote to the Mayor of Boston, to the Governor of Massachusetts, and to Harry S. Truman. They never answered; they probably never even saw my letters. I handscratched to them how the white man’s society was responsible for the black man’s condition in this wilderness of North America.

It was because of my letters that I happened to stumble upon starting to acquire some kind of homemade education.

I became increasingly hstrated at not being able to express what I wanted to convey in letters that I wrote, especially those to Mr. Elijah Muhammad. In the street, I had been the most articulate hustler out there- I had commanded attention when I said somethmg. But now, trymg to write simple English, I not only wasn’t articulate, I wasn’t even functional. How would I sound writing in slang, the way I would say it, something such as, “Look daddy, let me pull your coat about a cat. Elijah Muhammad-”

Many who today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read something I’ve said, will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade. This impression is due entirely to my prison studies.

5

*Slang for being in jail

65 MALCOLM X: Coming to an Awareness of Language

It had really begun back in the Charlestown Prison, when Bimbi first made me feel envy of his stock of knowledge. Bimbi had always taken charge of any conversation he was in, and I had tried to emulate him. But every book I picked up had few sentences which didn’t contain anywhere from one to nearly all of the words that might as well have been in Chinese. When I just skipped those words, of course, I really ended up with little idea of what the book said. So I had come to the Norfolk Prison Colony still going through only book-reading motions. Pretty soon, I would have quit even these motions, unless I had received the motivation that I did.

I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary-to study, to learn some words. I was lucky enough to reason also that I should try to improve my penmanship. It was sad. I couldn’t even write in a straight line. It was both ideas together that moved me to request a dictionary along with some tablets and pencils from the Norfolk Prison Colony school.

I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages. I’d never realized so many words existed! I didn’t know which words I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying.

In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting, I copied into my tablet everything printed on that first page, down to the punctuation marks.

I believe it took me a day. Then, aloud, I read back, to myself, every- thing I’d written on the tablet. Over and over, aloud, to myself, I read my own handwriting.

I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words-im- mensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much a t one time, but I’d written words that I never knew were in the world. Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many of these words meant. I reviewed the words whose meanings I didn’t remember. Funny thing, from the dictionary’s first page right now, that “aardvark” springs to my mind. The dictionary had a picture of it, a long-tailed, long-eared, burrowing African mammal, which lives off termites caught by sticking out its tongue as an anteater does for ants.

I was so fascinated that I went on-I copied the dictionary’s next page. And the same experience came when I studied that. With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia. Finally the dictionary’s A section had filled a whole tablet-and I went on into the B’s. That was the way I started copying what eventually became the entire dictionary. It went a lot faster after so much practice helped me pick up handwriting speed. Be- tween what I wrote in my tablet, and writing letters, during the rest of my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words.

I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened, I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened. Let me tell you something: from then until I

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66 COMING TO TERMS WITH LANGUAGE MALCOLM X Coming to an Awareness of Language 67

left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the li- brary, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn’t have gotten m e out of books with a wedge. Between Mr. Muhammad’s teachings, my corre- spondence, my visitors . . . and my reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.

FOCUSING ON CONTENT

1. What motivated Malcolm X “to acquire some kind ofhomemade education” (7)? 2. For many, vocabulary building means learning strange, multisyllabic, difficult-

to-spell words. But acquiring an effective vocabulary does not need to be any of these things. What, for you, constitutes an effective vocabulary? How would you characterize Malcolm X’s vocabulary in this passage? Do you find his word choice appropriate for his purpose? (Glossary: Purpose) Explain.

3. What is the nature of the freedom that Malcolm X refers to in the final sen- tence? In what sense is language liberating? Is it possible for people to be “prisoners” of their own language? Explain.

FOCUSING ON WRITING

1. In paragraph 8, Malcolm X remembers thinking how he would “sound writ- ing in slang” and feeling inadequate because he recognized how slang or street talk limited his options. (Glossary: Slang) In what kinds of situations is slang useful and appropriate? When is Standard English more appropriate? (Glossary: Standard English)

2 . In paragraph 8, Malcolm X describes himself as having been “the most artic- ulate hustler out there” but in writing he says he “wasn’t even functional.” What differences between speaking and writing could account for such a dis- crepancy? How does the tone of this essay help you understand Malcolm X’s dilemma? (Glossary: Tone)

3. Malcolm X narrates his experience as a prisoner using the first-person pro- noun I. Why is the first person particularly appropriate? What would be lost or gained had he told his story using the third-person pronoun he? (Glossary: Point of View)

LANGUAGE IN ACTION

Many newspapers carry regular vocabulary-building columns, and the Reader’s Dzhest has for many years included a section called “It Pays to En- rich Your Word Power.” You might enjoy taking the following quiz, which is excerpted from the April 1999 issue of Reader’s D&st.

