Neil sat back in his seat, faced their disbelief with a bland smile, and said, “Begin.”
Tanya Michelson looked disgusted. Casey Kruger looked over her shoulder and grinned at the humor of the situation. Tanya shoved the paper in front of Pedro and said, “You read it!” But Pedro was illiterate in both languages. Olivia Pinero led them through it.
Duarte Zavala’s group did well under his guidance. He could not read Spanish well enough to go to a Mexican sixth grade, but he could read a first grade book with ease and he took great pleasure in showing his teammates how it went.
All over the room, kids who had never been the best at anything were suddenly their group’s only hope.
Neil gave them the rest of the hour to work. When they came back from break, he called on Delores Perez and she read without error. He wrote an A on the board. He called on Lydia Ruiz; she won her group an A. Dixie Margaret Trujillo, Rafael, Richard Lujan, Olivia, and Elanor all earned As. Then he called on Oscar Teixeira.
Oscar looked stricken. He shook his head. Neil said, “Come on.”
Oscar said, “I can’t.”
“Sure you can.”
“Come on, Oscar.”
Oscar slammed the story down on the desk and screamed, “No!” Tears streamed down his face. “I told you, I can’t!”
He shoved his chair back and bolted to his feet, then ran out the back door of the room.
# # #
Neil went straight to the office and borrowed Evelyn, the secretary, to sit with his class while he went looking for Oscar. It didn’t take long. Aside from the main building and the quad of portables, nothing broke the emptiness of the playground but a half dozen walnut trees. Oscar was sitting under one of them, still crying.
Neil squatted down beside him and waited for him to speak, but Oscar was too far gone in his misery to talk. Neil put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and said, “Tell me about it.”
“Why did you do that to me?”
“Make me look like a fool.”
“Do you think that was what I was trying to do? I wasn’t. You took me completely by surprise.”
Oscar wiped his face with the back of his hand and said, “What did you expect?”
“I expected you to read the story.”
Oscar looked at him for the first time. It was a quick, furtive movement, as if to assure himself that Neil was not making fun of him.
“Oscar, who did I call on to read?”
“What do you mean?”
“Name them. Give me their last names.”
Oscar sobbed, “Just go away and leave me alone.”
Gently, Neil repeated, “Name them.”
Oscar looked away from Neil, out across the playground to the trees beyond. Neil tightened his grip on the boy’s shoulder and said in his softest voice, “Name them.”
“Ruiz, Lujan, Ortiz, . . .” He named them all.
“Yes. And Teixeira. Do you hear any Anglo names in that group?”
“Oscar, I set that whole thing up so that those Spanish speaking kids could have a moment of glory.”
“I don’t speak Spanish!” It was an admission torn from the center of his being, and in that moment Neil gained a great insight into Oscar Teixeira.
“You father never taught you? He never let you learn?”
Oscar tried to answer, but sobs rolled up from his chest and cut off his voice. He shook his head.
Neil sat beside him and caught the boy’s head in his hand, drew it to his chest, and held him while he cried. He said, “I’m sorry, Oscar. I didn’t know.” more tomorrow