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Letters in the dust

For a few minutes my fourth-graders were all busy writing. That's when I heard it -- a scratching sound outside the open window of the school in Latin America where I was teaching. Cautiously I went to the window and looked down. There in the dirt were five ragged children making marks with long sticks. One was a little girl, in parts of a red dress, who looked about 5. That probably meant she was closer to 8, stunted by poor diet. Her face was concentrating as she scraped the packed, brown earth, making what I recognized as an "N." The boys around her were faster; they had already written "N-e-w." Then I realized. They were copying what I had just put on the board, the first word of my lesson on New York City. But how did they see the work from way down there?

The tallest fellow asnwered my question as he jumped up, his face appearing in the window. I stepped back. When I looked again, the "teacher" was scratchng the new word, quickly memorized for his students. Then my question became not howm but why?m Why they had to to learn this way? These children should be in public school.

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Somehow I managed to teach a kind of lesson until lunch, but my mind was outside with the others.

When the students were finally delivered to the lunchroom, I was free to search for answers. I confronted the director: "Why --why aren't they in school?"

The tone of his voice was very matter-of-fact. "They can't afford it. For public school they'd need money for uniforms and books, even though the school is free."

My naivete showed that I had lived in this country only a short time. I stuttered, " But-b-but, surely we can do something!"

This time his voice was stern. "It's not our problem. We have our own school to run, and with riffraff hanging by the windows, it gives the place a bad appearance. If they come again, you must send them away."

I tried one last time. "Please, don't ask me to do that!"

"If you won't, I will. Now, I think you'd better go to lunch."

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He was closing the subject, but I couldn't let that happen.

"What if I were to stay after everyone has gone home and teach them outside?"

His face seemed to soften. "But you'd miss your school bus. You know the buses only wait five minutes."

"I know. I'd only stay a couple of afternoons. For that I could arrange for a taxi."

"Well, if it were after school hours, and not in the building, I wouldn't really know, so I couldn't object. Right?"

"Right! Thank you, sir." I shook his hand and left.

I had two children of my own and would now be paying a taxi ride down the mountain to the city. A little help would be needed.

Back in the classroom, I was trying to concentrate on making New York City seem real to students who would probably never see it, when I noticed something. Carlos's pencil broke and he went straight to the waste can and threw it away, not even half used. I paused in my faraway lesson and began one close to home. I told these children of the children outside.

". . . so I wondered if you could donate your half-used pencils, and the paper on which you've only written on one side."

They all agreed. One generous lad even offered to stay outside and let a student have his place. I assured him that wasn't necessary.

So it was that after everyone had taken the buses, I was left in the quiet of the mountaintop with a sack of paper and pencils. I walked toward the bushes where the "students" usually held their "class." They heard me coming and hid but I knew they were watching, so I began my class in Spanish as if they were in plain sight. I drew a large "A" on a sheet of paper and set pencils and paper on the ground around me. "A [ah]," I repeated, making a series of little sounds. Slowly the little girl ventured forward and picked up the writing tools. She hugged them to her chest.

"They're yours," I assured her in Spanish. "Sit down, and I'll show you how to write with them."

No mountaintop sunrise was as bright as the smile that rose on that small face. "Son mios, de verdad?"m (They're mine, really?)


Finally belief crept in, and she sat on the ground as proudly as on a throne. She began to copy the letter I had written. As she worked, I talked with her to put her, and those watching from the bushes, at ease. She told me her name was Maria, and that she and her brother made empanadasm (fried pies) over an old tin cann filled with hot charcoals. They sat on the sidewalk in town, selling to passersby. I had seen such children before, perhaps even her.

Softly Maria told me that if she could read, she would read her mother the paper, and read street and bus signs, and not get lost, and maybe even someday have a storybook. I made a mental note that I would, somehow, find her a book by next lesson.

Her bravery inspired the others. In a few minutes they had emerged from the bushes, holding the magic pencils above the white sheets. They made a row of "A's" as their fear left. Soon they began to chatter as if we were old friends. One announced he was going to teach his father everything I had taught him. Another added in Spanish, "I'll be able to read 'Help Wanted' signs in the stores or maybe even the ones in the paper!" His voice was loud and confident.

"I'll write my cousin a letter," another boasted.

Clearly I would have to work fast to keep up with their ambitions. Fortunately, one can learn quickly to read in Spanish because each letter has, with few exceptions, just one sound. No long and short "A's." It wouldn't take them long.

When it was time to begin a word, I chose one with two "A's" -- casam (house).

"Ca-sa, ca-sa,m " I kept repeating. Then I wrote five words on the paper and asked the youngest boy to show which one was "casa.m "

In a flash he found it, his fingers showing everyone. Then he jumped up and ran around, shouting, "I did it! I did it! I read a word. Me, Carlos, I can read." The others rushed forward to read the word, too. Then the oldest said firmly, "Sit down, now, so we can learn more." Turning to me he pleaded, "Hurry, teacher, please, and teach us more words. The sun is about to go down."

But I thought the sun was finally rising.

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