The UUCA tutor met Maria, a first grader, in October. She appeared to have no English at all.
The powers that be gave the tutor a set of exercises and “games” to use with Maria. They all involved sounding out three-letter words comprised of a consonant, a short vowel, and another consonant, like “cap” or “mat.”
Maria proved to be a biddable child, and she seemed actually to enjoy the task, or at least not to mind it. As October turned into November, and November into December, Maria and the tutor kept on task. She became increasingly proficient at correctly sounding out “bat,” “cat,” “sat,” and “rat.” But when asked if she knew what a word meant, Maria would mutely shake her head.
The tutor had limited Spanish, and so was able to tell her, for example, that “cat” meant un gato. Maria seemed appreciative to learn this information, and would promptly move on to sounding out the next word.
Maria’s patience exceeded the tutor’s, but they both soldiered on. By the Christmas break, the tutor was being heard to mutter in the social hall that “We might as well be teaching her to sound out words in Old Church Slavonic.”
That’s when the Unitarian miracle occurred.
By the time tutoring recommenced after the holiday break, Maria had made a breakthrough. During the first tutoring session in January, she began demanding, in simple English, to know the meaning of every word. In some cases the tutor could mime the meaning. When Maria asked about “dig,” the tutor acted out digging a hole with a shovel, producing much merriment.
Sometimes it was harder to convey meanings. When Maria wanted to know what “tin” was, the tutor responded that tin is a metal. “What is metal?” Maria sensibly inquired. There ensued an exploration of the classroom, to find objects made of metal.
As the tutor left for the day, a light bulb appeared over his head. Remembering that there are such things as picture dictionaries, that “define” words for little children by showing them pictures, the tutor detoured by Barns & Noble and secured The Cat in the Hat Beginner Book Dictionary, in English and Spanish. (It works this way. To define “afraid,” there is a drawing of a little girl in fear of a mouse, followed by a short sentence, “Alice is afraid,” which is then translated into Spanish: “Alicia tiene miedo.”)
The following week, when Maria received her book at the close of the tutoring session, and grasped what it was, she was flabbergasted. After pausing to digest her good fortune, Maria looked up at the tutor and said, in a serious and determined voice, “I’m going to learn every word in this book.”
The tutor wasn’t surprised by her determination, but he did marvel at her ability to articulate that English sentence.
Kids don’t always remember to thank people for their gifts, but you may be sure that in their next session Maria, without prompting, thanked the tutor profusely for her book. The only problem, she allowed, was that she had gotten in trouble for staying up to late to peruse her new dictionary.
As winter turned to spring, the tutor and Maria were able to converse about a wide range of topics. In their last session, as the school year was about to end, Maria took the tutor’s hand and asked him to walk with her back to her class. Outside the classroom the teacher had pinned a poster of President Obama, with Martin Luther King looking over the President’s shoulder.
Maria let go the tutor’s hand and pointed to Dr. King. “That’s Martin Luther King,” she said. “He had a dream.”
“And that,” she added, pointing to the President, “is Barack Obama. He had a dream, too.”
“Yes,” thought the tutor. “And I’ll bet I know a little girl who also has a dream.”
When we tell our stories, the children are real and the stories are true, but the names are changed.