My three brothers and I were raised on a small farm which makes us part of a vanishing breed. Machines that cover wide swaths of crops in a mile-long pass and factory farms with thousands of hogs and chickens have changed the nature of farming and made us obsolete. Families no longer need a dozen kids to get the farm work done.
Not that we were a dozen.. We were an anomaly. Mother was only able to contribute four of us to the work force before her uterus gave out.
Still, my two older brothers did the work of a dozen. They worked as hard as the hired hands: driving tractor, milking cows, cleaning gutters, pitching silage.
Mornings when they finished their chores, they raced each other for the shower to get rid of the barn smell before the school bus came.
The youngest brother had asthma. He was a master at bringing on an attack if someone mentioned the word work and dared to look in his direction. An easy task like weeding a row of tomatoes in the garden would put him at death’s door.
My mother would have to haul a daybed she kept for that purpose from her bedroom to the kitchen, fire up a pot of steam on the stove to add moisture to the air, and hang sheets over the doorway to keep the moist air in so he could breathe.
The neighbors talked: “Poor man, she only gave him two good workers and that lazy boy, hardly worth the marrying,” some said.
Grandma stuck up for us. “She is a fine woman, and they are fine boys,” she said with such dominant conviction that no one dared to disagree.
I was a girl; I wasn’t worth mentioning.
My father ignored it when my lazy brother sassed Mother, but when he began sassing him, he declared he had to do something. He came up with a plan for how his son could contribute to the family’s wellbeing.
He announced it as if it were a second dessert with our evening meal. His errant son made the foolish mistake of ridiculing him for pouring milk over his chocolate cake.
Father gave him a long angry stare. “Starting tomorrow you will be in charge of your little sister,” he announced.
As I watched my brother’s cunning eyes light up from across the table, I knew this was not good news for me.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” My brother called out in the most pleasant voice I had ever heard from him, a wide grin on his face, when he heard our mother send me upstairs to bed.
My father took pride in how his masculine wisdom had once more solved a household problem his wife could not, while I lay awake, my four-year-old brain pondering how I would protect myself.
The next morning the others ate their cereal and went about their daily chores leaving me to butter my brother’s toast and bring him milk, soda crackers, comic books, and whatever else he wanted.
At times I functioned as his punching bag, but mostly he lounged around on the couch consumed with boredom while I adjusted the radio to his liking, cleaned up his messes and helped him find his shoes.
We did play sometimes; we played school, but he insisted on always being the teacher and it wasn’t fun.
“Please! Please! Let me have a turn,” I begged.
“No! You don’t know how to do it,” he answered. “You’ve never even gone to school.”
Mostly he taught vocabulary lessons, and these were cuss words that would have embarrassed a drunken sailor.
When I got good at them, he invited his friends over, and while I put peanut butter on crackers, he teased me so I’d swear at him which they thought was hilarious.
Whatever fun teasing me brought him ended my first day of kindergarten. My table mate was a boy named Bobby. “I got new shoes,” he said as soon as I sat down so he could swing his legs to the side to show me. They were brown with fringed tassels on the laces which I didn’t think would be the best kind to wear playing ball at recess. I smiled.
The day was rolling along smoothy until the teachers gave us each our own box of crayons. I was so overwhelmed to receive such an amazing gift that my hands trembled. My crayons spilled out, and the red one, my favorite, rolled off my desk. “Oh! My crayon!” I said.
Bobby, as eager as I was to make a good impression, jumped out of his chair to get it for me, and he stepped on it. It was crushed. I cursed him and his fancy shoes with every bad word my brother had taught me, and we both sobbed. My teacher pulled me out of my chair and dragged me by the arm to the office where she called my mother and laid down the law. “If you expect your daughter to be allowed in my classroom, the swearing will stop immediately,” or something like that she said.
My mother was humiliated. She had skimped on buying groceries in order to afford a ribbon for my hair from the Five and Dime to match my carefully ironed pink dress. I carried a new Cinderella lunch pail with a tuna sandwich neatly wrapped in waxed paper and an apple, along with a cookie wrapped in a note that said, “Be sure you tell your teacher you can already read.” No doubt she spent the morning imagining I was winning my teacher’s heart.
When I got off the bus that afternoon, she gave me a whack on my behind that hurt, and pushed me to a corner of the living room where she shoved my crying face to the wall which was where I spent the weekend while my asthmatic brother pointed at me and giggled when Mother wasn’t looking.
Her cure worked wonders though. When I got on the bus the following Monday I had a new vocabulary, and a plan swirling around in my brain to get some of that classroom power for myself. I would become a teacher.
I was permanently cured of swearing, and it was years later before I ever swore again. Ironically it was at Rosa, dear spunky Rosa who had once been my favorite pupil.
