A Rhythm of Sounds

by

01/27/2002

460 Jericho Tpke, Dix Hills, NY

Neighborhood: Outer Boroughs

If I leave the windows open in my classroom, I can hear the endless hum of traffic coming from the Long Island Expressway. There’s a certain degree of wonder in its sound. So many people, an endless whoosh of thoughts and dreams whipping past me like rush hour- forever.

There’s this postcard I keep in my classroom that reminds me of the Expressway. It’s a somewhat well known photo taken by a famous New York photographer named Weegee, and I just can’t seem to get over it. The picture is teeming with humanity, an entire stretch of beach filled with writhing bodies. Squinting at the camera as if it were the sun, they wave to the sky like they can see their own future. It’s a tremendous miracle stew, really, stretching not only miles, but years. Could I possibly have had a relative or two in this unstoppable swarm, a friend of a friend of a friend?

The expressions on many faces indicate that they’ve just arrived to this beach, and that they’re never planning to leave. Coney Island. Brooklyn, New York. It’s 1938. They have no idea of the trouble heading their way, but I just know they’ll make it.

The campus begins to change in the late afternoons. The transformation is dramatic, like watching the seasons change before your eyes. There’s this patch of woods outside my window. Earlier in the day I had counted shiny heads there, taking attendance during a high school fire drill. Now, however, it becomes a place of worship. I can see them from a window, two men preparing for class much differently than I do. They drop to their shins and bow reflexively, meditating, facing east as the Long Island sun dissolves into a western tree line.

Traffic continues to hum as I watch them rise momentarily then bow again, the sky taking on that orange hue that artists have described as Paris. I’ll never view that patch of woods the same way again. I’m somewhere else yet completely at home, and where else in the world could this happen but here?

Even the classroom itself undergoes a change at night. I might find newly formed European republics conferring with the smallest of Latin American nations, while Asia converses with the Middle East. Entire continents drift before me. There’s no need to lament over all the places I’ve never seen because they’re all right here, looking up, smiling into they’re future.

Two nights per week, I teach English as a second language to adults at a learning center in Dix Hills, Long Island, approximately thirty miles west of Manhattan. The class is free and there is usually a waiting list to get in. Because of the high demand, there is pressure on me not to fall short in any way. I want to do right by these new arrivals. I would also like to be remembered as a representative of something larger, something more important than the mere conjugation of verbs.

So I make sure my Long Island accent isn’t so thick, thinning it out, slowing it down until I become the friendly anchorman on their evening news. I finally learn the difference between lay and lie and who and whom, grammatical nightmares that have haunted me for years.

Many times, the students tell me how American I look to them, my hair, eyes and complexion at one end of an unimportant spectrum. Even they are confused about what an American should look like. I am simply a product of an earlier wave than theirs.

Sometimes they forget to use my name and simply call me what I am.

“Tee-chur?”

“Tee-chur, what this mean? How you say?”

The words are spoken with the same reverence one might use for the family doctor. It’s difficult to comprehend at first, the complete opposite of the My! Taxes! Pay! Your! Salary! attitude I’ve encountered in other teaching experiences.

Some of the men in the class have dirt under their fingernails or grease smudges on their arms from working in factories, fields and restaurants, performing tasks other Americans will no longer do. Railroads were built not long ago on the same principle, police forces made, buildings and bridges constructed that are now commemorated with name-plates.

I welcome each new arrival to class with the same question:

“So who will you be staying with?”

“My aunt.”

“My cousin.”

“My father.”

“My brother.”

Family, the strong protecting the weak. It has a familiar ring to it, something you might find etched in stone somewhere, perhaps overlooking a harbor near my Island home.

Each night we try to put something down in writing, an opinion on a current event. In the past month, however, there has been only one current event. Nowhere else existed but there. That night, the room was silent, frozen like the black and white faces on a postcard. You could almost hear the building breathe, its collective heart breaking, and I was the only one in the room born here.

During our class break, a student named Ali confided in me that his younger children tease him about his accent. Did I have any accent-ridding books, he wanted to know. I told him to just keep coming to class. When he handed me his written piece, it was about his oldest son escaping from the sixty-seventh floor of a building about an hour away, right after the second explosion. It occurs to me now that Ali was one of the men I has seen earlier, praying in front of that patch of woods. A friend of a friend of a friend.

When our break period is through, I must interrupt the easy Spanish most of the students fall into. This is when I become the outsider who wants to fit in. Class resumes, and I begin to pace the aisles, fragrances from the ladies’ perfumes filling the air like their exotic voices. A child might sit respectfully off to the side doing homework, no trace of her parents’ accent when she speaks. We begin our lesson.

“Okay, ready? Watch. I’m laying the pen down, but now it lies there on its own. See? Lay. Lie.”

Everyone says, “Ohhhhhhh,” then jots it down.

Later, I call on them to read just to hear the rhythm of sounds, the lilts and inflections of their voices that carry me around the world. In time, I stumble onto its magnitude and realize what that sound really is: American.

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