Two months after dark-haired, dark-eyed Pablo Melendez arrived in Los Angeles from Guatemala last November--and five years after he last studied English--he did something no one expected.
The 10th-grader wrote an essay that the PTA chose as one of five winners from among 8,000 entries in a statewide contest.
Melendez, 17, wrote on the contest theme "From Liberty's View," a theme that was reflected in his own life when his parents sold all their possessions to move him and his four sisters to a tiny, three-room Huntington Park cottage where a sign on the nearly bare wall says "Dios bendiga este hogar (God bless this home.)"
In a graphically detailed 500-word composition, he contrasted his life here with the dangers in Guatemala, where about 100,000 people disappeared over three decades as military-dominated governments fought leftist guerrillas. He recalled his father speeding through the countryside on a family outing to avoid meeting revolutionaries.
"The road was a winding slippery snake," he wrote, "a black scar cut deep through the green skin of the mountain; the weather is cold at those heights, and the low clouds covered the treetops but they weren't low enough to cover the road (and protect us), unfortunately.
" . . . By the road, constantly, black skeletons and charred corpses of burnt houses and churches fumed of the bloody fate of their inhabitants.
"After the sky cleared and the mist passed we saw white columns of smoke moaning like ghosts of the ill destiny of the small huts . . . and for the little peasant families that lived in those the night before; buildings and market places bombed down and desolate."
Melendez writes stylistically even though he studied English only from the fourth through the sixth grades at an English-language school.
Later he read "Mark Twain," "Huckleberry Finn," "Alice in Wonderland," "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and other works at an English-language library at the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board in Guatemala where his mother, Miriam, 36, worked as a secretary.
The intensive reading served him well after his father and mother sold their car, refrigerator, television and washing machine and migrated to Huntington Park.
Rather than attend overcrowded Huntington Park High School, he bused to Verdugo Hills High School in Tujunga where he became one of only five foreign students among 1,000 over the past five years to demonstrate 10th-grade English proficiency, teacher Gloria Corral Fox said.
Like a Poet
What really surprised Fox, however, was a story the quiet teen-ager told about a picture of a boy, Tim, and a cow, Dizzy, during his placement testing.
"I was stunned," Fox said, "because he told it more like a poet than a student."
"The sun was hot on the earth, and the cool shadows were inviting--a good opportunity to have a nice rest with a silent companion," Melendez told the teacher, who wrote the story down.
"Tim went and got Dizzy out of his stall and took him to a grassy spot under a tree in the tree-lane, and there they sat.
"Tim enjoyed Dizzy's company. Dizzy would look at him with peaceful eyes; Tim stroked his head and went to sleep. His sleep, he knew, would last until lunchtime."
Fox said most foreign students describe the picture with only a few English words. When she heard about the PTA contest she remembered Melendez' story and encouraged him to enter.
Melendez had written little here or in Guatemala and reluctantly agreed to compete. "The problem was his self-image," Fox said. "He thought he wasn't quite good enough to be entering."
When she read what he had written, the imagery was so strong that she kept her hands off, she said, clasping her hands behind her during an interview in a school office to emphasize the point.
"The only thing I did was say 'Can you say any more about this?' He would say 'Yes, I could say so and so.' I'd say 'Good! Write that.' "
Only Senior High Winner
Four weeks later, in early January, Melendez finished the essay and in April, Fox burst into his first-period English class with the news that he had been the only senior high school student among the statewide winners. Other victors came from junior high, intermediate and primary schools.
Melendez's classmates applauded, but he was unsure whether to accept the accolade.
"He asked me if I had made a mistake. He didn't believe it," Fox said.
In May, his hands cold and his stomach aching nervously, Melendez read his essay to 1,500 cheering delegates at the state PTA convention in Fresno. Of his life in the United States, he said:
"I'm enjoying the green of the grass in the park, the noise of the little kids in those colorful swings, and the delightfully enormous library, where I have found all these wonderful books and records from all these wonderful authors and composers, make me feel for the first time that the sky is no limit and that my way to succes (sic) is not impossible."
When the delegates called him back for a bow, Melendez was surprised again.