The Spanish Lesson

Jan 14, 2012 | 2012 Articles, Education, Hometown History, Maria Ruiz

by Maria Ruiz

I walked into the classroom as a teacher for the first time with a knot in my stomach. How am I going to perform as a teacher? Can I really teach? What if I can’t? Will they find out I’m a fraud? This was my first job after college and I hoped I could do it.

I opened the door and stepped into the room. Each chair was filled with a squirming child talking to another one. I listened, then thought I had fallen into a nightmare. The children were all speaking a foreign language. I didn’t know a single word they were saying. It could have been ancient Greek for all I knew. Then I remembered what the principal had told me when I interviewed for the job. “Most of the children came from families that speak Spanish at home. Some know a little English, but still use the familiar tongue to speak to their own. It usually takes a while but the kids learn quickly.”

I stepped up to the blackboard and wrote my name on it. Miss Camden. I pointed to the name, then to me as the kids repeated it. I spent the day writing words in English with the white chalk on the green board. The children all seemed to understand me and nodded when I asked a question. I didn’t know if they did understand or were just being polite. I felt a little better by the end of the day. I found there were two children that seemed to be lost and I soon found out they didn’t speak English very well, in fact, not at all. These were the two that would need me the most.

As I dropped off the attendance papers in the office, I mentioned to Mrs. Green that I had two students who knew no English. She nodded and it confirmed my thinking.

“Well, we just have to work harder with the children until they learn. It usually doesn’t take very long for them to learn English. Mrs. Green told me. “By the way, you might want to sign up to learn a little Spanish in a class we have here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.”

“Oh, yes, I would. How do I sign up?” I asked. I figured it could only help for me to learn their language.

“Just show up. It’s not formal but does help the staff here learn enough to help those kids we’re trying to teach.”

My routine soon settled down to teaching during the day and attending ‘Beginning Spanish’ three nights a week. I loved teaching but found my real enjoyment was still in learning.

The two children that didn’t know any English, Jesus and Katerina, soon picked up enough English to keep up with the class. I made sure that I helped them more than the other students and found they were becoming my favorites. I assumed it was because I got to know them better than the others. And best of all, they would help me with my faltering Spanish.

In Spanish class, I learned the words for numbers, days of the week and began a slow process of adding a few new words each time to my growing vocabulary. I marveled at all the Spanish words that were such a part of California’s names: Los Angeles, San Diego, Atascadero and Goleta. Names all over the state were Spanish words and I now delighted in understanding them.

Thanksgiving was coming up soon and I began to explain to the kids all about the pilgrims and the hardships they endured. I noticed Jesus coughed loudly in his seat and I heard the wet cough with alarm. His face was covered in the shiny sweat of fever, his eyes rimmed in red.

“Jesus, why don’t you go to the office and ask to see the nurse.” I said quietly as I felt his forehead. He was burning up. He left and I continued on with explaining about the first Thanksgiving.

Jesus didn’t come to school the next day and I figured that he was too sick. Sometimes children came to school even when they were sick, simply because their parents worked and couldn’t afford to stay at home with a sick child. A coughing child could and did spread whatever they had to the whole class room. Often, I would look out on thirty coughing, red eyed and runny nosed children. It was some miracle that I didn’t catch most of the colds and thought it was because I had a better immune system than they had. I used these occasions to explain about washing hands, not sharing, and covering the mouth when coughing.

Stopping by the office to drop off my paper work, the nurse came out and told me that Jesus had been seen by the local doctor and would be back tomorrow. He had prescribed some antibiotics and that should take care of the problem.

The next day in school, Jesus looked worse than ever. His skin seemed to be yellow, his eyes kept closing and he rested his head on his desk most of the morning. He definitely wasn’t better, in fact, he looked sicker than before. I put my hand on his forehead. It was clammy and cold.

“Jesus, are you taking the pills the doctor gave you?”

“Si, I have them here with me.”

I had noticed him popping something in his mouth every few hours. “Let me see.”

He handed me the little plastic pill bottle which had been filled at the local drug store.

I read the instructions on the label, “Take once a day for ten days.” I looked at the empty bottle . The prescription had been filled yesterday and today they were gone.

“Jesus, how many pills were in here?” I asked.

“I think only ten pills but it said take eleven a day.”

“Eleven! No, that’s not right,” I said louder than I intended. Suddenly I realized, once in English is one, but in Spanish, once is pronounced on-say and is the word for eleven. I understood. He had taken the whole bottle of pills that day.

I rushed to the office and told Mrs. Greene to call an ambulance. When I got back to the classroom, I saw that Jesus had fallen to the floor. The kids were all standing about, looking scared. I moved the kids back, told them to sit and waited for what felt like an eternity. Then I heard feet rushing down the hall.

The paramedics burst into the room and soon had him on the gurney and out, much to the delight of the other children. They all rushed to the window to watch the flashing light on the ambulance speed away. For the next half-hour, the kids squirmed and kept turning toward each other to talk about Jesus and the ambulance. Excitement ruled the class and it took a few minutes for me to calm the kids and get back to the lessons.

That afternoon I stopped in the office to talk about Jesus. The principal, Mr. Ortiz, came out to see me. “You saved a little boy’s life today. Thank you.”

I could only nod my head, glad I had taken the time to learn a few words of Spanish. I, who was teaching this little group of children, had found that they and their way of life, had a lot to teach me. Filled with a sense of belonging, I walked home, so happy to be in this community and this job.

Maria Ruiz was born in Santa Barbara, California; her family had been there since the Spaniards first converted the Indians & created small towns. She graduated from the University of San Diego State in 1972 & taught for 8 years before starting her own business. After retiring she began a ten-year odyssey to visit and live in 57 countries around the world. Presently, she lives in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Her book, I’ll be in the Fourth Grade Forever, can be ordered on Smashwords & Amazon. Currently she is writing short stories as part of the Puerto Vallarta Writer’s Group. Her blog can be found at and her travel photos at


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