Symphony 89

Eventually, the sobs died to hiccups and Neil moved away again. He found a clean handkerchief and handed it over. Oscar wiped his face and handed it back. Neil said, “Look at me.”

Oscar was still miserable, but he had regained some composure.

“Oscar,” Neil said, “I want you to think about something that isn’t very pleasant. I want you to think about Pedro. Imagine how he feels when I call on him to read some passage in English and he can’t.”

Neil waited until Oscar had nodded his understanding.

“How do you think he feels?”

“Bad.”

“Bad like what?”

“Bad like I felt when I couldn’t read the Spanish.”

“And what does Pedro do when I call on him?”

“He tries.”

“Even though he can’t read it?”

Oscar nodded.

“Does anyone ever laugh at him?”

Oscar shrugged. “Maybe. Sometimes.”

“Do you suppose they laugh behind his back when he isn’t listening?”

“I suppose.”

Neil sighed and screwed up his own courage. It is no fun to browbeat an eleven year old boy. He asked, “Did you ever laugh at him?”

Oscar only shrugged.

“Do you think he would have laughed at you if you had tried to read that Spanish and been unable to?”

Oscar snapped, “I don’t know! How would I know?”

For a long time then, neither of them said anything. The wind whistled through he short grass and chilled them both. January in Modesto is a good time to play active outdoor sports, not to sit motionless and beaten in the open air. After a while, Neil said, “When Pedro, or Sabrina, or Carlos reads something too hard for them, and takes a chance on being laughed at, would you say that they have courage?”

Oscar took his time and really thought about it. He said, “Yes.”

“Do you think they have more courage than you do?”

Oscar spun angrily to face Neil. Full grown or eleven years old, you don’t call a Chicano’s courage into question. And it was clear now that Oscar wanted to be a Chicano more than anything. He wanted to be one as badly as his father wanted to be something else.

Oscar said with quiet dignity, “I have courage.”

Neil nodded. He said, “Do you have enough courage to go back into that classroom and try a piece of Spanish you can’t read?”

That was hard. Desperately hard. Oscar’s face filled up with fear, and with his fierce fighting against that fear. How unfair, Neil thought, to batter an eleven year old. But courage has its price. And if you don’t learn it at eleven, will it come any easier at twelve? Or thirty?

He waited again while Oscar wrestled with the challenge. Oscar said, “They’ll laugh at me.”

“They might.”

“You want me to go in there and let them laugh at me?”

“I want you to go in there and show them you have the courage to do one time what they have to do every day. If they laugh, it is their weakness, not yours. It is no concern of yours.”

“That’s easy for you to say!”

Neil smiled suddenly and ruffled Oscar’s hair. “I’ve been laughed at before,” he said, “and I’ll be laughed at again.”

They walked back together, side by side but not touching. At the door, Neil said, “Thank you, Evelyn. I’ll take it from here.”

“I let the children free read.”

“Fine. Thank you.” Neil sat down and Oscar took his seat. The other students had all watched them return, but none of them made a sound. Neil took up a copy of the Spanish story and held it out to Oscar. He said, “It’s up to you, Oscar. Make your own decision, and I won’t hold it against you.” more tomorrow

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