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“School Days”
By Rose Guilbault (2005) taken from Growing Up Mexican in America
I hated school. I hated leaving home every day. Home was safe, warm, and constant, without the conflicts I had to endure in the outside world. But I couldn’t tell my mother that. She was so full of optimism.
“Oh, you’re going to learn so many things. American schools are the best in the world! You’ll be so smart because you’ll know two languages.” Her face shone with enthusiasm when she said these things, and I didn’t want to dampen her spirits.
Her words suppressed my childish complaints. But even if I had dared share my feelings with her, I didn’t yet have the vocabulary to explain the bigger issues that were the real source of pain, nor would I understand them myself for years to come. At six years of age, I lived in a world of confusion—the language, the kids, the culture spun around me like a vortex. Within one year I had moved away from my family and the stability of a routine to a foreign country with a foreign language. Then we moved from town and our newly established relationships with friends and neighbors to an isolated farm where I had to readjust again and, now, school.
Each day presented challenges and I had to sort through them by myself. Even if I wanted to ask for help, what exactly would I ask for? Help me understand what the teacher is saying, or stop the kids from treating me like an oddball?
I intuitively knew that the person I leaned on for everything—my mother—would not be able to help me. She relied heavily on her own experiences as a basis of understanding the world, and just as the Wizard of Oz had nothing in his bag for Dorothy, she had nothing to smooth this assimilation for me. Once I stepped outside my door, I was all alone and had to fend for myself. The only thing I feared more than school was disappointing my mother, so I hid my anxieties.
Every morning, she walked me the full two miles to the school bus stop and stayed with me until the bus arrived. The boss’s boys walked by themselves and stood on the opposite side of the road, not talking to us while we waited. It set the tone for a curious relationship. They weren’t unfriendly, but neither were they forthcoming. Their whole family couldn’t decide whether to treat us as subordinate employees or as neighbors.
I was glad to have my mother with me. Cattle roamed on one side of the road and the bulls liked to bellow and chase us along the trees. Their snorting and hoofing terrified me.
Leaving my mother and boarding the bus brought up still more fears. The big yellow bus was filled with high school kids who were to be dropped off first before we continued to the elementary school. The older kids laughed at me, and I couldn’t understand most of what was being said. They’d often not let me sit next to them, stacking schoolbooks alongside empty seats when they saw me approach. I learned to automatically walk quickly to the back and sit by myself. I found all of this confusing and humiliating.
At school things were no better. The teacher’s instructions would wash over me like a wave;’ I heard the sounds but didn’t understand their purpose. But eventually, slowly and unexpectedly the English language revealed itself to me. Every new word and every new definition was like lifting a layer of film from my eyes, giving me clarity to see the world around me. Words empowered me and I pursued their secrets assiduously. At home all I had was an ancient English/Spanish dictionary my father had used to teach himself English, but its tiny print and archaic language did more to obscure meaning than shed light on it. I actually learned more from the grocery store—bought encyclopedias, which I read cover to cover one summer. By the end of first grade I was scholastically on track: I knew the alphabet, wrote in block print, and could read the “Dick and Jane” books. By second grade, my English was much improved. My interest in books also heightened with the acquisition of a library card, and it helped that the library was conveniently located across the street from San Lorenzo Elementary School. I loved the feel and smell of hardbound books at the library. I delighted in sitting quietly, trying to decipher the mysteries between their pages, mainly by interpreting the illustrations.
But for all my struggles in the classroom, my greatest challenges occurred on the playground. The girls talked about things I knew the words for but had no point of reference on. They talked about birthday parties with cake and games like pin the tail on the donkey and musical chairs, barbecues with hot dogs and root beer, and toys I’d never heard of.
One day Mona said we should bring our dolls to play with at recess. I wanted desperately to fit in, so I stuffed an old baby doll—the only doll I owned—into a paper bag.
“Why are you taking that paper bag to school?” my mother asked.
I knew she wouldn’t understand why I’d want to take my doll, so I fibbed. “The teacher asked us to bring our dolls.”
My mother raised an eyebrow but chose not to pursue the matter.
At recess, the other girls all pulled out their dolls. It made me want to laugh out loud—they’d all brought the very same one! I proudly pulled out my baby doll. Nobody had one like her!
“What is that?” Mona scrunched her nose at my doll. “Don’t you have a Barbie?”
The other girls twittered. What was a Barbie? I wondered. And why was my doll looked down on? I felt embarrassed and quickly stuffed my unworthy toy back into the paper bag. I would not be invited to play with them again. Nor would I be invited to Mona’s or any of the other girls’ birthday parties.
And that’s why I hated school. Cultural gaffes were far more difficult to overcome than language gaps. I felt like an outsider, and I would not be able to shake that sense of alienation throughout my school years in King City.
My mother tried her best to be supportive. Surely she sensed my disaffection when I trudged home down the long road, looking weary from another day in the outside world.
“My teacher Mrs. Lewis doesn’t like me,” I confided once. “I’m always in trouble because she says I talk too much.”
“Do you?” my mother asked gently?
“No. I just answer the girls next to me, but I get in trouble, not her.”
The following week my mother insisted I take a tray of homemade enchiladas to Mrs. Lewis. I had to carry them on the school bus wrapped in a brown grocery bag. Even the high school kids couldn’t hide their curiosity.
“What’s in the bag?” they asked over and over.
I was mortified. What would they think if I told them I was taking food for my teacher? I’d seen some kids bring apples, but never an entrée!
I refused to talk and huddled in the corner of the bus by myself, clutching my package.
“She’s a retard,” a high school boy said disgustingly. And that, mercifully, stopped the questions.
Once we reached the grammar school I nervously walked straight to my classroom, avoiding the playground. I arrived breathless. Anxious thoughts popped into my head. What if Mrs. Lewis was disgusted and threw the dish into the trash can. Or worse, acted superior and asked, “What is this? Does your family actually eat this?” I would not be able to bear it if Mrs. Lewis expressed any form of rejection toward my mother’s offering. I would simply never go to school again!
“Why, what’s this? It’s not time to come in yet.” Mrs. Lewis looked up from her desk when she heard me close the door.
“My mother sent you this.” I thrust the package in front of me.
She put on her glasses that hung from a gold chain and often rested on her ample bosom, and strode toward me. Mrs. Lewis was plump but moved quickly.
She took the wrinkled package and unwrapped it carefully on her desk.
“Enchiladas!” she cried out. “I love enchiladas! How did your mother know?”
I shrugged happily. How did my mother know?
“Bless her heart,” Mrs. Lewis clapped her hands together. “Homemade enchiladas!”
From that day I can honestly say I was treated differently. Mrs. Lewis was more patient and attentive after the gift.
But not all situations could be solved with homemade enchiladas. I wanted my mother to be a part of the classroom culture. I wanted her to like the popular kids’ mothers, to be a room mother so I would fit in with my classmates. But she couldn’t because she didn’t drive or speak English. Another teacher suggested she made cupcakes for classroom celebrations instead. I thought this presented a great opportunity to be accepted by the class. I had observed how kids whose mothers made cupcakes were given special stature by the others.
It didn’t work out quite so easily, though.
“I don’t know what a cupcake is,” my mother said, perplexed.
“It’s like a little cake. But it’s in a wrapper,” I tried to explain.
“I can make empanadas* for your party. They’re probably similar,” she offered. *pastry filled with chopped or ground meat, vegetables, fruit, etc., and usually baked or fried.
Now, I knew there was no similarity between empanadas and cupcakes other than their both being desserts, but my mother insisted I ask my teacher if she could bring them. I had a bad feeling about it, but I went ahead and asked anyway.
“Oh no, dear,” Mrs. Steussy demurred. “The children only eat American things. Have her bring cupcakes.”
Mama learned to make cupcakes by deciphering a recipe from her new Betty Crocker cookbook. The other mothers baked theirs in colored papers or pretty tinfoil cups and decorated them with candy and little umbrellas or flags or plastic figures identifying the occasion. If it was St. Patrick’s Day, the cupcakes were green with little leprechauns on top. For St. Valentine’s Day, white-frosted cupcakes would be decorated with red candy hearts and coordinated red foil cups.
But my mother’s cupcakes never turned out like the other mothers’. Hers looked like pale muffins haphazardly spread with a glob of thin, runny white frosting (made from C&H confectioner’s sugar and not Fluffy Frosting Mix). My classmates looked at the box lined with wax paper instead of colored tinfoil like the others and whispered “yuck.” A knot formed in my throat and I silently swore I’d never ask my mother to make anything for class ever again. It was the beginning of a subconscious effort to keep my private life and school life separate. If the other kids didn’t know about my home life, they would assume I was like them. I could be American at school just like everybody else. And as long as anyone who really mattered never came to my house—which was not difficult since we lived way out in the country—they’d never know the truth.

