Spell our Names: A Journey in Reading and Writing with my AmeriCorps Kids
Today’s guest post comes from Teresa Palomo Acosta, who served in AmeriCorps for Math and Literacy, the University of Texas at Austin, Texas, from 1996-1998. Teresa is an accomplished poet and published author, with four titles to her credit. She currently resides in Austin, TX.
By now my AmeriCorps “kids” should have finished their basic education, which I take to mean college. It’s been that long since I served as a tutor with AmeriCorps for Math and Literacy. From 1996 to 1998 I worked with bilingual pre-kindergarten, first grade, and second grade students at the George I. Sánchez Elementary School in Austin, Texas. We spent five days a week reading and writing in one-on-one tutoring sessions. In some cases, we started out the school year reading one-word-per-page books and gradually worked our way to books with several paragraphs per page. The literacy development hills we climbed also included learning to read with fluency and beginning to write with confidence.
Of course, I have no way of knowing how many of my kids have a college diploma and a professional job. But 17 years ago, when I set out to read and write with them at Sánchez Elementary, they greeted me gleefully, eager at the ages of four, five, six, and seven to go the distance it might take to reach their dreams.
When I entered AmeriCorps, I was a few months beyond the age of 46, long past the time that society reserves for undertaking idealistic adventures. Many years before, at the age of 18, inspired by the civil rights movement, I applied to Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) but was turned down for lack of experience. Undaunted, I decided that one day I would serve as a volunteer to my fellow Americans. In 1996, the moment to do so seemed right; this time, with many professional experiences behind me, I was accepted into AmeriCorps.
My lifelong love of the written word made serving as a literacy tutor a huge joy. You see, becoming literate in Spanish and English as a youth in the segregated town of McGregor, Texas, had liberated me and shown me how negotiate the world for myself. All these years after completing my AmeriCorps service, I remain convinced that knowing how to read and write and, therefore, knowing how to think for myself was the best reason I had to serve as a tutor to young bilingual students.
Several years after leaving AmeriCorps, as I composed poems for my poetry collection, In the Season of Change, I found myself thinking of my kids because they reminded me that I have always been drawn to write poems that tell stories of people who live fully, resisting efforts to subordinate their spirit and their intelligence. My kids were naturals for my poems. Three pieces I wrote in the aftermath of my AmeriCorps journey relate just how deeply my kids guided my work with them. I offer the following provisos to these poems: In “Resistencia,” the four-year-old students who regularly dictated their stories to me let me know uncompromisingly that their accounts were theirs first and foremost, not mine. In “Spell my name,” my kids have learned to value the poetry that lies in a name, in its letters and cadence, and in its music and humor. In “Odyssey I,” I learn to keep their collective spirit with me for the rest of my life because I realize that “They were the señoras y señores of la nueva creacion” (the women and men of a new future… to whose education we in AmeriCorps were committed). What huge happiness I experienced during those two years with my kids at Sánchez Elementary School. I hope the poems below illustrate just how deep a joy.
Sometimes at the end of our writing lesson,
the children in my class, their palms, sweetly moist,
wisely envelope a piece of paper
that contains the new words they can
speak. They inform me that
they wish to take their words home
even though the school rules say
they cannot. To sum up their argument, they grin at me and grip
their paper even tighter.
Sometimes I wisely let them have their way.
Spell my name
My name is Cristina Lopez Gonzales.
That’s Cristina without the h
and Gonzales with an s.
(Here a shrug.)
Yo me llamo Josefina Paulette Gomez
and there’s an accent mark
on the o in Gomez
but we don’t use it.
(Here a smile and a tilt of the head towards me.)
I’m Pedro. Last name Rodriguez, which is w-aay
too largo for me. But I’ll give it a try.
(Here a concentrated frown, pencil midair.)
I’m Nico–well Nicolás;
that’s the English say of saying it
and the Spanish way of spelling.
(Here a broad grin.)
Question: Nico, Do you like it that way?
Answer: Well, yeah.
My ‘buela insists on the Spanish version.
Question: Nico, What do you like?
(Here a shrug and a “both.”)
I mind my ‘buela. If she says it in Spanish,
I say it’s a-ok with me.
(Here a spontaneous “Nicolás”
como en Spanish.)
Here the mark of Tex-Mex is
on every tongue/lengua franca.
Y no importa que digan los jefes,
who bend over the Spanish
dictionary, counting every missed syllable.
I no longer recall the maps
I intended to purchase
and surely to study.
They must have been a set with complicated rules of use.
And when I inquired, their price was far too high
and too distracting a ruse to take on.
I did not know at the time just how
urgent a call can be, nor how swiftly a response
to it can swing
the compass needle from north to south.
How completely the wind can shift direction,
clog your eyes with dust and simultaneously
clear them of a temporary twenty-year blindness.
I thought the Odyssey
always entailed long boats
with specially constructed oars.
I thought the Odyssey
was Greek in origin and intent,
was required in Sophomore literature,
was only recited at upper east side
Saturday night gatherings.
But then I filled out a certain solicitud,
was interviewed, and accepted as bona fide enough
to set out across the freeway.
Back and forth I ferried,
three, five, six times a week.
And though I covered less than fives miles
on the average round trip,
a legion of children guarded me, urging me on,
offering safe passage to and from Sanchez Elementary School.
They were Angelica, Roman, Sylvia, Sonia,
Adrian, Misael, Melissa, Brenda, Angel,
Rosa, John, Joe. They were Martha, Jose,
Andrea, Apolinar, Marilu, Maria, Abril,
Denise, Arturo. They were Maribel, Marisa,
Alejandro, Esmeralda, Jose, Maricela, Jessica.
They were the señoras y señores of la nueva creacion.