My Second Year of Teaching, I Bought Green Grading Pens
Neruda dripped green ink over a chair he called la nube, the cloud, pulled up to a floor-to-ceiling window in a house named La Sebastiana. It rests on a hill so tall that it’s said to be built on air, hanging in the sky like the big dipper, and I told this story to my squirmy sixth-graders when they couldn’t remember está nublado, it’s cloudy.
“See,” I told them: “nube, nublado, the words are related,” I begged them. “Like rhymes are related, like a family.” And they nodded, drew webs with their fingers, half of them wrote la nube or nuble or nubisimo on their papers. And I cut their words in half with one green slice and winced.
Thirteen-year-old Emmanuel comes to my room every morning before the bell rings, when the hallways are still dark. I show up early, but he is always earlier, and he smiles at this little game we have played since September. He knows almost no English and my Fante Twi is atrocious, but we spend twenty or thirty minutes sitting with Spanish between us, like a buffer, like a bridge, like water for the electricity in our palms and in our teeth. He likes to feel the rr roll over his tongue. He told me once, haltingly: “The sound feels like clay in my hands.” We practice,
over and over: arriba, arroba, arribo, aburro, until the bell rings, sharp and irreverent, and Emmanuel says what he always says: “Miss Tammarine, did I do it well enough?”
I was warned two days ago that I am not submitting the minimum three worksheets to the online grade book each week for each student in every class. I was told that my eighth-graders should by now be conjugating flawlessly in the conditional tense, the subjunctive, the future perfect. Three worksheets times 42 weeks times 182 students means I would create, might create, will have created a group of students who know exactly how to say something--without the freedom to come up with anything worth saying.
Neruda dripped green over la nube, and it’s still there for you to see where the ships still dock near pink yellow peeling green houses crammed onto the cliff face in Valparaíso at sunrise. My eighth graders close their eyes but can’t imagine: children to refugees of Gambia, Eritrea, Bhutan, they carry many homes with them to every class--but only three have ever left Columbus. Three of thirty, one-tenth.
This morning, the sky broke into icy summer rain, that cold that aches in your bones, and as Emmanuel’s class piled in I handed them poems from Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions on canary-colored paper. Their hands made deep, damp fingerprints in the yellow. I sat them down and made them ask each other: How do the oranges divide up sunlight in the orange tree? Why wasn’t Christopher Columbus able to discover Spain? Where does the rainbow end—in your soul or on the horizon? Where is the child I was, still inside me or gone? I drew a line with masking tape and we stepped over it when we thought we had an answer, or another question. And then I read it aloud, this time in Spanish, this time El Libro de las Preguntas, and on bright construction paper we wrote the sounds we heard. We held them tight, marking them with damp fingerprints until count of cinco: all the enyes and eyes and Emmanuel’s erre, all those sharp tongue corners, all those sounds of Spanish poetry, colored all the colors of the rainbow--on the count of five we threw them up and they rained back onto us, all the colors of the earth.
Neruda wrote in green, and it seems sacrilegious now for me to drip it over lined paper, over a thirteen-year-old who spelled crear, to create wrong. Can I really mark his mistakes in green, when my bones know that he will fall in love a few dozen times, and trace the thighs of a young woman, and maybe then he’ll have the need for Soneto Diecisiete:
Te amo sin saber cómo, ni cuándo, ni de dónde, I love you because I know no other way than
written in green over a cloud.
About the Author: Sydney Tammarine is a writer, teacher, and translator currently pursuing her MFA at Hollins University. Her essays have appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Pithead Chapel, The Missing Slate, and others. Her most recent book of literary translations, Diez Odas para Diez Grabados, is forthcoming in Santiago, Chile from Taller 99. She can be found here.