IT PAYS TO ENRICH YOUR WORD POWER

Zeus and his thunderbolts, Thor and his hammer, Medusa and her power to turn flesh into stone: these are all fascinating figures in mythology and foklore. Associ- ated with such legends are words we use today, including the 10 selected below.

1. panic n. -A. pain. B: relief. C: mess. D: fear.

2. bacchanal (BAK ih NAL) n. – A drunken party. B: graduation ceremony. C: backache remedy. D: victory parade.

B: quirky. C: quarrelsome. D: mis- chievous . D: dirty.

4. cyclopean (SIGH klo PEA en) adj.-A wise. B: gigantic. C: wealthy. D: repetitious.

C: disown. D: injure.

6 . cupidity (kyoo PID ih tee) n.- A thankfulness. B: ignorance. C: abundance. D: desire.

pertaining to A memory. B: speech. C: hearing. D: sight.

8. stygian (STIJee an) adj.-A stingy. B: hellish. C: uncompromising.

9. narcissistic adj . -A indecisive. B: very sleepy. C: very vain. D: just.

10. zephyr (ZEFer) n.-A breeze. B: dog. C: horse. D: tornado.

7. mnemonic (knee MONak) adj.-

3 . puckish adj.-A: wrinkly.

5. hector v . – A to curse. B: bully.

ANSWERS:

1. panic- [D] Fear; widespread terror; as, An outbreak of Ebola led to panic in the small village. Pan, frightening Greek god of nature.

2. bacchanal- [A] Drunken party; orgy; as, Complaints to the police broke up the bacchanal. Bacchus, Roman god of wine.

3 . puckish- [D] Mischievous; prankish. Pack, a trick-loving sprite or fairy.

4. cyclopean- [B] Gigantic; huge; as, the cyclopean home runs of Mark McGwire. Cyclopes, a race of fierce, one-eyed giants.

5 . hector- [B] To bully; threaten. Hector, Trojan leader slain by Achilles and portrayed as a brag- ging menace in some dramas.

6 . cupidity- [D] Strong desire. Cupid, Roman god of love.

7. mnemonic- [A] Pertaining to memory; as “Spring forward and fall back” is a mnemonic spur to change time twice a year. Mnemosyne, Greek goddess of memory.

8. stygian- [B] Hellish; dark and gloomy. Svx, a river in Hades.

9. narcissistic- [C] Very vain; self- loving; as, The narcissistic actress preened for the photographers. Narcissw, a youth who fell in love with his own reflection.

10. zephyr-[A] Soft breeze; as, The storm tapered off to a zephyr. Zephyws, gentle Greek god of the west wind.

Are you familiar with most of the words on the quiz? Did some of the answers surprise you? In your opinion, is the level of difficulty appropriate for the Readw’s D&st audience? What does the continuing popularity of vocabulary-building features suggest about the attitudes of many Americans toward language?

 

 

68 COMING TO TERMS WITH LANGUAGE

1.

2.

3.

WRITING SUGGESTIONS

(Writingporn Experience) All of us have been in situations in which our abil- ity to use language seemed inadequate-for example, when taking an exam; being interviewed for a job; giving directions; or expressing sympathy, anger, or grief. Write a brief essay in which you recount one such frustrating inci- dent in your life. Before beginning to write, review your reactions to Malcolm X’s hstrations with his limited vocabulary. Share your experiences with your classmates. (Writingfiorn Reading) What do you usually do when you encounter a new word in your reading? Do you skip those words as Malcolm X once did, or do you take the time to look them up in a dictionary or try to figure out the meaning from the context? Carefully read the following passage from Lin- coln’s “Gettysburg Address,” paying particular attention to his use of the words dedicate, consecrate, and hallow.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate-we can not consecrate- we cannot hallow-this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. This world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

