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The Word Doesn't Really Translate.

August 20, 2000|JACK SPIEGELMAN | Jack Spiegelman is the author of "Shooting Pigeons and Other Satisfactions" (Westside Press)

ESL is English as a Second Language.

It's English for people who do not speak English. Teaching it is a simple job. It works like this: You go into the room and you throw something at them. If that does not work, you throw something else. That is the job. That is how Tony did it. Tony was my mentor.

Tony was an Italian, born in France, who studied English in Yugoslavia. He spoke English with a Serbo-Croatian accent, like Dr. Frankenstein. He spoke seven languages: French, Italian, English, Serbo-Croatian, Polish, Russian and Spanish. He was 43. He was an actor, a writer, a painter, a magician and, as a youth, had served briefly as an undertaker's apprentice. He said they returned to the graves a few days after the service and reinterred the stiffs in wooden coffins and rehabbed the retrieved caskets for resale.

Tony had been married three times and had grown kids wandering around Europe. His wife then was Salvadoran. She was 20, an ex-student.

He said, "It works in this way. You can boink a student. But you can't boink your own student. They must be out of your class first."

I said, "I have it."

I sat in on his class from time to time when I was breaking in. It was better than the movies. He would hit his students with a few verb conjugations, followed by a card trick, followed by some dictation. There was a girlfriend story; he spoke of the adverb, drew cartoons on the blackboard, related a child-rearing episode and wrapped with a Spanish proverb: "To be so poor you do not even have a place on the ground to fall down when you die."

This was not teaching. It was performance. And it occurred every night, five nights a week, for four hours. He said to me, "Every time I finish teaching one of these classes, I say to myself, 'Did I really do that?' "

Tony had a philosophy. He said: Teaching is energy. You must keep them awake. These people have hard lives. They do not come here to learn English. They are here to get out of the house for a few hours.

We taught at a place on Washington Boulevard near Hoover Street. There are neighborhoods labeled "Beverly Hills adjacent." This was "Pico-Union adjacent." It was a neighborhood of torched cars and derelict apartment buildings and heavily fortified houses with concrete block walls bristling with razor wire and guard dogs roaming the front yard.

It is amazing where you can find a few laughs.

How does an English major who started out as an advertising copywriter and followed that one up with 22 years in the construction biz find himself, at age 55, hammering Mexicans with verb conjugations? It is a long story. The short version is: My construction business went into the tank and I needed a job.

So there I was teaching with Tony and Dennis, the failed stockbroker, who was being sued for $400,000, and N'dugo with the master's in political science, whose father was an exiled king of some African tribe in Ghana, and Maria, who was an architect from Buenos Aires, and Carolyn, a Blanche DuBois type, who had a husband at home on disability suffering from malaise.

You get the idea.

But, as I say, there were laughs.

My first class went like this: I entered the room and wrote my name on the board and said I was from Buffalo. There was a map of the United States pinned to the wall. I nailed Buffalo down for them.

They said: "Boofalo?"

I said: "No, Buffalo."

They asked about the name: Spiegelman.

I said, "My father is Jewish--jud'o--my mother is Italian." I qualified this: "She is Sicilian." There was a map of the world pinned to the wall. I mentioned the word "geography." You have the United States and South America and Africa and the continent of Europe, with the country of Italy sticking out into the Mediterranean Sea. There, at the toe of the boot, is the island of Sicily.

I said, "Have you seen 'The Godfather?' "

Of course.

I said, "What is the difference between an Italian and a Sicilian, and how do you determine which is which? There is a simple test."

I invited two students to the front--Guillermo and Rosa.

I said, "You have two people here. One is Italian and one is Sicilian. But you do not know which is which. You find out in this way. You pick up a stone--a piedra." I bent down and picked up an imaginary stone. With my other hand, I gripped the back of Guillermo's head.

I said, "Now you take the stone and smash it against this person's head as hard as you can!"

I mimed doing this. They gasped.

I said, "If the stone breaks--that is the Sicilian."

I looked at them.

Claro. They laughed. It was testarudo--stone-headed. The concept exists in every language. This is called an ESL moment. You get one every day--guaranteed. That was the first class.

The second class went like this: I am up there going back and forth with them, and the subject of sex came up and the word "orgasm" formed on my tongue and released itself into the room, where it resonated briefly in the air.

A young woman of 20 years--Immaculata--raised her hand.

She said, "Teacher, I do not know this word."

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