Sunday, May 10, 2015


One of our students recently moved here from some beautiful Serbian coastal town.

"She would walk the little streets for hours, all by herself," her mother told us, in the IEP. "It's so lovely there; everyone knows her."

Welcome to our American classroom. We have a car wash across the street. Fresh wood chips. Sometimes a bird alights upon the tree, but it flies away pretty quickly because the nearby truck traffic scares it off.

I continue on with my little speech, long after the mom has ceased her polite chuckling. She keeps looking at me like she is not sure if I am supposed to be there. 

"I'm just joking," I say, with a shrug.


No one says anything for a minute, and then they pick up where they left off, as if the loud man with coffee stains on his nearly transparent T-shirt had never brapped his unfunnies all over the sacred IEP table in the first place. I decide that I should be finished talking.

A few minutes later, when the mom has been going on for awhile about their breathtaking villa on the edge of the Baltic Sea, I am so wrapped up in her description, I murmur a request to visit there someday. 

The mother laughs nervously.

"What? You ask to come to Skolvenskya Puraschko with us?" I can't remember the words she really said, but it sounded like that. It seemed like her eyes narrowed suspiciously as well.

Just so you know, compulsive speaking when you are uncomfortable is a sign that God has a special plan for your life, and you are going to be super good at it. 

"So you speak Serbian?" I asked Iva a few weeks later, as I lead her around the city and helped her orient to the bus system.

"Yes. Oh yes." 

I kept asking her to tell me things in her language, but she either muttered obviously invented syllables, or simply repeated what I said in plain English. 

A group of young Hispanic women got on the bus and started chattering away in Spanish.

"My God!" Iva gasped, "they are speaking in my language!" She tilted her head towards their conversation.

"I don't think so," I whisper to her.

Whenever Iva even thinks you might, in some tiny, tiny way, be correcting her, she takes it like a true lamentor from the Old Country.

"Oh my God! Everything is ruined!" she roars, slamming her breast with a fist and shoving a handful of her short, unwashed brown hair into her mouth. The hair is chewed vigorously, brought out for a sniff, and then smashed back in.

"Don't eat your hair. It's not a big deal." That's my motto for this soon-ending school year: it's not a big deal.

I am surrounded by constant drama and explosive emotion, so, in a quiet, reassuring voice, I keep telling everyone how nothing is a big deal.

I bought a 12 pack of Little Debbie donut sticks, just for me, and, as I ate a few while hiding in the bathroom stall, I noticed I was still saying "it's not a big deal" out loud. I quickly choked myself off with another stick and squeezed my hands to stop the shaking. 

Just kidding. It's not so bad. I did buy the donuts, but I ate them in plain sight and with a weird sense of take that! in every bite. 

We got off the bus and started the long walk back to the classroom. 

Angela regaled us with tales of her past glory, like:

"You know what my nickname used to be? Bree. That's a very expensive cheese. They also used to call me Cabrini Green-I think that's a car, a fancy car." And all the time she talked, I could here Iva mumbling to herself. I have butterflies in my stomach. I'm scared, I'm so scared. These trees are scary.

We neared a tiny crosswalk between two utterly dead side streets, and Iva screamed.

"OH MY GOD!!! We are going to die! I'm sorry, I'm sorry, we are going to die!" 

"It's just a crosswalk. CALM DOWN." She crossed the street like it was a frayed rope bridge over the cauldron of a volcano. Angela prattled on.

"And when I was little, I looked just like Shirley Temple, my hair, my makeup, everything".

"That's terrible," said Iva, "I mean, that's so nice."

"You guys, let's go in here. I want to get a coffee." They obligingly trudged in behind me. 

As we stood waiting at the register, Iva stared intently at the showcase of pastries.

"Would it be a good April Fool's joke if I told you I had money?" she asked.

"I don't know what you mean, Iva."

"I have money."

"Are you saying you want to buy something?"

"April Fools," she said in a meek, fading voice, and returned to the anxious munching of her hair.


  1. I had neVer heard of Mexicans trying to pretend they were Serbians, hilarious, - "They're speaking in my language!"

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