Can you determine the meanings of dedicate, consecrate, and hallow from their context in the passage? For which word(s) will you need to consult a dictionary? Using your own words, write a clear definition of each one. What part of Lincoln’s message would you miss if you didn’t understand the pre- cise meaning of each of these words? (Writingfiom Research) Malcolm X solved the problem of his own illiteracy by carefully studying the dictionary. Would this be a viable solution to the national problem of illiteracy? Are there more practical alternatives to Mal- colm X’s approach? What, for example, is being done in your community to combat illiteracy? What are some of the more successful approaches being used in other parts of the country? Write a brief essay about the problem of illiteracy. In addition to using your library for research, you may want to check out the Internet to see what it has to offer.

The Day Lan-uage Came into My Life ~

HELEN KELLER

Helen Keller (1880-1968) became blind and deaf at the age of ekhteen months as a result of a disease. As a child, then, Keller be- came accustomed t o her limited world for it was all that she knew. She experienced only certain fundamental sensations, such as the warmth of the sun on her face, and few emotions, such as anger and bitterness. It wasn’t until she was almost seven years old that her family hired Anne Sullivan, a young woman who would turn out t o be an extraordinary teacher, t o help her. As Keller learned t o communicate and think, the world opened up t o her. She recorded her experiences in an autobiography, The Story of M y Life (1903), from which the following selection is taken.

Helen Keller is in a unique position t o remind us of what it is like t o pass from the Yog” of prethought into the world where “everything has a name, and each name gave birth t o a new thought.” Her experiences as a deaf and blind child also raise a number of questions about the relationship between language and thou&, emotions, ideas, and memory. Over time, Keller’s acquisi- tion of language allowed her t o assume all the advantages of her birthright. Her rapid intellectual and emotional growth as a result of language sugyests that we, too, have the potential t o achieve a greater measure of our humanity by further refining our language abilities.

WRITING TO DISCOVFJE Consider what your life would be like today i f y o u had been born without the ability t o understand lan- guage or speak or ifyou had suddenly lost the ability t o use lan: guage later in life. Write about those aspects of your life that you think would be affected most severely.

T h e most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrast between the two lives which it connects. It was the third of March 1887, three months before I was seven years old.

On the afternoon of that eventful day, I stood on the porch, dumb, expectant. I guessed vaguely from my mother’s signs and from the hurry- ing to and fro in the house that something unusual was about to happen, so I went to the door and waited on the steps. The afternoon sun pene- trated the mass of honeysuckle that covered the porch and fell on my up- turned face. My fingers lingered almost unconsciously on the familiar leaves and blossoms which had just come forth to greet the sweet

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70 COMING TO TERMS WITH LANGUAGE

southern spring. I did not know what the future held of marvel or sur- prise for me. Anger and bitterness had preyed upon me continually for weeks and a deep languor had succeeded this passionate struggle.

Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangi- ble white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding- line and had no way of knowing how near the harbor was. “Light! give me light!” was the wordless cry of my soul, and the light of love shone on me in that very hour.

I felt approaching footsteps. I stretched out my hand as I supposed to my mother. Someone took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and, more than all things else, to love me.

The morning after my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me a doll. The little blind children at the Perkins Institution had sent it and Laura Bridgman had dressed it; but I did not know this until afterward. When I had played with it a little while, Miss Sullivan slowly spelled into my hand the word “d-o-1-1.” I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. When I finally succeeded in making the letters correctly I was flushed with childhood pleasure and pride. Run- ning downstairs to my mother I held up my hand and made the letters for doll. I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words ex- isted; I was simply making my fingers go in monkeylike imitation. In the days that followed I learned to spell in this uncomprehending way a great many words, among them pin, hat, cup and a few verbs like sit, stand and walk. But my teacher had been with me several weeks before I under- stood that everything has a name.

One day, while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled “d-0-1-1” and tried to make me un- derstand that “d-0-1-1” applied to both. Earlier in the day we had had a tussle over the words “m-u-g” and “w-a-t-e-r.” Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that “m-u-g” is m u . and that “w-a-t-e-r” is water, but I persisted in confounding the two. In despair she had dropped the subject for the time, only to renew it at the first opportunity. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed. She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.

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HELEN KELLER The Day Lanmane Came into My Life 71

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fra- grance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten-a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every ob- ject which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.

