Erika M. Martínez
Little Red Riding Hood. The Three Little Pigs. Cinderella. These were all fairy tale books I read and reported on in my third-grade class. Our teacher, Mrs. Sinoway, expected us to sit in a chair to the right of her oversized desk and read our favorite parts of the story. Each of us took a turn in front of the class while she sat behind her desk, like a queen in a throne with her white flesh spilling over the furniture, listening. When we rotated in and out of the designated reading seat, her hair wisped back in the shape of rollers she seemed to use every morning before coming to Washington Elementary.
That day I reported on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. By that point in the school year, I’d figured out that the more parts we quoted, the more her eyes beamed behind her large bifocal glasses, which covered over half her ample cheeks. Wanting not only better grades, but also her approval, my reports grew longer every time. I read from the beginning until Snow White and her prince lived happily ever after. Mrs. Sinoway shrugged her nose to push her glasses back up and broke into a smile that made her thin lips disappear. “Now that is a book report,” she said as she pointed her right hand covered in yellow chalk.
I recognized Mrs. Sinoway’s admiration from weeks before when in the middle of math time, the day we learned to multiply by eight, we had a visitor. Her entrance halted our usual practice of reading and repeating the table on the blackboard in order to memorize the calculations. Mrs. Sinoway’s arm jiggled from side to side until she finished writing 8x12. Only then did our teacher realize we were silent and turned around.
With her chin pushed forward, Mrs. Sinoway looked up through the bottom half of her eyeglasses but didn’t recognize this tall pale teenager before her. After a few seconds of staring, Mrs. Sinoway’s thin mouth opened to smile. “Class this is Laura, one of my students from a long time ago,” she said.
Mrs. Sinoway deduced from Laura’s orange sweater, with a “UH” monogram across the chest, that she went to Union Hill High School instead of Emerson High School. In that moment I decided I wanted to go to Union Hill even though our home address would determine our fate after eighth grade. I wanted to be a cheerleader and could picture myself wearing one of those sweaters when I returned to visit Mrs. Sinoway in the future. The orange might even suit my brown skin better than her light complexion, which looked like it would burn if she spent five minutes in the sun.
Behind the glasses, Mrs. Sinoway’s eyes scanned Laura from her sandy-colored hair to her black-and-white saddle shoes. Laura’s blue eye shadow sparkled. Through her smile I saw pink bubble gum between her teeth, which made me wonder if gum chewing was allowed in high school. We weren’t allowed to eat any type of candy between bells.
As Laura walked out the door, Mrs. Sinoway smiled again and sighed the way I did when I finished reading one of my favorite books. To me, it seemed like our teacher was savoring the satisfaction of seeing her student’s happily-ever-after moment. Mrs. Sinoway had helped Laura get to where she was now. Why else come to visit?
I didn’t know anything about Laura, but after her departure, seeing Mrs. Sinoway’s glow confirmed my desires: to go to Union Hill, be a cheerleader, wear make-up and one day come back to see my third-grade teacher. For my visit, I hoped Mrs. Sinoway would recognize me right away because I was quick to memorize my times table.
Now Mrs. Sinoway would also remember me because I had presented the best book report ever. When I finished Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs she gave me the same smile she gave Laura. Like no other time in my eight-year-old life, someone could see me. And I became addicted to that recognition. Each morning I looked forward to raising my hand after the bell rang and saying “present” when Mrs. Sinoway called out my name. I never wanted to be absent.
Perhaps to read an entire fairy tale book in English, aloud to the whole class, was a big milestone for me that day because I was still required to go to English as a Second Language. My family had arrived in New Jersey only two years earlier, and since attending my new school I was separated from my classmates daily for special lessons with other children whose families emigrated from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Mrs. Sinoway’s pronouncement may have also dissolved the disappointment I’d felt on the first day Papi took me to school and enrolled me in a lower grade because of my age. In some way the acknowledgement soothed the humiliation I’d experienced after my (second) first-grade teacher scolded me and sent me back to my seat, which I took to mean I was sent to the corner as was the punishment for bad behavior in Santo Domingo. Maybe I clung to the praise because I remembered the embarrassment I’d felt when my second grade teacher said it was silly of me to trip over the word “business” as I read aloud in our small group. I still recall my classmates’ laughter after I pronounced the word as if it had three syllables: biz-ee-nis.
I don’t believe Mrs. Sinoway knows the profound effect she had on me that day. I myself cannot believe I’m writing about it twenty-nine years later. Looking back on third grade, I now realize it was a time of great change at home; of course it was important to feel that someone saw me. In the middle of the school year Papi left and Abuelo died. Mrs. Sinoway didn’t know that when I left school I had to make dinner and watch over my sister Melissa, and our little brother, Francisco; that on Tuesday and Thursday night we helped Mami clean an orthopedic office; that on Saturdays we worked with Mami at a factory, which I now know was a sweatshop, and did piecework for pennies. Mrs. Sinoway didn’t know I yearned to order books from the newsprint she handed out on Fridays, but the money I made at the factory went into Mami’s hands so that she could buy groceries. Every once in a while I could have a quarter of my earnings to buy pan dulce at the Cuban Bakery on the way home from school. Perhaps Mrs. Sinoway sensed something changed when, halfway through the school year, I was added to the list of students eligible for free lunch.
Despite the challenges, by third grade I had acquired the necessary language skills to communicate in school for the first time since leaving Santo Domingo. In fourth grade, after giving my initial book report, Mrs. Levine announced, “That is not a book report.” I have no other specific reading recollections and only remember that when we moved in the middle of fifth grade I was placed in the lowest reading level at my new school. This happened every time our family relocated, which was often since Mami avoided rent increases at the end of each lease. We hopped around school districts every year or two. I’d catch up, jump to the next level, but my efforts were erased like a blackboard with each departure.
By the time I got to high school we lived in Long Island, several hours away from Union City, New Jersey, by public transportation. I returned sporadically to visit Papi but always on weekends or during school holidays. I didn’t make the cheerleading squad, but I would have had other accomplishments to share with Mrs. Sinoway.
However, I would want to return to Washington Elementary simply to thank Mrs. Sinoway because she was there for me through a difficult time. In her classroom I had my childhood and could experience pleasure through reading only having to find our favorite parts of a story. I could inhabit a world where characters overcame their challenges, even though I knew in life there weren’t happily-ever-after endings. Most of all I would express gratitude for her recognition. It took me years to learn to give this to myself. I would tell her that I hang onto that memory: the day when Mrs. Sinoway, with her eyes and her smile, saw me, all that I was, and all that I could be.
*This essay was first published in the Summer Writing Institute Anthology 2010 by Plymouth Writing Project. Copyright © by Erika Martínez, 2010. Reprinted by arrangement with the author.
Erika M. Martínez
Erika M. Martínez, recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship and a Hedgebrook Writing Residency, holds an MFA in English and creative writing from Mills College. Her writing has been adapted for the stage and is featured or forthcoming in several publications, including Wise Latina: Writers on Higher Education, Homelands: Women’s Journeys through Race, Place and Time, and A Sense of Place: The Washington State Geospatial Poetry Anthology. She is the editor of the forthcoming Daring to Write: Contemporary Narratives by Dominican Women. Currently, she is at work on her first collection of poems, One Day My Hand Will Touch the Ceiling. To find out more about her work, visit erikammartinez.com.