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>Pantomiming History & A Real Education

April 11, 2010


It took only six months in our new schools for my sister, Valerie (six at the time) and me (thirteen) to become completely fluent. For Val, that wasn’t unusual – the younger the child, the quicker the language acquisition. I must have gotten in just under the wire, as adolescence is when we begin to lose that ability to learn easily a second language. Being fluent in Spanish continues to be one of the great blessings in my life.
BTW – the term “don” (and “dona” for women) is a universal title of respect throughout Latin America and is not capitalized. Enjoy.
Pantomiming History
That first year at Cervantes is a blur in my memory. There are a few snapshots, retained in memory in spite of their banality.

SNAPSHOT: This is the Coke machine, located on the ground floor close to the bathrooms. Its bright redness is in sharp contrast to the subdued greens of the wall tiles and the muted reds of the floor tiles.
SNAPSHOT: This is the lunchtime exodus of seven hundred uniformed students, virtually all of them carrying identical leather mochilas, similar to a portmanteau only smaller.
SNAPSHOT: A dozen or more of us crowd around the little food concession stand adjoining the Brothers’ quarters. Chips, candy bars, soft drinks and tortas, a kind of Mexican sandwich, line shelves along the back wall of the stand.
SNAPSHOT: Don Blas, the school janitor, wet mops the long tiled corridor. His mop is a wooden pole with a large piece of burlap attached to one end. You can’t see it in the photo but his body sways rhythmically, gracefully, from side to side as he swings his trapo back and forth.
            There is one event from that year that does stand out in my memory, and it’s one I can laugh at – now.
SNAPSHOT: This is a study in expressions. I’m flat on my back on the raised platform at the front of the classroom. My expression is one of pain. And embarrassment. Senor Torres has risen partly out of his chair at the end of the platform and looks concerned. The students lean forward for a better look. They’re all laughing.
            Luis explained the assignment to me. “We gotta pick some historical event or something and act it out in front of the class, see if they can guess it.”           

            “Man, I can’t do that! I don’t even speak Spanish. And what do I know about Mexican history? Tell Senor Torres.”

            Luis came back, smiling. “Sorry, cuate, you gotta do it. Teach says you can pick something from American history if you want.”

            “Well, what about my Spanish? Did you tell him?”

            Si, hombre, I told him. He said we all gotta do it in pantomima, you know, no words. I’m gonna do El Grito.”

            “What’s that?”

            “It’s the freedom cry of Mexican independence. ¡Viva Mexico! Benito Juarez did it first back in 1810 or something like that.”

             “Hey, Luis. How are you gonna do El Grito in pantomime?”

            He thought for a moment. “Damn!”

            The day came and I watched the students ahead of me go through their performances. In spite of my own case of jitters I was genuinely interested in the other skits. One boy tried to reenact the eagle perched on a cactus eating a serpent, the symbolic centerpiece of the Mexican flag. (Ancient legend tells that the gods commanded an Aztec man to found a city on the site where he came across such a thing. That was the site of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City.) Another cheerfully pantomimed an Aztec priest slitting a sacrificial throat. Luis wound up pantomiming one of the Ninos Heroes, the Heroic Children, six teenage military cadets who tried to hold off an attack by US Marines in Mexico City in 1847. It’s Mexico’s equivalent of the Alamo for us.

            Finally my turn came. I had chosen the story of Washington throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac. I don’t know if I actually expected anyone to guess it or if I purposely went for something I figured no one (except maybe Luis) would know. It didn’t make too much difference because my skit turned out to be more slapstick than pantomime. Or history.

