Knower of the Words

When were you given your first weighty responsibility? The kind that really matters and can have real consequences if you don’t complete it correctly. I was a kid in elementary school. Without any notice or formal agreement, I became the family translator and interpreter. It was a real job and an important one. The position was handed to me so seamlessly that I did not realize then that it happened, nor that not every child held this post in their home. Being assigned the family “knower of the words” would mean I’d have adult-like responsibility which would prove to be both challenging and immensely rewarding.

Up until I entered kindergarten, I only spoke Spanish but learned that an exciting change awaited me. When it was time to sign me up for school my mother told me all about it. She explained I would go to school and learn to read and write. She also explained that I would learn English. My parents told me I would soon “be worth two persons.” They were so excited about me going to school that their excitement was contagious. I couldn’t wait for the first day of classes to arrive. I wanted to hurry up and learn. 

My first day of school finally arrived and my excitement didn’t seem to fit within the extremities of my little body. My mother dressed me in a beautiful dress with ruffled lace that she hand-made for me. As she braided my hair and entwined colorful ribbons into it, she told me how happy she was that I was starting school. With love, hope and a touch of nostalgia in her voice she reminded me that I would be able to do so much in life because I was to have an education. I had the opportunities that her and my father didn’t. I grabbed my blue canvas tote and placed it on my shoulder, within it were a notebook, crayons and a pencil, all securely wrapped in our hopes and dreams. Once we were ready, we set off for John Adams Elementary in Santa Ana, California.

When we arrived, we were told I was a “late bird,” which meant I was part of the afternoon class. When I realized this meant I wouldn’t be staying, I cried. I wanted to sit at my desk right then and there. My mother promised we would be back in just a few hours and that I would in fact start school that day. I wiped the tears from my face and begrudgingly agreed to leave and return later. I loved school before I even started.

Ms. Munch my kindergarten teacher was my door to the English language. She was a true nurturer, she always taught me with patience and kindness. I don’t know when in the process of the year I learned English but it happened and felt so natural.

As my English developed my parents helped me strengthen it without even realizing it. As we drove down the road and saw a sign, they would ask me what it said. I would try and sound out the word. I would ask my teachers what certain words that I didn’t know meant. Looking back, my teachers throughout the years were my Jedi Masters whose force allowed me to grow and mature in my search to dominate the English language.

Time passed and I felt so happy when I could translate for my parents and thought I would always feel joy but life taught me that this would not be the case and that when I happened to not know a word, it would hurt. It didn’t hurt physically but it hurt emotionally. I remember driving down the road and my father pointing to a big sign in an empty field: AVAILABLE it read. “What does that say?” my dad asked me. I stared at the sign sounding out the word in my head. In seconds I meticulously shifted the words in my brain from one place to the other in search of this one, searching for pieces of it that I might recognize but it was nowhere to be found. I stared at it intently willing the definition into my brain but it was no use, I didn’t know this word. I dreaded saying the words but finally said, “I don’t know”. My dad’s response was quick and irritated, “what do you mean you don’t know, then what do you go to school for?” I willed back the hot tears that were threatening to escape. I said nothing in response as I sat in the back seat of our car but in that very moment, eight-year-old me knew I must read more, learn more and always know all the words. Dictionaries would become my bosom friends.

Words were important to me and my personal interests developed around them. I spent a lot of time in my school library. Reading Rainbow was my favorite show and gave me plenty of ideas of what to request the next time I chatted with the librarian. I was always looking for bigger books and looking up words I didn’t know.

I once lost a school library book and was barred from checking out more until I paid for the lost item. I was devastated. We lived on limited means and asking my parents to pay for a lost book felt daunting. I yearned to check out books but didn’t know what to do. I checked with the librarian every day hoping the book would be turned in by someone who found it. About a week later, someone did! The feelings of extreme joy and relief I felt that day are protectively stored in my heart to this day.

I found other ways to strengthen my knowledge of words. I watched any show I could find on our local English channels. The news were a particular favorite and I found myself watching them for hours every day. At bed time as I lay in the dark, I picked a word, imagined it, and broke it down. I made other words from it. I was also my younger brother’s private tutor. Life was busy and revolved around all aspects of learning the words.

I was soon fulfilling the more advanced duties of my job description. When my parents were looking for jobs, they brought home the applications they collected and I completed them; nice and neat with no errors to be found to ensure happiness from all parties involved. When letters were received in the mail, I would let them know what it was about. When we visited government offices there was no need to wait for long periods of time for a Spanish speaking representative to be available because I could do the job. I liked interpreting and translating, that is until parent-teacher conferences came around.

Throughout the years most of my teachers did not speak Spanish. When it was parent-teacher conference time, I got to interpret what my teacher had to say about me! The look you got from your teacher when they had something negative to say about you, as well as the look your parents would give you when you explained what the teacher said, were ones I don’t like to relive. Talk about being under emotional pressure! This was a great motivator to do well in all subjects at school. So, with a little bit of this, that and the other I became at one with the words and I was still just a kid in elementary school.

Someone might learn these things about me and feel pity for me but they would be wrong to. For those that did not have our limitations it may seem as if my parents leaned on me too much, I would disagree. Yes, I had a responsibility that was not meant for a child but we didn’t have much of a choice. This was the 80’s and though California had a growing population of Spanish speaking residents they did not yet offer as much help to us as they do now.

My parents were loving, hard-working, and determined people who made the heart wrenching choice to immigrate in the cover of darkness to a country thousands of miles away from the only home they loved and knew. They worked very long hours for very little pay in their factory jobs. They had very little education but a fierce work ethic and the desire to give us so much more than what they had. They sacrificed so we would have the opportunities they only dreamed of.

As their firstborn, it was life who designated me the knower of the words, a position I still hold (though I share it a lot more with my siblings these days) and in doing so I was and am able to help my family in a meaningful way. Without knowing it by being assigned to this position I started down a path that would lead me to a lifelong love of reading and writing.

The reality is I’m not special; there are millions of us who’ve held this post since childhood. Some today are still just children. With the help of caring and nurturing teachers, the encouragement of our parents, and our own aspirations and determination we’ve learned the words in two languages and seamlessly flow from one language to the other. We are bridges that unite the people whom we respect and love the most with the outside world. We speak a multitude of languages and stand in every country where immigrants are found.  I’m proud of each one of us. I love it when I happen to run into a fellow “knower of the words” because even though the languages that we bridged may be different, the experiences and hilarious stories that are shared are so similar. These shared stories remind us that we are “worth two people,” and that these two people within us play an essential role in helping our immigrant families not just survive but develop deep expanding roots that thrive in the place we call home.

September 13, 2023 – Homework assignment for an English class I’m taking just for fun

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