I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher were among them-words that were to make the world blossom for me, “like Aaron’s rod, with flowers.” It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventh1 day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come.

FOCUSING ON CONTENT

1. In paragraph 6, Keller writes, “One day, while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled ‘d-0-I-I’ and tried to make me understand that ‘d-0-1-1’ applied to both.” Why do you think Miss Sullivan placed a different doll in her lap? What essential fact about language did the action demonstrate to Keller?

2 . In paragraph 6, Keller also tells us that in trying to learn the difference between “m-u-g” and “w-a-t-e-r” she “persisted in confounding the two” terms. In a letter to her home institution, Sullivan elaborated on this confusion, revealing that it was caused by Keller thinking that both words meant “drink.” How in paragraph 7 does Keller finally come to understand these words? What does she come to understand about the relationship between them?

3. In paragraph 8, after the experience at the well, Keller comes to believe that “Everything had a name and each name gave birth to a new thought.” Re- flect on that statement. Does she mean that the process of naming leads to thinking?

 

 

A native of Portugal, Edite Cunha moved with her family t o Peabody, Massachusetts, when she was seven years old. In 1991 Cunha graduated from Smith College, where she was an Ada Comstock scholar. Later, she went on to earn an MFA degree in lit- erature and creative writing at Warren Wilson College, and she now has her own business. Despite this success, her experiences an the United States were not always easy ones. Shortly after moving t o Massachusetts, Cunha’s Frst and middle names were changed by her elementav school teacher. Although her teacher may have viewed this as a helpSuLgesture, which would allow Cunha t o fit into a new culture, the name change left the younggirl feeling de- prived of her personal identity. I t also added t o her diflculties in Learning a new language.

Because of the challenges of a bilingual world, Cunha became her family’s translator; being her father’s “voice” was a responsibility she dreaded. As a consequence of’her unusual childhood chore, Cunha learned far more about the conflict between cultures–and conflict in general-than she wanted t o at a>early age. In the following essay, which first appeared in the New England Monthly in August 1990, Cunha recounts some of her early experiences in America.

WRITING TO DISCOVER: Imagine that you moved to a new country and had to adopt new first and middle names when you reached your destination. Write about what you would Lose if you lost your name. What m&ht yougain? How StrongLy do you iden- tifi with your name? Why?

Before I started school in America I was Edite. Maria Edte dos Anjos Cunha. Maria, in honor of the Virigin Mary. In Portugal it was customary to use Maria as a religious and legal prefix to every girl’s name. Virtually every girl was so named. It had something to do with the ap- parition of the Virgin to three shepherd children at Fatima. In naming their daughters Maria, my people were expressing their love and rever- ence for their Lady of Fatima.

Edtte came from my godmother, Dona Edite Baetas Ruivo. The parish priest argued that I could not be named Edite because in Portugal the name was not considered Christian. But Dona Edite defended my right to bear her name. No one had argued with her family when they had christened her Edite. Her family had power and wealth. The priest considered privileges endangered hy his stand, and I became Maria Editc.

75 -__ __ – EDITE CUNHA: Talking ~n the New Land

The dos Anjos was for my mother’s side of the family. Like her mother before her, she had been named Mario dos Anjos. And Cunha was for my father’s side. Carlos dos Santos Cunha, son of Abilio dos Santos Cunha, the tailor from Sail.

I loved my n . “Maria Edite dos Anjos Cunha,” I’d recite at the least provocation. T I was melodious and beautiful. And through it I knew exactly who I was.

At the age of seven I was taken from our Little house in Sobreira, Siio Martinho da Cortiqa, Portugal, and brought to Peabody, Massachusetts. We moved into the house of Senhor JoZo, who was our sponsor in the big land. I was in America for about a week when someone took me to school one morning and handed me over to the teacher, M r s . Donahue.

Mrs. Donahue spoke Portuguese, a wondrous thing for a woman with a finny, unpronouncable name.

aComo t que te chamas?” she asked as she led me to a desk by big windows.

“Maria Edite dos Anjos Cunha,” I recited, all the while scanning Mrs. Donahue for clues. How could a woman with such a name speak my language?

In fact, Mrs . Donahue was Portuguese. She was a Silva. But she had married an lrishman and changed her name. She changed my name, too, on the first day of school.

