THE CHRONOTOPE || Yvette Siegert on poetry + translation

To Learn or to Sleep?

Posted in California, Childhood, foreign, Language, Translation by Yvette Siegert on Friday, 29 July 2011

This post, frankly, is about nostalgia. I was at the office early today, before anyone else arrived. Summer mornings in New York that aren’t humid—these are rare, and the overcast ones, especially, feel like blessings, like complex pangs that remind me of Southern California and of practicing the piano before breakfast. They remind of me algebra in the summer. Or, from an earlier period, of growing up in rural foothills and of not speaking English, and of how this had everything to do with marvelling at how American children who did speak English got to school earlier than I did, and did so wearing corduroy, a fabric that I envied them because my mother didn’t find it dressy enough for school. This morning I was also reading an old Guernica post on Pedro Carolino, by my friend Ricky. Carolino wrote a guide to English even though he didn’t actually speak the language. I think I grew up doing this, in my own way. Before comprehension set in, my ear collected English suffixes and odd-sounding words. Like “luggage,” a term I must’ve picked up from my dad but that’s been with me longer than “father.” Family friends would come over and hear me mumble in my own squishy, mostly self-directed argot—“sh,” “wa,” “th,” and “-ing” sounds and the like, whatever swirled combination of these felt round and official.

When I finally did learn English, it was in Kindergarten, at a Montessori located on a drab industrial stretch of Foothill Boulevard, in Los Angeles. My teacher, Ms. Neela, was from Sri Lanka and wore her hair in a long, loose braid down her right side. A shy but hyperactive kid, I could barely communicate with my classmates, and I almost didn’t want to. Corduroy and language differences aside, these kids were half a foot shorter than I was and ate things that I couldn’t fathom consuming, like sand, or celery sticks lined with peanut butter. And in the afternoon they’d collectively get tired and take naps in Classroom 2. Nap-time was something I refused to participate in. The concept felt absurd and “American.” The cots issued for this purpose were low, short, and uncomfortable, and they came with none of the attendant dreaminess, say, of a siesta. (To sleep without my grandmother nearby? Without the radio? I feared the nap ritual because I worried that I wouldn’t be able to sleep, or that I’d doze off with my eyes half-open and be caught in this creepy, somewhat undead state.) So Ms. Neela would let me sit with her while the rest of the kids slept. It was the happiest part of the day, and this is how she taught me the language: We’d sit across from each other and work at her table, and she would talk to me plainly and comment on whatever we did. The key was to keep me occupied, to have me think that I was helping her, so that I didn’t realize that I was being tutored. Ms. Neela would lay out stencils of various shapes and have me outline polygons on construction paper; I’d entertain myself by iterating and coloring them in with the patterns of various flags of the world. Colombia’s, mostly, and Lebanon’s, and those of African and Central American nations, and Sri Lanka’s, with its elaborate lion. (I don’t recall a time when I didn’t love flags.) The first word that I remember learning with Ms. Neela came up over those flags. “Together,” she said. “We are sitting ‘together.'” Call it my claim to a Helen Keller-style “water” epiphany, but that word gave me a very specific sense of buoyancy and privacy, a feeling that I recognize now when I look at art that challenges me, or when I sit by myself at the opera. A longing for everything in the world. I’m almost embarrassed that “together” should be so fraught with meaning, given the circumstances, but that’s how English came to me, through this gentle woman who understood my loneliness and who let me learn instead of sleep. This morning, as I alternate between writing this post and reading the Times, I can still train my inner ear to hear the words in the lilt of her cadences.

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