Well, Dear Reader, with less than 17 days until my 60th birthday, it’s time for (yet) another Tempus Fugit piece related to this landmark birthday.
On this day in 1973, which fell on a Friday, I was at Tropical Elementary – more likely than not – in Mrs. Chambers’ Special Education class in Room 29. By this time – between noon and 1 PM, we would have already had lunch and recess, so we probably were doing mostly individualized classwork or doing activities in small, skills-based groups, such as reading, spelling, or even basic arithmetic problems, using flashcards and textbooks/workbooks.
I don’t remember now how well I understood English 50 years ago; I’ve done a bit of research on the topic of how kids learn new languages, and from what I learned, I know that in most cases, young children’s brains are like sponges, especially before adolescence kicks in, and they absorb an unfamiliar language relatively fast.
English has been my primary language for most of my life; I rarely think in Spanish, and in contrast to my previous life in South Florida, I don’t speak Spanish on a regular basis here in the Tampa Bay area. The passage of time and the dominance of English in American culture, society, and daily life have obliterated any memories I once had of my first awkward year in Miami and how quickly – or not – I learned how to speak, read, or write in American English.
I do, of course, remember some details from that time. For instance, during our recess period, I preferred to sit in a corner of Room 29 with a volume from the classroom’s World Book Encyclopedia set, which was from an earlier – perhaps late 1950s? – edition than the set we had at home.
I was a voracious reader back then, and less choosy than I am now, so I would often pick up a volume – say, the A one – and browse through it, reading random articles across the spectrum of topics you’ll find in an encyclopedia. I especially liked articles about aviation, history, and geography – at the time, I had unrealistic aspirations of becoming a pilot like my dad – although I also enjoyed learning about historical figures (especially American ones, since I was trying to assimilate and become “more” American), animals, and the arts.
I did, of course, participate in group activities when Mrs. Chambers asked me to, and I’d joined Cub Scout Pack 396 (South Florida Council) in late 1972, so I wasn’t always sitting in a corner with my nose buried in a volume of the encyclopedia or a history book borrowed from the Tropical Elementary school library. I liked talking to my friends during our “free time,” and I often played board games like checkers with them, although I – unfortunately – earned a reputation for being a “sore loser” because I’d get upset when I lost a match or two.
Then, like now, I struggled with classes that either involved a lot of homework or working with numbers. As I recall, I could add and subtract, but multiplication and division were to third-grade me what algebra is to adult me – a riddle wrapped in a mystery and shrouded within an enigma. No matter how good Mrs. Chambers was as a teacher in the other topics, or how hard I tried to understand the concept of how to multiply or how I could apply “the times’ tables” to everyday life, I could not grasp anything beyond adding or subtracting for the longest of times.
Oh, I eventually mastered multiplication and “short division” sometime later, otherwise, I would not have been “mainstreamed” into a regular class in fifth grade. But it took a while; looking at my timeline at Tropical Elementary School, I have deduced that my inability to learn how to multiply or divide at the same time as my non-disabled peers is what kept me out of regular classes until the 1975-76 school year, which is when I “left” Mrs. Chambers’ class and joined Mrs. Brown’s “regular” fifth-grade class.
Since I lived outside of Tropical’s attendance boundaries – I went to school there because my neighborhood school, Coral Park Elementary, did not have a Special Ed department – I rode the bus to and from campus. I think I was one of the last kids who lived on our route, but we still had to drive to Southwest Senior High School (which at the time was destined to be my alma mater) to drop off two of the older kids (my bus not only transported kids from Tropical but also from Riviera Junior High School and Southwest). So I probably caught the bus in front of 1001 SW 102nd Avenue between 6:30 and 7 AM and arrived at Tropical shortly before 8:15 AM.
I believe (I’m not exactly sure) that classes started at 8:30 AM, and that we were dismissed at 2:30 PM, one hour later than the younger kids in lower grades (kindergarten through first grade). In Special Ed (not in the regular classes), we had morning snacks – usually a cookie and a small cup of orange juice or a small carton of milk – in class around 9 in the morning, and around noon, we’d quietly go as a group, in some kind of line, to the cafeteria for lunch. Those of us who rode the bus had to go to Tropical’s south parking lot – which was adjacent to Riviera Junior High School – and catch our assigned buses there.