‘Your name will be Mary Edith Cunha,” she declared. “In America you only need two or three names. Mary Edith is a lovely name. And it will be easier to pronounce.”

My name was Edite. Maria Edite. Maria Edite dos Anjos Cunha. I had no trouble pronouncing it.

“Mary Edith, Edith&, Mary Edithhh,” Mrs. Donahue exaggerated it. She wrinkled up her nose and raised her tipper lip to show me the proper positioning of the tongue for the th sound. She looked hideous. There was a big pain in my head. I wanted to scream out my name. But you could never argue with a teacher.

At home I cried and cried. MtZe and Pai wanted to know about the day. I couldn’t pronounce the new name for them. Serihor Jolo’s red face wrinkled in laughter.

Day after day Mrs. Donahue made me practice pronouncing that name that wasn’t mine. Mary Edithhhhh. Mary Edithhh. Mary Edithhh. But weeks later I still wouldn’t respond when she called it out in class. Mrs. Donahue became cross when I didn’t answer. Later my other teach- ers shortened it to Mary. And I never knew quite who I was. . . .

Mrs. Donahue was a small woman, not much bigger than my seven- year-old self. Her graying hair was cut into a neat, curly bob. There was a smile that she wore almost every day. Not broad. Barely perceptible. But it was there, in her eyes, and a t the corncrs of her mouth. She often wore

 

 

76 COMING m TERMS WITH LANGUAGE

gray suits with jackets neatly fitted about the waist. On her feet she wore matching black leather shoes, tightly laced. Matching, but not identical. One of them had an extra-thick sole, because like all of her pupils, Mrs. Donahue had an oddity. We, the children, were odd because we were of different colors and sizes, and did not speak the accepted tongue. Mrs. Donahue was odd because she had legs of different lengths.

I grew to love Mrs. Donahue. She danced with us. She was the only teacher in all of Carroll School who thought it was important to dance. Every day after recess she took us all to the big open space at the back of the room. We stood in a circle and joined hands. Mrs. Donahue would blow a quivering note from the little round pitch pipe she kept in her pocket, and we became a twirling, singing wheel. Mrs. Donahue hobbled on her short leg and sang in a high trembly voice, “Here we go, loop-de-loop.” We took three steps, then a pause. Her last loop^’ was always very high. It seemed to squeak above our heads, bouncing on the ceiling. “Here we go, loop-de- lie.” Three more steps, another pause, and on we whirled. “Here we go, loop-de-loop.” Pause. “All on a Saturday night.” ‘l’o anyone looking in from the corridor we were surely an irregular sight, a circle of children of odd sizes and colors singing and twirling with our tiny hobbling teacher.

I’d been in Room Three with Mrs. Donahue for over a year when she decided that 1 could join the chddren in the regular elementary classes at Thomas Carroll School. I embraced the news with some am- bivalence. By then the oddity of Mrs. Donahue’s classroom had draped itself over me &e a warm safe cloak. Now I was to join the second-grade class of Wss Laitmen. In preparation, Mrs. Donahue began a phase of re- lentless drilling. Shc talked to me about what I could expect in second grade. Miss I>aitinen’s class was well on its way with cursive writing, so we pracpced that every day We intensified our efforts with multiplication. And we prachced pronouncing the m w teacher’s name.

“Lay-te-nun.” Mrs Donahue spewed the t out with excessive force to demonstrate its importance. I had a tendency to forget it.

“ Lay-nun . ” “Mary Edith, don’t be lazy. Use that tongue. It’s Lay-te”-she

bared her teeth for the tpart-“nun.” One morning with no warning, Mrs. Donahue walked me to the end

of the hall and knocked on the door to &om Six. Miss Laitinen opened the door. She looked severe, carrying a long rubber-tipped pointer which she held horizontally before her with both hands. Miss Laitinen was a big, masculine woman. Her light, course hair was straight and cut short. She wore dark cardigans and very long, pleated plaid kilts that looked big enough to cover my bed.

“This is Mary Edith,” Mrs. Donahue said. Meanwhile I looked at their shoes. Miss Laitinen wore flat, brown leather shoes that laced up and squeaked on the wooden floor when she walked. They matched each other perfectly, but they were twice as big as Mrs. Donahue’s.

20

EDITE CUNHA: Talking in the New Land 77 I_

“Mary Edith, say hello to Miss Laitinen.” Mrs. Donahue stressed the t- a last-minute reminder.

