That’s when it came. “The Look” in all its stupefied wonder. I realized instantly that the word that had just escaped my lips was not English. My brain raced for the correct word. What was it? What was it? What was it?
“The, um, uh…the sweeper.” Desperate, I grasped the word, imitating the act with my arms. I knew that wasn’t right either, but I couldn’t think of the word. I couldn’t think at all. Every eye in the room burned a hole in my skin and I wished they would all just bore right through so I could disappear.
“You mean the broom?” my teacher offered.
“Yes,” I said, relieved, “the broom.” The other kids slowly turned around, eyebrows still alertly pointed up, eyes still rolled, some snickering to each other. But at that point I didn’t care. As long as they weren’t looking at me anymore. As long as they had stopped staring.
After just a few weeks, I resigned myself to the belief that the little talks teachers gave in the back of the room were the lesser of two evils. So I stood there and nodded, staring up at my teacher’s big green eyes and curly blonde, almost white, hair; all the while wondering why the Pilgrims didn’t eat pork on their Thanksgiving.
I returned home defeated. My handprint turkey was rather pathetic, having whipped it together in the final minutes allotted to the project. I had wasted more time than I had realized trying to outline my distorted, not pig-like at all, fingers.
I ambled into the living room, as was my routine, to watch cartoons with my great grandfather. My Abuelo Marco loved cartoons so we’d watch them every day after school, sitting together in his old recliner. We’d scan the channels for reruns of The Pink Panther or Roadrunner-something we could both understand. Sitting on his lap in the living room reminded me of my Sunday school assignment. One of the Sisters had announced that Santa Clause himself was going to come to our class the next week to visit and how we should prepare our Christmas lists so that when we sat on his lap, we’d know what to ask him for.
During the next commercial, I turned to my great-grandfather and told him that sitting on his lap reminded me of Santa. I was itching to tell him all about how I would get to meet the big guy in person soon, but he stopped me…to ask who Santa was. “No sabes, abuelito,” Didn’t he know? I tried to explain it all to him, but I was struggling with the words in my mouth. My Spanish was far from perfect, and it suffered with every year I spent in my All-American school that discouraged my sister and me from speaking Spanish in the halls; and it deteriorated even further when, in the following years, my parents insisted on speaking only English in the house so I wouldn’t have ESL, English as a Second Language, stamped on my permanent record like my sister did. My teacher had called, “concerned,” about my escoba incident.
Eventually I called my mother into the living room and asked her for the Spanish translations to words like “reindeer” and “sleigh.” After a lot of puzzling, she came to the conclusion that she didn’t know them either, but she left me with crayons and paper, so I could draw pictures of what I remembered from the story the Sister had read to us. I even threw in a “Ho, ho, ho!” for good measure as I continued talking and coloring, wearing my red crayon down to the nub. My Abuelo Marco chuckled a little at my impersonation and then he looked at me very firmly. I could tell because the wrinkles around his sharp, gray eyes multiplied tenfold. He then explained to me that maybe Santa brings presents to the Americanos, but the Cuban children get their gifts from Los Reyes. He asked me what I wanted the Three Kings to bring me. Perhaps more crayons. He held up the box of Crayons. But I didn’t answer. No one at Sunday school had mentioned anything about a list for the Three Kings.I returned to the kitchen where I watched sullenly as my grandmother tacked my Santa Clause drawing to the refrigerator, next to my hand-print turkey. Even now, so many years later, when I recall her face as she turned around, I could swear, even if it was only for a split second, that she’d given me “The Look.”
Per Contra Summer 2007