Because, of course, the driver had to drop students off at different houses, I normally did not get home till 3:30 or even 4 PM. By then, of course, I was tired and just wanted to watch TV (mostly on indie station WCIX – Channel 6), which aired reruns of older TV shows such as Gomer Pyle, USMC, The Flintstones, the recently canceled Bewitched (which had ended its run on ABC around the same time that Mom and I were prepping to leave Bogota and return to the States), and, of course, Star Trek.
This is basically how I remember my daily routine as it was in February of 1973. I am, of course, leaving out plenty of stuff, such as the names of my friends, or how things were going with my second girlfriend, “K.” Well, I’ve forgotten quite a few things, for one thing. And I don’t want to write too long a blog post, for another.
Suffice it to say, though, that I always tried to take a break – I guess we’d call it a “mental health respite” nowadays – between the time I got home and starting on doing my homework, which I usually tackled – unenthusiastically, I must admit – after dinner, which Mom tended to serve between 6 and 6:30 PM.
6 thoughts on “Tempus Fugit (Countdown to the Big Six-Oh Edition): A (School) Day in the Life, February 1973”
You said “I rarely think in Spanish”. I guess you learned English well at an early age, and that makes a difference. I did not become fluent in English until I was an adult and I still think and dream in Swedish. Actually I’ve had dreams in both languages. I also speak with an accent that will never go away.
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That’s right; I must consciously “switch” from thinking in English to doing so in Spanish, and I hardly ever do it. It’s not as easy or natural as it used to be when I was between 9 and 11 years old. And I don’t dream totally in Spanish, although in my dreams, my mother often speaks to me in that language.
Apparently, being young helped! Kids do pick up languages faster than adults because their brains are still forming and thus pliable. I also went to speech therapy once a week when I was at Tropical, and that helped with the pronunciation issue. I still have trouble saying words with “ch” sounds; they come out with “sh” instead, but aside from that, I don’t have the heavy accent that my mom had when she was alive, and my half-sister Vicky still has.
Interestingly, Vicky learned English before I did, but she was a wee bit older (11 or 12 when Dad and Mom moved to Miami in 1961) than me, and she did not want to assimilate. And even in the 1970s, after we’d moved back to Miami permanently, my half-sister preferred to work in an environment where most of her co-workers spoke Spanish.
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Yes you are right, learning a new language when you are still young helps a lot towards assimilating the new language. Look at Arnold Schwarzenegger, he knew some English before he came but he learned to speak English well as an adult and his accent is worse than mine. I’ll bet that you don’t have much of an accent. I can certainly understand that you dream about your mother speaking Spanish.
What’s ironic about my experience with learning how to speak English is that in Colegio El Nogal, the private school I attended when we lived in Colombia, we had instruction in English….and I didn’t fare well in class. I couldn’t understand the language, not even with some tutoring from my half-sister at home! Part of it, of course, was because we didn’t have cable or satellite TV in Colombia, so there wasn’t as much penetration by U.S. English-language media as there would be in 1993-94 (which is when I last visited my family there). And, of course, part of it was a belief on my part that I didn’t really need to learn English in a Spanish-speaking nation.
Being young helped. Living in an environment where bilingualism is the expected norm, i.e. my Miami home, also helped.
I have what’s known as a Miami accent. It’s a mix of Midwestern American English (thanks to TV), with some hints of South Florida’s large Hispanic community.
My half-sister, on the other hand, has a heavy Hispanic accent. She speaks in Spanish more than I do, and she’s never quite liked the U.S. In fact, she used to claim that she was going to retire in Bogota once our mother passed. As far as I know, though, she’s still in Miami.
Also, I was born in Miami. I lived there for almost three years before we moved to Bogota in 1966, and my mother told me (on several occasions) that I understood several languages when I was small. It was only when we moved back to an environment where Spanish was the only language I heard or spoke that I had difficulties with English.
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That’s interesting. Thank you Alex for explaining your experience. My wife had to change languages as a kid, moving from Brazil to France at the age of 3, moving from France to the US at the age of 11. It is not easy.
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