I never knew what people actually do in offices. I’ve been working here at the center for weeks and I still don’t know. But they’re keeping me busy filling out endless intake forms and filing them. (Will we ever see them again? Does anyone care?) And I’m learning Creole fast, getting informal lessons from Joseph and studying vocabulary lists at night. The grammar is easy, easier than French. I knew to ask for the verbs to be, to have, and to go first off; now I can even use them in the past tense and the future. I enjoy the Haitian clients’ surprised laughs when they see I can understand them and even answer back in their own language.
They always tell me, “Creole’s not really a good language. Not like French.”
“No,” I say, “I like Creole better.”
“Really?” Big, disbelieving smiles.
“Yes, Creole is more alive than French. More expressive. And the proverbs —”
“Oh! You know the proverbs?” The smiles become more real.
The proverbs: “The rock in the water doesn’t know the pain of the rock in the sun”; “Strike the blow, forget. Carry the scar, remember.” So many are about injustice and suffering. Some I can’t understand, like “Behind mountains there are mountains.”
“But what does it mean?” I ask Joseph.
He grins. “ ’Aiti —” he crumples up a piece of paper, dropping it on my desk — “look like this.” The paper is all points and peaks, floating on the flat linoleum desktop. “Too much mountain. You climb one, you see another. Same like problem. You finish one, you find the next.” He laughs, and I see the mountains behind his eyes, feel them all around us here in Florida, where everything’s flat as a pancake.
“I’m teaching tonight,” my friend Nan tells me at lunch between delicate nips of her French fries. “At this church, St. Jean Baptiste, where they have a school set up. You can come along if you don’t have anything else to do.”
“I’ll check my busy social schedule and get back to you.”
“Better hurry.” Nan crumples her bag and tosses it into a trash barrel. “Class starts at seven.”
The students are clustered in the driveway of the church, talking and laughing in little groups. The women’s light dresses flutter in the evening breeze. They walk arm in arm, unhurried and graceful in high heels. The men joke with them, hands in the pockets of their pants. Some of them call out to Nan as we walk up the driveway.
“ ’Allo, Teacher!”
“Good evening, Teacher!”
A honey-colored woman with a bright smile and an armful of Manila folders hurries up to us.
“You the new teacher?” she asks me. She has only the lightest of accents, as if she’s been here a long time. “I’m Suzanne,” she says. She has a smooth, round face. It’s impossible to tell her age, but there are lines of fatigue under her eyes.
“I’m . . . I just came to watch Nan’s class.”
“But that’s wonderful! One of my teachers just got appendicitis today and I was down on my knees not half an hour ago, asking God to send me another one.” She says this as if God were her next-door neighbor whom she had asked to lend her a cup of sugar.
“But I’ve never taught,” I say.
“You speak English, right? OK then, it’s easy. You’ll be teaching the literacy class.” She flips open a folder and points to a mimeographed work sheet on the alphabet. “You just help them with this and then teach them name, address, phone number, hello, how are you — the basics.”
A young man with his hair shaved close to his head like a junior priest’s stands respectfully at Suzanne’s shoulder. “Teacher, Monsieur Bergeron, he tell me say you he have no chalk for teach the advanced class.”
Suzanne rolls her eyes in exasperation. “Tell him to borrow from the intermediate class.”
“The intermediate teacher, she say she have only one piece chalk for teach —”
“All right, never mind. Here.” She hands him a big ring of keys attached to a silver-and-leather crucifix. “In my car. In the glove compartment. Take one piece for Monsieur Bergeron and don’t tell anyone where I keep it. All right?” She turns to us. “Chalk is like gold in this place. You can’t keep it. I beg, I borrow, I steal for this school, but it’s never enough.” She shrugs. “Since I was a little girl, it was my dream to make a school where everyone could come and learn. But in this country I had to make money, so I became a secretary. Still, we Haitians needed a school so badly. So I make the school at night, in a church. And the students come.” She tilts her head as if to say, What else could I do?
The students are filling the church parking lot and hurrying into the lighted Sunday-school classrooms.
“That’s your classroom over there,” Suzanne tells me as she hands me the folder of alphabet sheets. “Don’t worry. The students will help you teach. They’ll tell you what they need to know.”
I walk into a room bright with faces turned expectantly in my direction. Squeezing out of the child-sized Sunday-school desks, the students struggle to their feet and chorus, “Good evening, Teacher!”
God, there are places in the world where people still do this?
“Good evening . . . class.”
They sit down. Some of them open notebooks. Instant panic. Do they expect me to say things for them to write down? What should I say? Where do I start?
A majestically pregnant woman with a big smile sits front row center, pencil at the ready. “Teacher!” she sings out authoritatively.
“Watch you name?”
“Julie Marks.” I turn to the board and write with the stubby piece of chalk, MY NAME IS JULIE MARKS. The chalk breaks halfway through. “Oh shit,” I say under my breath, then turn back to find the woman in the front row industriously writing in her book, MY NAME IS JULIE MARKS.
“No — what’s your name?” I ask her.
“My name Adrienne Toussaint.”
“Oh, you must be Joseph’s wife.”
Adrienne chuckles delightedly and holds up her hand to show her wedding ring.
“Adrienne, please ask that man —” I point to the man next to her — “what his name is.”
Adrienne half turns her bulky body in the tight seat and says, “Ernst, watch you name is?”
A slender woman in the back with lively eyes explodes with laughter. “She say he name Ernst — no akse!” she calls out.
“Right! How would you ask it?”
And somehow I am teaching, pulling things from God-knows-where — but after all, I have spent most of my life in school; I guess some of it must have sunk in. All my teachers, from nursery school on, are alive inside me. Before long, their voice — someone’s voice, certainly not my own — is ringing out from my throat, authoritative, confident, as if I know what I’m doing. “Pierre, ask Marie her address.”