            I had to write the year of the event on the blackboard and suddenly realized I would have to make up a year for an event that never actually took place. I wrote “1776.” Close enough. I started the “reenactment” at the far end of the slightly-raised tiled platform that ran along the front of the class. Walking a third of the way across, I stopped, kneeled down, looked to my left and my right and pretended to drink, cupping water to my mouth, giving the idea of a river. I stood up and took what I hoped everyone would at least know was a coin, if not a silver dollar, from my pocket. I flipped it a couple of times to make the point and then backed up. My plan was to run a few steps forward and fling the coin across the “river”, shading my eyes with my hands as I watched it sail away. I wanted to really heave that coin to show that it was being thrown across a wide river. Unfortunately, at the peak of the throw, I slipped and I fell on my tailbone, legs and arms akimbo. The class was hysterical. They loved it! It took several minutes to restore a modicum of decorum and by that time no one was interested in what event I was trying to depict. But it was memorable. I’d get asked for the next couple of years when I was going to put on another performance of the man who drank tequila from a barrel and got so drunk he fell down.
A Real Education
It didn’t take long for me to recognize the many differences between the American School and my new one. Discipline. Order. Respect. Standards. Expectations. Teachers who were qualified to teach their specialty. My Mexican civics class, for example, was taught by Senor Duran, a lawyer. Don Tomas (we referred to him as don Tommy), a university professor, taught chemistry. A University of Guadalajara professor, don Mario, taught geography. Behind his back students called him “Mata Siete”, someone who thinks very highly of himself for no good reason. It comes from a story very similar to “The Brave Little Tailor” who killed “seven at one blow”, which, loosely translated, is what “Mata Siete” means. He was tall, wore dark glasses all the time out of class and was damned good looking. Maybe he did have good reason to think well of himself . . .

As my Spanish improved I began participating in class. I was also learning about Catholicism every day in religion class, a brand new experience for me and one I enjoyed. Mom had talked to me regularly about religion and spiritual beliefs over the years. She was raised Protestant, went to a Catholic boarding school and had read extensively about Eastern religions. She’d also read Edgar Cayce and the 1956 best-seller about reincarnation, “The Search for Bridey Murphy”. All this she passed on to me with the idea of opening my mind to different ways of believing. As a result I was always interested in what don Cuco, our religion teacher, had to say.

One day the lesson was on the importance of regular confession and I asked him a question. “What would happen, don Cuco, if a guy came into the church, killed the priest, put on his robes and listened to people’s confessions? Would they still be forgiven their sins?”

“Of course,” don Cuco smiled, “God understands everything that happens.”

On another occasion the lesson was on burial and why cremation is not permitted. “It’s important,” he told us, “that the body be buried intact. God gave us our bodies and expects us to appear before Him after death with our body complete. This is, of course, impossible with cremation.”

I was curious. “What happens, don Cuco, if a plane crashes and the pilot is  burned up?”
“God will put him back together.”

“Then if God can put people back together, why can’t we be cremated?”

Student heads swiveled back and forth between me and don Cuco. I don’t think they’d ever thought of this.

“We don’t want to needlessly burden God,” don Cuco explained, and moved on with the lesson. I decided not to ask my follow-up question: “If God can do anything, why would this be a problem?”

* * * * *
Going into Cervantes, I had two related “new boy” concerns. The first was just being the new boy in school, no different than it would have been at home. My anxiety was increased, however, by being the American new boy in school, el gringo. As it turned out, the latter concern never amounted to anything. I was never singled out for special treatment, or mistreatment, just because I was an American. True, I was called gringo a lot, a term many Americans felt was derogatory. But I decided early on it made no sense to protest. For one thing, it had no inherently bad connotation for me so I had trouble working up any anger over it. For another, I didn’t have the language to protest. And it would have been senseless to take on anybody and everybody who called me that. So gringo it was for all my years at Cervantes.

SNAPSHOT: That’s me, second row, five seats back, standing by my desk. Note how important I’m trying to look. That’s Senor Mignault, the English teacher, also standing by his desk. Note how displeased he looks.
Ironically, the only time being American caused me any trouble was in English class. For the first couple of months my grade was rarely 10, the highest mark. We got our report card every Monday morning for work done the previous week and the first few times Mom asked me about the low grade in English, often a 7. 

“David, what’s going on with English? Why do you keep bringing home these low grades? What’s going on?”

 “Well, Mom, he keeps making mistakes and I correct him.”

“In front of the whole class?”

I nodded.

“Don’t you think it would be better to keep your comments to yourself?“

After that, I limited my criticisms to after class and my English grade was consistently ten.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 11, 2010 11:35 pm

    >So, you've been teaching the teachers for much longer than I realized!NJ

  2. April 14, 2010 10:58 pm

    >Altho at the time, I didn't realize the difference between teaching and preaching . . .

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