How I ended up with my own fourth-grade class of Rosas and Juans was pure happenstance, beginning with my parents’ inability to stand each other. Their final divorce decree was delivered to our house by the postman the day I graduated from high school. We had decorated the yard with balloons, and my Sunday school teacher, various neighbors, and family members drove by for punch and cake and wished me a sparkling future. I was happy, but not as happy as my parents. You’d have thought the drinks and decorations were to celebrate their divorce the way they smiled the afternoon away.
My brothers were on their own by then, and relief swept over my father’s face when my mother agreed that I could live with her.
She lacked the money to send me to a university to board in a dorm in style, but she was determined that I would get a college education which she never did. After much budget juggling, she decided if we were careful, she could manage the tuition, but not room and board, which is why she moved us to a duplex near the university where I lived with her and took a bus to my classes.
I decided to start with the basic required courses, one of which was Freshman English. There I made my first friend. She was fun and funny, and lived in the smart kids’ dorm. She rarely did her homework, yet she still scored higher than I did on our tests. Why she chose to be friends with a girl who lived at home, packed a sandwich for lunch, and spent her afternoons working in a dentist’s office, I’ll never understand. We still keep in touch. We send each other Christmas cards.
“I’m taking a beginning Spanish class next semester,” she announced out of the blue one morning. “Why don’t you take it too.
I’d never thought of taking Spanish, but just to have a friend, I did. Spanish was easy for me. It even helped me understand the previous semester’s lessons in the English class where I’d worked so hard to get a C.
“Oh, that’s the difference between a direct and an indirect object. So that’s what my English professor was talking about.” Things like this I said to myself.
My mother questioned me. “Why are you wasting your time with Spanish? You’re only going to speak English anyway. Do you even know anyone who speaks Spanish?”
“I dunno, I see a lot of kids around here that don’t speak English. Maybe I could teach them,” I said, struggling to come up with a reason that would make me seem employable so she would be satisfied.
I had found my major.
I set to work with a vengeance, learning the genders of Spanish nouns, conjugating verbs into tenses most of which I would never use, studying South American maps, laughing at Don Quixote and Sancho, and practicing more methods of instruction than any teacher could use in a lifetime.
After I graduated I got a job in the city teaching fourth grade in a school filled with Spanish-speaking children. Clever little Rosa was in my first class. She was a trophy student. I would go home at night and think up interesting lessons just to challenge her. One day when she was absent, and I was introducing a new book our class would read, Marisol raised her hand. “It’s okay. Rosa will like it,” she said.
Sometimes Rosa would lord it over the others. They’d look at her in confusion, wondering if they should get mad, and I’d say something like: “But Rosa’s ugly, and she talks too much,” and we’d all laugh.
I had her sister Eva the following year. She was a befuddled child, living in Rosa’s shadow. I hesitated to call on her during class discussions because it took her so long to come up with an answer. Art was her best subject.
“This one is no Rosa,” I said to myself.
Yet she, not Rosa, was the one who invited me to their house for an authentic Mexican dinner cooked by her mother for my Christmas gift.
I’m not sure what I expected, but surely not a table set with three plates for Rosa, Eva and me. The father, looking like a small trapped mammal about to chew off its leg to escape, stood along the wall. There were two little boys standing beside him. The three of them smiled like good sports who’d lost, when I said how I liked the food. I had to stop complimenting because when I did, the mother would bolt for the kitchen to get me another helping.
The mother dominated the conversation with details of what was happening in her favorite telenovela. She smiled coyly when she told me how she loved it. “I told Eva I’d cook for you, but only before or after my show,” she said.
“Eva will end up like her mother,” I told myself. “But not Rosa. I’ll make sure of that.”
That was so many years ago. I sometimes wondered back then what my students would remember about me, but it never occurred to me to wonder how they’d judge the old person I had become when they were in charge of moving and shaking the world.
Every now and then through the years, I’d hear something about Rosa. After high school she got a job working for the city and was supposedly quite successful.
One morning I got a call from her saying she was dropping off some pictures at our old school for a reunion celebration they were planning. She wanted to know if I could come meet her for lunch at Bill’s, a restaurant near the school, since she’d be right there.
We hadn’t seen each other in years, but that’s how it is for teachers. You never know when your former students are going to pop into your life. One day a man I’d taught in grade school called me to say I was like a mother to him. I hadn’t seen him in 20 plus years. He wanted to stay with me for a few days he said. When he mentioned he had watched a certain television show in the dayroom, I became suspicious that he may have just spent some time in prison. I wondered if I got him in my house how I would ever get him out. I told him I was old, and he said he couldn’t imagine me ever growing old. I had to insist.
Now, here Rosa was, walking toward me, the sun shining in dapples through the sycamores and on to the two of us and the sidewalk as she approached. Same sprightly walk, confident posture, only now in high heels.
I was glad she suggested Bill’s. They used tablecloths and cloth napkins, though I suspected the fried chicken came from the same wholesaler that furnished the generic luncheons at our school, only gussied up with garnishes. I loved the way they folded their napkins.