“Hello, Miss Lay-te-nun,” I said, leaning my head back to see her face. Miss Laitinen was tall. MIS. Donahue’s head came just to her chest. They both nodded approvingly before I was led to my seat.

Peabody, Massachusetts. “The Leather City.” It is stamped on the city seal, along with the image of a tanned animal hide. And Peabody, an industrial city of less than fifty thousand people, has the smokestacks to prove it. They rise up all over town &om sprawling, dilapidated factories. Ugly, leaning, wooden buildings that often stretch over a city block. Strauss Tanning Co. A. C. Lawrence Leather Go. Gnecco & Grilk Tan- ning Gorp. In the early sixties, the tanneries were in full swing. The jobs were arduous and health-threatening, but it was the best-paying work around for unskilled laborers who spoke no English. The huge, firetrap factories were filled with men and women from Greece, Portugal, Ire- land, and Poland.

In one of these factories, JoZo Nunes, who lived on the floor above us, fed animal skins into a ravenous metal monster all day, every day. The pace was fast. One day the monster got his right arm and wouldn’t let go. When the machine was turned off JoZo had a little bit of arm left below his elbow. His daughter Teresa and I were fkiends. She didn’t come out

– ., of her house for many days. When she returned to school, she was very quiet and cried a lot.

“Rosa Vehdo’s been hurt.”News of such tragedes spread through the community fast and often. People would tell what they had seen, or what they had heard from those who had seen. %e was taken t o the hospital by arnbulance. Someone wrapped her jimaers in u paper baa. The doctors may be able t o sew them back on.”

A few days after our arrival in the United States, my father went to work at the Gnecco & Grilk leather tannery, on the corner of Howley and Walnut streets. Senhor JoZo had worked there for many years. He helpcd Pai get the job. Gnecco & Gnlk was a long, rambling, four-story factory that stretched from the corner halfway down the street to the rail- road tracks. The roof was flat and slouched in &e middle like the back of an old workhorse. There were hundreds of windows. The ones on the ground were covered with a thick wire mesh.

Pai worked there for many months. He was stationed on the ground floor, where workers often had to stand ankle-deep in water laden with chemicals. One day he had a disagreement with his foreman. He left his machine and went home vowing never to return. . . .

Pai and I stood on a sidewalk in Salem facing a clear glass doorway. The words on the door were big. DMSION OF EMPLOYMENT Sr, .CURI?‘Y. There was a growing coldness deep inside me. At Thomas Carroll School,

 

 

COMING TO TERMS WITH LANGUAGE ___. . . _- ___-_____ 78

Miss Laitinen was probably standing at the side blackboard, writing per- fect alphabet letters on straight chalk lines. My seat was empty. I was on a sidewalk with Pai trying to understand a baffling string of words. DM- SION had something to do with math, which I didn’t particularly like. EMPLOYMENT I had never seen or heard before. SECURITY I knew. But not at that moment.

Pai reached for the door. It swung open into a little square of tiled floor. We stepped in to be confronted by the hghest, steepest staircase I had ever seen. At the top, we emerged into a huge, fluorescently lit room. It was too bright and open after the dun, narrow stairs. Pai took off his hat. We stood together in a vast empty space. The light, polished des reflected the fluorescent glow. There were no windows.

Far across the room, a row of metal desks lined the wall. Each had a green vinyl-covered chair beside it. Off to our left, facing the empty space before us, was a very high green metal desk. It was easily twice as high as a normal-size desk. Its odd size and placement in the middle of the room gave it the appearance of a kind of altar that divided the room in half. There were many people working at desks or walking about, but the room was so big that it still seemed empty.

The head and shoulders of a white-haired woman appeared to rest on the big desk like a sculptured bust. She sat very still. Above her head the word C m dangled fiom two pieces of chain attached to the ceiling. As I watched the woman she beckoned to us. Pai and I walked over toward her.

The desk was so high that Pai’s shoulders barely cleared the top. Even when I stood on tiptoe I couldn’t see over it. I had to stretch and lean my head way back to see the woman’s round face. I thought that she must have very long legs to need a desk that high. The coldness m me grew. My neck hurt.