“Marie, watch is youse headdress?”
“Address. Good! Lucille?”
“Watch youse . . . watch . . .” Lucille falters.
“Can you help her, anyone?”
“Watch . . . what . . . is —”
“Your —” the class is together now, one being poised on the toe-tip of language — “address.”
They are proud of themselves. On impulse, I reach up and touch the first of the alphabet letters pinned over the chalkboard. “Ay,” I say.
“Ay,” they repeat, thirty bodies, one voice.
I name it in French for the ones who have been to school before: “Ah.”
“Ay, ah, same thing!” one woman exclaims in surprise, the excitement lighting up her face.
They go through the whole alphabet — Bee, bay; See, say — all the way down, and then, because I can’t think of what else to do, I teach them the alphabet song. The tune floats back from some lost winter of my childhood, smelling of rubber boots pulled off in church basements, of radiators and hot chocolate: “Ay Bee See Dee . . .” It sounds oddly right in this stifling classroom where sweat shines on faces and a ceiling fan wearily pushes the hot air around. The students’ voices rise sweetly on the melody. Again. They want to sing it again. I’ve found another thing that they like.
We go around the room, finding words for each letter. A is for apple. No, that’s pretty meaningless; apples don’t grow in Haiti. A is for attention, the same in English as in French. A is for amour, of course. A is for arrive, as in “When did you arrive here?” We go on like this until we come to Q, and Adrienne throws her hand up eagerly. “Q for Cuba!” she calls out, triumphant.
Somehow we get through the alphabet and move on to the mimeographed sheets Suzanne gave me. I pass between the rows of desks, inhaling the smells of Jergen’s and Maybelline, the men’s aftershave, the sharp sweaty scent of a long workday in the heat. Some people are writing above the line where they’re supposed to form the letters; others are writing below it, or through it. Some clutch their pencil like a dagger; others hold it limply between two fingers, like someone else’s property they don’t want to be caught stealing. A few proudly produce an alphabet adorned with the French curlicues taught them by the nuns.
To the right sit a group of smooth-skinned girls who look like they should be in high school. Over on the left are middle-aged men and women who look frightened when I correct their writing. An old man in the back meditates over his paper, clutching his pencil between stiff fingers as if he were afraid to touch it to the page. “Antonio,” he whispers to my hovering face, pointing the pencil at his chest.
Adrienne calls to me, “Teacher! Max, he don’ know ABC.”
In the seat beside her, Max grins sheepishly. He has a round penguin body and only one arm, crooked protectively over his paper. He lifts it to show me A, A, and then a cross, an X, and another A.
“OK. Thanks, Adrienne.”
“Teacher!” someone else calls out in a challenging voice. “Akse Max why he only got him one arm.”
I stand there mortified. There are lines of suffering etched across Max’s forehead and down his cheeks, but his smile is wide and open.
“Akse!” the voice insists.
Before I can, the rest of the class rushes in to tell me.
“Max, he buying one newspaper —”
“In Port-au-Prince —”
“Max, he no can read —”
“Then why were you buying a newspaper?” I ask him.
Max only laughs.
“For wrap him fish.”
“This newspaper, it saying bad t’ings about the government. Ton Ton Macoutes, they watching to see who can be read it. They see Max, they grab him, they take him, they beat him.”
“He lose him arm.”
I touch the edge of the desk to steady myself. “Is that true? You lost your arm for buying a newspaper?”
“So now, you teach me read,” Max says good-naturedly. “I can buy right newspaper.”
A slender young man in the back, his eyebrows cocked, calls, “Teacher!”
“Yes?” I respond to my new name.
“How you say, ‘Je t’aime’?”
“I love you.”
“How you write?”
A roar of laughter from the others.
“Jerome want write his girlfriend!”
“Jerome got him too much girlfriend already!”
I write the phrase for him on the board and draw a heart around it. Jerome is not the only one copying these important words into his notebook; everyone wants them.
A sharp-faced woman in the front row says something to Adrienne that sets her laughing.
“What did she say?” I ask.
Adrienne is wiping her eyes in merriment. “She say ’Aitian boy in too much ’urry for love. She say ’Aitian boy no understand love, Teacher. She want know how is American love.”
Now they’ve done it; my cheeks are on fire, and the whole class is rocking with laughter and animated discussion. What can I say to them? I don’t know a damn thing about love. Whatever I thought it was, wasn’t it. But there’s something here, in this room, that’s so much bigger it frightens me.
Jerome is agitated now. He stands up, ready to speak for the men of the class.
“Teacher, she say ’Aitian boy don’t know love. She got ’em five baby. How she get ’em five baby if ’Aitian boy don’t know love?”
A crash of laughter and more heated discussion in Creole. I’m preparing to go on to the intricacies of spelling and pronunciation when Adrienne whispers conspiratorially, “Teacher, the clock she say you late.”
“Oh my God, you’re right — it’s 9:15! I’m sorry, everybody.”
“That’s OK! You teachin’ us good tonight.”
“Good night, Teacher.”
“Good night, Teacher.”
The classroom empties like a long exhale. With enormous care, the students arrange their notebooks, zip their pencils into plastic pouches and pocketbooks, and push their desks back into orderly rows. Jerome grabs the eraser and zealously wipes the board clean behind me.
An enormous feeling of love wells up in me, and there’s no way to contain, comprehend, or explain it, so I lean against the corner of a desk and let a few tears gather in the corners of my eyes. I wipe their wetness from my cheeks with the back of a hand that is undoubtedly dirty with chalk dust and pencil lead.
Just then, Nan saunters into the doorway, her arms full of folders, and stops short when she sees me. “Oh, come on, it couldn’t have been that bad,” she says awkwardly. “Listen, you should have seen my first class.”