“Nice to see you, Rosa. What are you up to these days?” I asked, smiling as we were seated.
She did not smile back. “First of all, I am not Rosa. I am Rose. I work for the city, and I’m about to be promoted to head my department,” she said.
It was the same proud voice I knew from fourth grade, the same pauses to be sure I was properly impressed.
She waved her hands in front of her. I supposed to be sure I noticed she had a perfect manicure. She wouldn’t have needed to. I had already noted and put my own hands in my lap. I had been working in the garden that morning.
The waitress brought us water and took our orders.
I sipped the water. “Oh, but I remember you as Rosa. Do you mind if for old time’s sake I call you Rosa?”
Her face took on a hard look. “My name is Rose. It’s difficult to get on in the world with Spanish names unless you want to do lawns and farm work.” To bolster her point she said, “Do you remember Francisco? He has a good job with the power company now. He changed his name to Frank.
I thought of how hard I’d worked to keep my students positive about their heritage. “But you’re still proud to be Latina, aren’t you?” I asked.
“I’m American. Americans speak English. You were wrong Mrs. Temple, to tell us speaking two languages was better than one. Speaking Spanish was a handicap. I don’t speak it anymore, and I don’t allow my son to speak it either.”
I struggled to keep the conversation pleasant. “Oh, you have a son. How nice! Tell me about him. I bet your mother loves that boy.”
“My mother! We don’t even let her see him except for at Christmas. She tells us what she wants to say to him, and we make her practice in English first. She refuses to learn English. She says it’s too hard. My husband says that’s ridiculous; she should just try harder then.”
I thought of how her mother had loved telenovelas and hoped she’d found some good ones. I’d long suspected the characters on the telenovelas were a substitute family for women like her who had lost their own.
Rose wasn’t finished with me yet. “Mrs. Sailor was right. She punished her kids for speaking Spanish,” she said.
Mrs. Sailor was the other fourth grade teacher the year I taught Rosa. She didn’t put much effort into her teaching. She was cold with the kids and bragged a lot about her son who played basketball. We had little in common.
If Rosa realized she had been brusque, it didn’t matter to her, “His name is Kyle, after his father. His father married me. I told him he didn’t have to, I would never keep him from seeing his son, but he wanted to. He wanted to marry me. She enunciated as if to sink the thought into my dense skull. “He chose to marry me even though he didn’t have to.” She took her wallet out of her purse and showed me a picture of a dear little boy.
“He’s beautiful,” I said.
“Yes, he is,” she replied, and it sounded like a correction.
The rest of the meal I listened to her talk about her son, her husband, and the work she would do with her upcoming promotion. I had to admit it sounded better than working on a farm.
I had no appetite for dessert, and I was glad when she passed on it too, though Bill, the restaurant owner, was from the south, and I had been anticipating some great banana pudding. We left together with our carry-out boxes.
“Well, good luck to you. I hope you get the promotion,” I said, trying one last time to salvage a little of our relationship. ”Oh, I will,” she said, and without a goodbye or a trace of a smile, she began walking toward Bill’s parking lot. I struggled to keep up with her. She stopped at the fence and looked around as if searching for someone.
“I’m curious. Why did you want to have lunch with me?” I asked.
“There are things people like you need to know,” she answered.
That was more than I could bear.
“F___ you!” I said, and other words my brother had taught me. My voice, my entire body was shaking. “You are the one who needs to know things.”
No, F___ you!” she fired back.
At that moment a car drove up. It was her sister.
“It’s Eva,” Why didn’t you invite her to eat with us!” I scolded.
“Oh. I had to call her to give me a ride. My car wouldn’t start this morning. All she talks about is art. She’s not interesting,” Rose’s arm flicked the air dismissively as she opened the car door and got in.
Eva had gone to community college and then to our local four-year university on an art scholarship. She now taught in our high school.
I walked to the driver’s side of the car, and Eva rolled down the window.
“Eva, I’m so glad to see you. I wish you had come with us for lunch today.”
There was a pause. It was as if she had become a little girl again, and I was standing in front of the class, waiting for her to answer a question. “I could have,” she finally said.
“Let’s meet for lunch, and promise me you’ll talk about art. I’ve been wanting to have a chat with someone about art,” I said.
Her pause was shorter this time. “Do you like the muralists? Orozco and Rivera?”
I nodded. “I do! Orozco and Rivera and Siqueiros too.”
She smiled, and I so hoped she’d call.
Patricia Temple is a retired teacher, living in Alabama. Her stories often reflect what it was like to grow up in the 40s and 50s on a farm in rural Michigan, how impossible it was to fit in with the town kids at a school designed for them. She adds: “I am happy to report my brother who I hunted starlings with did go on with his schooling to become a prominent neurologist…”
Temple’s work has appeared in The Heartlands Today, Fugue, Wisconsin Review, Portland Review, The Acorn, Deep South Magazine, GHLL, and Persimmon Tree.