“My father can’t speak English. He has no work and we need money.” She reached for some papers from a wire basket. One of her fingers

was encased in a piece of orange rubber. “Come around over here so I can see you,” She motioned to the side

of the desk. I went reluctantly. Rounding the desk I saw with relief that she was a small woman perched on a stool so high i L seemed she would need a ladder to get up there.

35

“HOW old are you?” She leaned down toward me.

“My, aren’t you a brave girl. Only eight years old and helping daddy

She like my earrings. I went a little closer to let her touch them.

“What language does your father speak?” She was straightening up,

“Portuguese.” “What is she saying?” Pai wanted to know.

“Eight.” 40

like that. And what lovely earrings you have.”

Maybe she would give us money.

reaching for a pencil.

EDITE CUNHA: T W e : in the New Iand 79

Wait,” I told him. The lady hadn’t yet said anything about money. “Why isn’t your father working?” “His factory burned down.” “What is she sayinfl?” Pai repeated. “She wants to know why you aren’t working.” Tell her the factory burned down.” “I know. I did.” The lady was looking at me. I hoped she wouldn’t

“What’s your father’s name?” “Carlos S. Cunha. C-u-n-h-a.” No one could ever spell Cunha. Pai

‘‘Where do you live?” “Thirty-three Tracey Street, Peabody, Massachusetts.” l’ai nodded

“When was your father born?” “Quando t que tu nagestes?” “When was the last day your father worked?” “Qual foi o hltimo diu que trabalhastes?” “What was the name of the factory?” “Qual bra o nome de fdbrica?” “HOW long did he work there?” uQuanto tempo fiabalhastes Id?” “What is his Social Security number?” I looked at her blankly, not knowing what to say. What was a Social

“What did she say?” Pai prompted me out of silence. ‘‘I don’t know. She wants a kind of number. ’ I was feeling very tired

and worried. But Pai took a small card from his wallet and gave it to the lady. She copied something from it onto her papers and returned it to him. I felt a great sense of relief. She wrote silently for a while as we stood and waited. Then she handed some paper to Pai and looked at me.

“Tell your father that he must have these forms filled out by his em- ployer before he can receive unemployment benefits.”

I stared at her. What was she saying? Employer? Unemployment ben- efits? I was afraid she was saying we couldn’t have any money. Maybe not, though. Maybe we could have money if I could understand her words.

ask me what my father had just said.

nodded at the woman when he heard his name.

again whcn he heard the address.

Security number? ‘1

“What did she say? Can we have some money?” “I don’t know. I can’t understand her words.’’ “Ask her again if we can have money,” Pai insisted. “Tell her we have

t o pay the rent. ” “We need money for the rent,” I told the lady, t y n g to hold back

tears. “You can’t have money today. You must take these forms to your fa-

ther’s employer and bring them back completed next week. Then your

 

 

80 COMING TO TEKMS WITH LANGUAGE

father must sign another form which we will keep here to process his dairn. When he comes back in two weeks there may be a check for him.’’ The cold in me was so big now, I was trying not to shiver.

“DO you understand?” The lady was looking at me. 1 ~ 75 I wanted to say, “NO, I don’t,’’ but I was afraid we would never get

“Tell your father to take the papers to his boss and come back next

Boss. I could understand boss. “She said yo% have t o tuke these papers t o your cbossa’ and tome back

money and Pai would be angry.

week.”

next week.u W e can’t huve money today?” 80 “No. She said maybe we can huve money in t w o weeks.” “Did you tell her we have t o pay the rent?” Tes, but she said we can’t have money yet. ” The lady was saying good-bye and beckoning the next person from

the line that had formed behind us. I was relieved to move on, but I think Pai wanted to stay and argue

with her. I knew that if he could speak English, he would have. I knew that he thought it was my fault we couldn’t have money. h d I myself wasn’t so sure that wasn’t true.

That night I sat at the kitchen table with a fat pencil and a piece of paper. In my second-grade scrawl I wrote: Dear Miss Laitinen, Mary Edith was sick.

85

I gave the paper to Pai and told him to sign his name. “What does it say?” “It says that I was sick tod;ty. I w e d toaive it to my teacher. ”

Ta, but it would takc too many words t o tell her the truth.” I’ai signed the paper. The next morning in school, Miss Laitinen

‘Tau weren’t sick today.> 90

read it and said that she hoped 1 was feeling better.

