He wanted me to teach him English. “Of course,
said, “tomorrow at eight o’clock.” After all, I
mused, that’s what I’m here for—to each anyone who
wants to learn, young or old, tall or short, skinny or fat. And it
my fault if Arturo is a beautiful man.
It was eight o’clock. Manuel, the doorman, was
making his rounds, feather duster in hand, a truly rhythmic man who
bounced from the knees with every step.
He saw me; a smile broke open his face exposing a
smattering of yellow teeth. “Buenos días, Señorita
a rooster strutting, he stepped into the faculty room, his feather
It was a dingy hole, no windows. Eight wooden high-topped
desks were lined up on both sides of the entrance like tanks, an invasion
of ugly maroon-brown blobs. In the center at the back was the rector’s
desk growing a like huge mushroom, scarred through the years, papers
piling up, spilling over into the back like uncontrolled mutants. A
dusty satin flag hung above the desk, drooping green on yellow, a weak
tribute to this whittled down country, a peanut perched so precariously
on the earth’s equator.
León entered the room, vibrant, strong, healthy
like a new species designed for the future.
How did he happen this
way? No one else looked like he did. The villagers were descendants
of the ancient Incas, squat, energy-less remnants, yellow with age
and wrinkled by time, their vulnerable teeth spent, the few lingering
ones brown from chewing sugar cane. Their proud minds were rendered
feeble, fermented products of the chicha ritual.
Arturo had perfect white teeth that glistened,
fair skin that breathed deeply, and rosy cheeks that got rosier. His
volcanic eyes spewed forth unharnessed energy; and his mind was quick,
responsive, easily tantalized. He knew he was different. It made him
proud. He favored himself like a parent favors a gifted child. But
his naive mind would not be shut off from the experience of modern
“Guta moorning, Meess Laurel. Ow are you?
“I’m fine, thanks. And you?”
“I yam well. Thank kyou.”
“Did you bring your book?” He gave me a blank stare, energy
clogged up. “Your book,” I pointed to a book.
“Not,” he exploded with undue emphasis,
energy flooding once again through vibrant eyes. “Thee buke
es en me ouse.”
“Well, that’s all right. We’ll
just practice conversation today. Bring your book tomorrow.” The
blank stare returned. My English had fallen smoothly and fluently,
a unique creation, gifted to us all in countless variations, engaging
in sound, effortlessly coordinating mind and body. Quickly I changed
your book. Tomorrow, book.” I pointed
to the book again.
“Yes, Meess,” he smiled teeth glistening,
cheeks rosy, “tomorrrow
I weel thee buk.” We sat down side by side at the high wooden
desks. Anxious to show his skill, León readied himself for
conversation like a tuba player getting ready to play the biggest
note of his career. “Meess,
pleese, I like a shit of paper.” It hit me off guard, the vibrations
numbing me. I suppressed a hysterical laugh and took a deep breath.
“Sheet, Arturo, sheet of paper. Sheet, repeat,” I
articulated, mesmerizing myself, the perfect teacher, a gramophone record.
He said ‘shit’ a few more times and gradually resolved it
into sheet. All the while, I felt like a beginning hurdler who has just
scaled the first of many hurdles, too high and erratically placed for
comfort, realizing belatedly that she would be infinitely happier twiddling
her thumbs in the bleachers.
Arturo continued his struggle to
express himself. "I yam arteest. I like bary much coulors.
Thee peoples here not intend. They much seemples.” I nodded
encouragement; but the smile was only surface. I wanted to laugh
again, this time at his incongruous gestures and sounds, a ludicrous
masquerade like a donkey’s ‘hee
haw’ coming from a stallion. It was almost as if he was trying
to make me laugh, but I knew he wasn’t, not this proud man.
“All right, Arturo, write these words
down on your paper.”
“Sheet of paper,” he smiled pleased that he had learned.
I nodded restraining a smile that might easily erupt into a deluge of
hysteria. I leaned forward against the desk and watched him as he wrote
the words down meticulously, beautifully, with the practiced hand and
eye of an artist. His cheeks were rosier, quite a lot rosier.
if I had asked him to write down a highly charged word. Like yesterday
in class, I gave the sentence, “John has a ball, “then asked
one of the boys, “How many balls do you have?” That did
it! The class broke up, some with muffled hiccups of laughter, others
quietly red with embarrassment. I wish I didn’t have to go back
into that class.
I leaned forward again to check Arturo ’s vocabulary words.
Then I noticed that the desk moved slightly. How could that be? Casually,
very casually I glanced down……I was rubbing up against
his leg!!! Oh, excuse me,” I fumbled, “I thought you were
the desk!” The great kingly one, wounded, vulnerable, didn’t say a
I was confused and afraid, an alien, alone, unhappy,
misunderstood. A little street urchin wandered in and stood staring
at us, huge eyes claiming her gaunt face, oily brown hair, a stringy
wig set out of kilter on her head, a rumpled colorless dress, gray
with dirt and neglect. Her feet were very dirty, and so were her legs,
hands and face. She smelled like stale moldy crackers.
I felt sick. This smelly, dirty place made me sick—nothing
human or beautiful around. León glanced at the street urchin,
a stray dog to be left unnoticed or shooed away. I spoke to the little
my naive mind confronting the poverty of ancient civilizations.
linda, cómo estás?” She continued to stare, eyes
glassy, distant, uncomprehending. Then she farted, one loud exclamation,
and ran away.
I said good-by to León and hurried out into the
village, ancient, poor, smelly, crude humanity. I knew I love them.
How was I going to live with them?