Monday, February 05, 2018

Maria Yolanda

Sometimes I struggle all year to pronounce a Chinese name. They have, for example, a "u" sound that I've yet to master. I say the student's name and all his paisanos laugh out loud at my feeble attempts. Sometimes they try to teach me. I try to mimic their pronunciation, but it only provokes more hilarity as I fail over and over again.

Maybe I deserve it. Who knows? I've heard my name mangled by a variety of accents and I may have mimicked them here or there (though not in front of the students). Sometimes, though, I spend seven months trying to pronounce a particularly difficult name only to find that every one of the kid's teachers except me calls him, "John." I ask him if that's his name. He says, yes, that's his American name. I ask why he never told me, and he says I never asked.

It doesn't occur to me to ask whether students have alternate names. I'd be shocked to learn that all the other teachers did, so I wonder how exactly I managed to miss the memo. Did every single teacher other than me question every single student as to whether or not they have multiple names? Are they really all that much more careful than I am?

This brings me to one of my students this year. Since September, I've been calling her Maria. Why? Well, I get these attendance sheets every day, and all of them say her name is Maria. Whenever I call on Maria, she answers. So we had a pretty good thing going in terms of basic fundamental communication. Or at least I thought we did.

A few weeks ago we had a parent-teacher event for ELLs. The first night, when the school paid me big bucks to sit for hours, no one actually showed up. The next day, though, on my actual work hours, I got a few customers. I think there were three. The first was Maria.

Maria actually has two English teachers, me and a colleague who's fluent in Chinese. The majority of my students speak Chinese, so the majority of our parent interviews (most of them occur on the regular parent-teacher conference night) take place in Chinese. I'm always confused by translations. Sometimes the parent speaks for ten minutes, and the translator speaks for 30 seconds. Sometimes it's the reverse. But here was a Spanish speaker, I was gonna be the translator, and my translation was gonna be perfect.

So mom went on for a long time. Yolanda came from here. She did this and she likes that. I always talk to Yolanda about these things and I hope she does those things. Yolanda has a long history of doing this and that, here and there, and here's what I'm worried about...

She went on for a while. Now my student was sitting right there so I was pretty sure that this was her mom. Maybe she has a sister. Who knows? I politely waited for Mom to finish before I asked the question.

"Who's Yolanda?"

Mom looked at me as though I were an idiot. Then Maria said, "I'm Yolanda."

"I thought you were Maria."

"Well I am, but everyone calls me Yolanda."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"You never asked."

"Did you know her name was Yolanda?" I asked my colleague.

"Of course I did," she said.

So it's the end of January, the year's half over, and I don't even know my student's name. Not only that, but it wasn't even a difficult name. Had I known it, I could have pronounced it easily. I even know other people who have that name.

The next day I started to ask the students what her name was.

"Yolanda," they all said. Even the Chinese kids knew what her name was.

Last week I gave a quiz. I looked at the papers. One of them said, "Maria" on top of it. Not only that, but she got 100. (Sometimes she crosses herself before handing papers to me. Perhaps it works better than I'd suspected.)

She's a very nice girl, actually. I wouldn't imagine she'd do something like that to taunt me. But if that were her aim, she'd have been doing a great job.
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