I spoke no English for the first five years of my life. I was born in Mexico, and even though we had moved to NY when I was 2, my mother spoke no English and my father did not speak it at home, and when he did speak it, he did so poorly.
I went to kindergarten, and started to learn there. Back then there were no ESL classes, so it was sink or swim. Luckily, I was young and had a good ear, so it wasn’t too hard to learn the basics, to catch up with my fellow five-year-olds.
But getting the nuances, that was another story. That was going to take work.
When I was in second grade, at P.S. 262 in Bed Sty, two classmates accosted me in the stairwell one day. There were no teachers around, and the boys, both black, stood in front of me and blocked my passage down the stairs.
“Hey, kid; do you have a pussy?” The bigger one asked. I had no idea what a pussy was, but it seemed by their attitude that it was something I was supposed to have.
“Jess. Jess, I have a pussy!” I said defiantly, in my still accented English. The boys simultaneously broke into huge grins and started laughing hysterically. They pointed at me and shouted “He say he got a pussy! He got a pussy!” With that they ran off to tell the rest of our classmates, who spent the afternoon sneaking glances at me and giggling. I was humiliated because I did not know what a pussy was.
I vowed never to be humiliated by my ignorance of the English language again. That I remember this incident so vividly so many years later is an indication of how powerful words and childhood humiliation can be.
One of the best tools I had for learning English was the big Philco TV my dad bought on credit when we moved into the projects in 1962. I would lie on the floor in front of it for hours watching my favorite shows with my face inches from the screen. I watched a lot of cartoons and a lot of movies. My favorite movies were war movies and gangster movies. I wasn’t a big western fan like my classmates, I was never very fond of horses, I guess.
And that’s how I learned to speak English. I never tired of watching Humphrey Bogart slap Elisha Cook Jr. across the face in The Maltese Falcon and say: “You’re gonna take it and like it.” Or Bugs Bunny shouting, “Well it ain’t Wendell Wilke!” To the little gremlin in one of my favorite cartoons. I had no idea who Wendell Wilke was, but he sure sounded like somebody I did not want to be.
There’s a little bit of Groucho and Zeppo Marx, as well as the Howard brothers, good teachers of how to be a wise guy all.
There is a kid at the building where I work as a doorman, and his parents are from Europe. His father is Italian, I believe, and his mother is French. Or at least I know I’ve heard them both speaking either language to each other at times. The nanny is Latina, and probably says stuff to the kid in Spanish. He’s gotta be close to two years old, yet the only two words I’ve heard him say clearly are “Mamma” and “Papa.” I knew another kid that age a few years ago that could name every dinosaur there was and spell it out.
The kid looks up at me when I call the elevator for them, with his big bug eyes. Sometimes he points at me and grunts. I always look down at him and say:
“What’s up, kid?” He says:
“Keep trying, kid.” I reply. I considered telling him the pussy story, help him out a little since it must be tough keeping up with not two but four different languages, but I think he’s too young. Besides, he wouldn’t understand anyway.