When I was nine, Pai went to an auction and bought a big house on ‘l’remont Street. We moved in the spring. The yard at the side of the house dipped downward in a gentle slope that was covered with a dense row of tall lilac bushes. I soon discovered that I could crawl in among the misted trunks to hide from my brothers in the fragrant shade. It was par- adise. . . .

I was mostly wild and joyfid on Tremont Street. But there was a shadow that fell across my days now and again.

“6 Ediiiite.” Pai would call me without the least bit of warning, to be his voice. He expected me to drop whatever I was doing to attend him. Of late, I’d had to struggle on the telephone with the voice of a woman who wanted some old dishes. The dishes, along tYith lots of old

95

EDJTE CUNHA: Talking in the New Land 81

furniture and junk, had been in ,the house when we moved in. They were in the cellar, stacked in cardboard boxes and covered with dust. The woman called many times wanting to speak with Pai.

“My father can’t speak Enghsh,” I would say. “He says to tell you that the dishes are in our house and they belong to US.” But she did not seem to understand. Every few days she would call.

Ediiiite. ’’ Pai’s voice echoed through the empty rooms. Hearing it brought on a chill. It had that tone. As always, my fmt impulse was to pretend 1 had not heard, but there was no escape. I couldn’t disappear into thin air as I wished to do at such calls. We were up in the third-floor apartment of our new house. Pai was working in the kitchen. Carlos and I had made a cavern of old cushions and were sitting together deep in its bowels when he called. It was so dark and comfortable there I decided not to answer until the third call, though that risked Paz’s wrath.

<d Ediiite.”Yes, that tone was cen-amly there. Pui was calling me to do something only I could do. Something that always awakened a cold beast deep in my gut. He wanted me to be his bridge. What was it now? Did he have to talk to someone at City Hall again? Or was it the insur- ance company? They were always using words I couldn’t understand: lia- bllity, and premium, and dwidend. It macle me fmsuated and scared.

“You wait. My dotta come.” Pai was talking to someone. Who could it be? That was some relief. At least I dldn’t have to call someone on the phone. It was always harder to understand when I couldn’t see people’s mouths.

“6 Ediiiiite.” I hated Carlos. Pui never called his name U e that. He

“Que kLit?” “Come over here and talk t o this ludy. ’’ Reluctantly I crawled out from the soft darkness and walked through

the empty rooms toward the kitchen. Through the kitchen door I could see a slim lady dressed in brown standing at the top of the stairs in the windowed porch. She had on very skinny high-heeled shoes and a brown purse to match. As soon as Pai saw me he said to the lady, “Dis my dotta.” To me he said, “See whatshe wants.”

The lady had dark hair that was very smooth. and puffed away from her head. The ends of it flipped up in a way that I liked.

“Hellu. I’m the lady who called about the dishes.” I stared at her without a word. My stomach lurched. “What did she say?” Pai wanted to know. “She suys she’s the lady who wants the dashes. ” Pai’s face hardened some. “Tell her she’s wasting her time. We’re notBiving them t o her. DidN’t

I nodded, standing helplessly between them. cWelZ, tell her again. ” Pai was getting angry. I wanted to disappear.

’ never had to do anythmg but play.

yoo” already tell her that on the telephone?”

 

 

82 COMING TO TERMS WITH LANGUAGE – __

“My father says he can’t give you the dishes,” I said to the lady. She

uYes, you told me that on the phone. But I wanted to come in per- son and speak with your father because it’s very importarit to me that-”

“My father can’t speak English,” I interrupted her. Why didn‘t she just go away? She was stiU standmg in the doorway with her back to the stairwell. I wanted to push her down.

“Yes, I understand that. But I wanted to see him.” She looked at Pai, who was standing in the doorway to the lutchen holding his ham- mer. The kitchen was up one step from the porch. Pai was a small man, but he looked kind of scary staring down at us like that.

clutched her purse and leaned a little forward. 7

115

“What is she saying?” “She says she wanted t o talk to you aboutgetting her dishes.” “Tell her the dishes are ours, rThey were in the house. We bought the house

The brown lady was looking at me expectantly. “My father says the dishes are ours because we bought the house and

the lawyer said everything in the house is ours now.” “Yes, I know that, but I was away when the house was being sold. I

didn’t know . . . ” “Eeii.” There were footsteps on the stairs behind her. It was MZe

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