I Was A Five-Year-Old Pimp
This is a story about how confusing and humiliating it can be to learn a new language.
Once upon a time, on a bright and sunny Kindergarten day, five-year-old me was sitting on the floor crisscross apple-sauce style when I accidentally committed one of the worst, most embarrassing, most humiliating, most socially unacceptable faux-pas(es?) any elementary-school-aged child could commit: I said a bad word in front of the teacher, and I was stupid enough to get caught.
I remember we’d just come in from lunch. The teacher had prepared some activities for us while we’d been upstairs eating and when the school leaders (cranky sixth graders) brought us back to our classroom, we were asked to sit in a circle facing the teacher’s chair. Milk and crackers were passed out for after the lesson (we’d just ate, but whatever!) and those of us who wanted to use the restroom were given permission to go. I remember staying because I wanted to get a good spot next to the teacher’s chair, which always had picture books and the “get out of classroom” golden ticket: the attendance cards.
Our teacher would usually let whoever was closest to her take them to the Main Office and on that day (and many others before that) I was looking for any excuse to wander the halls of my elementary school UNSUPERVISED. I always fantasized about what it would be like to escape the clutches of my mundane existence; of the wonderful places and people I’d see and meet once I plucked up the courage to head off to the city, where everything worth doing seemed to be happening. I never escaped of course—imagine the trouble and panic I would have caused!—but the idea of experiencing a school day differently; of doing things on my own, was too tempting to not indulge in.
[Mini story time: I remember once when a substitute teacher forgot to mark me PRESENT and my mom showed up to my school crying hysterically because she’d obviously sent me to school that day but had received a call from the Main Office asking why I hadn’t showed up. The substitute teacher was beyond embarrassed and I got to go home early that day, which I didn’t complain about in the least.
My classmates and I were sitting on one of those learning carpets that have numbers, colors, days of the week, etc., and our teacher began leading a discussion about different ways we could talk about things that we liked to do/eat/talk about/etc., and things we did not like to do/eat/talk about/etc.
[Interlude II: I’m highly aware of the overuse of “etc.” in this story, but it is necessary. Without it I’d be going on an awful tangent like I’m doing now; sorry!]
My classmates and I were asked to share with the class one thing we liked and one thing we didn’t; and we had to provide an explanation so that our teacher could make a display piece that would be hung outside of our classroom for everyone to see. Since it was backwards day that day, the kids whose last names were at the end of the alphabet got to go first. My last name begins with an A and I was (at the time) the first person on the list, which meant I had to wait until the very end to share my like and dislike.
Zamora got to go first, then Yang, then Xiong, then Rogers, then Olvera, etc. As the teacher went up the list, smiling at my classmates’ generic answers (Pizza! My dog! Sunday football! Soccer! My new shoes!), I practiced both of my answers in my head over and over again; becoming more confident the closer my turn got. My teeny weenie five-year-old insides squirmed with anticipation and when the teacher looked at me and said my name, I proudly blurted out: “I love BITCHES because they’re fun and exciting!”
Yep, you read that right. Five-year-old me had the audacity to say OUT LOUD—to the entire class—that I loved fun and exciting bitches…. (do you see the pimp reference now?)
But that’s not what I meant—oh no!
I had WANTED to say “I love BEACHES because they’re fun and exciting!” NOT “I love BITCHES because….you get the gist.
The words sound(ed) practically the same and I thought, in my little coconut head, that I had expressed myself correctly. Turns out, not so much. Everyone gasped and my teacher’s jaw literally dropped in stunned disbelief. My classmates began laughing uncontrollably, amazed at my bravery and simultaneous stupidity. My teacher, angry about my little outburst, grabbed my arm and escorted me to the hallway. Between sobs I said beach in Spanish and she immediately understood that something had LITERALLY been lost in translation. She asked me in Spanish to share my like and after I told her, she shook her head and laughed. “No te preocupes,” she said. “Un día aprenderás a hablar Inglés muy bien.”
The RELIEF I felt when she said that? You cannot imagine. My intention had not been to be crude or inappropriate, and the fact that she understood what had happened, apologized for getting upset and then offered support and encouragement meant a lot. She pulled a chair over and asked me to sit while she quieted the class down. She returned a few minutes later and we entered the classroom together. A few of my classmates laughed audibly when I walked in, but most simply shook their heads as I walked back to my seat.
The teacher explained to the class that I had made a mistake and that my intention had NOT been to use a “bad word”. Most kids seemed to understand, but a few mocked my English skills for the rest of the year despite the fact I was completely fluent a month after this happened.
I felt so alone for the remainder of the day. The adults around me understood—and they tried their best to help—but my classmates, whose opinion I cared about the most, didn’t. Some of them thought I had done it on purpose and gotten away with it because I was new (and whenever one of them would get caught saying something inappropriate my name would always be brought up) and others thought I had squirmed my way out of a horrible punishment because I was the teacher’s favorite (if I wasn’t then why did she spend so much time trying to help me out?). I never meant for it to happen, but they didn’t care. And looking back at it now OF COURSE they wouldn’t! We were kids and what I said had been dumb and silly and funny—but(t) boy had it hurt.
The day ended and before I left my teacher asked me if I was OK. And (obviously) I lied. I told her the entire situation had been funny and that I didn't care about my mistake, BUT I cried all the way home. My learning spirit was crushed, and I felt insignificant and useless. I had made a fool of myself and had unwillingly provided my classmates with undeniable proof that I was stupid and that their mockery of me was justified.
I (genuinely) don’t remember what happened when I got home, but I’m almost one-hundred percent sure I kept the incident to myself. I barely spoke in class for fear of making yet another faux pas, but the gears of my tiny little head were busy doing what they do best: they were overthinking and had decided to become OBSESSED with learning English.
And that was that. The story of how I learned English will be saved for later; when you and I have had some time away from each other and are ready to rendezvous, after an acceptable amount of time, once again. It was a scary yet beautiful experience and I am so thankful I went through it alone. If I hadn't, I don't think I would have developed a passion for learning new languages or writing.
I have taken enough of your time and you need a break from my craziness. Bye (for now!) and thank you for listening. I hope you have a wonderful week and that whatever dream or dreams you’re working on come true.
You deserve it. We all do.