Symphony 39

It was nice, Janice Hagstrom said, that Stephanie got to spend three periods with one teacher, and she had heard such good things from Stephanie about Mr. McCrae; Neil, wasn’t it? Was Stephanie as talkative at school as she is at home? That little chatterbox never shut up, but Janice guessed that was all right because she never let her good times interfere with her schoolwork; at least she hadn’t yet, but time would tell, and Janice hoped that this new situation wouldn’t make her schoolwork suffer, and Neil was to call her the minute her daughter’s grades slipped even a little bit, because you know how important it is to nip these things in the bud.

Neil agreed that it was best to nip problems in the bud. As Janice Hagstrom wandered off to talk to one of her friends, he wondered if her husband ever got to say anything. He remembered what Carmen had said of Stephanie before school started. “Stephanie will sound smart because she has mastered her language.” Apparently Stephanie’s mother had not only mastered the English language; she had put it in chains and was making it run on a treadmill.

Janice Hagstrom’s exit left Neil a little shell-shocked, so that he was not quite ready for the soft spoken couple who had followed her through the door. Once again the woman spoke, but this time it was because her husband had no English. Maria and Jose Alvarez; Maria was round, short, and solemn like her daughter Rosa; her husband was compact and wiry. They each shook hands with a quick, limp motion. Jose’s dark, bright eyes followed the conversation, reading their faces since he could not understand their words.

Maria wanted to know if their daughter was doing well, and could not quite believe it when Neil said that she was. She was getting Cs, and once in a while, a D, so how could she be doing well? Neil pointed out that she also got a B once in a while, and even an occasional A. He explained that she was behind the rest of the class because she had not yet mastered English, but she was getting better every day, and that they should continue to encourage her.

Jose got a little of that, and said angrily to his wife, “What mean, not speak English?”

She answered him in liquid Spanish, and Neil could only hope that she was telling her husband what he had said. For all he knew, she might be changing it around completely. He thought, “If I were going to stay in California schools, I would have to learn Spanish.”

Neil tried again to get them to encourage Rosa, but the two of them walked away arguing in Spanish and leaving Neil feeling helpless.

Tanya Michelson came in with her parents and Neil had to control himself to keep from staring. Tanya was tiny, but both her parents were six footers, and she looked like a second grader standing between them. At first Neil could see no family resemblance, but when they started talking that all changed. Tanya’s father could not complete a sentence without some interruption from his wife, and he shot his wife black looks like the ones Neil aimed at Tanya when she interrupted his class.

Neil answered their questions politely, and said that Tanya  was doing fine. Where there any problems, they wanted to know. He said that she interrupted a lot. Mrs. Michelson cut him off to say that she always had.

Ten minutes into the open house, there were a dozen parents in the room, chatting with one another and looking idly at the textbooks and bell schedule. Ramon Flores’ father had come in nodding, smiling, and avoiding conversation. Even his extreme shyness had not kept him from coming to see where his son spent his days. more Monday


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