English 0091—Questions on “School Days” by Rose Guilbault—20 points + 10 for the writing.
Part A: Comprehending Main Ideas—these answers are all located in the article. You should be able to find them and record the correct answer.
_____1. When Guilbault announced that she hated school, she said her mother expressed
a. similar fears and uncertainties.
b. optimism and encouragement.
c. indifference and lack of interest.
d. feelings of conflict and ambivalence.

_____2. On the school bus, the high school students
a. welcomed her and asked her to sit with them.
b. moved their seats when they saw her get on the bus.
c. laughed at her and refused to share their seats.
d. helped her with her homework.

_____3. As she describes her status as a recent immigrant, Guilbault’s greatest challenges lay
a. in the classroom.
b. at home with her parents.
c. on the school bus.
d. on the playground.

_____4. Guilbault’s feelings of being an outsider, of being alienated were particularly reinforced
a. when the other girls laughed at her doll.
b. when the other kids made fun of her English.
c. at birthday parties where she didn’t understand the games.
d. when her teacher refused to give her extra help with her English.

_____5. How did Mrs. Lewis react to the gift of homemade enchiladas?
a. She threw them in the trash.
b. She was delighted and loved them.
c. She was disgusted at the food.
d. She was indifferent and didn’t respond at all.

Part B: Vocabulary—choose the best answer based on the context of the sentence. The word needing a definition is located in italics in the following sentences from the article. You may need to use a dictionary.

_____6. “But I couldn’t tell my mother [I hated school]. She was so full of optimism…I didn’t want to dampen her spirits.”
a. negativity
b. positivity
_____7. The boss’s family “couldn’t decide whether to treat us as subordinate employees or as neighbors.”
a. lower in rank and position
b. higher in rank and position
_____8. “Words empowered me and I pursued their secrets assiduously.”
a. with great care and perseverance
b. quickly and carelessly
_____9. “Cultural gaffes were far more difficult to overcome than language gaps.”
a. puzzles and games
b. mistakes that cause embarrassment
_____10. “Hers looked like pale muffins haphazardly spread with a glob of thin, runny white frosting…”
a. quickly and carelessly
b. with great care and perseverance

Part C: Vocabulary in Variant Forms. Write the correct form in the blank. The options are in parentheses.
11. From simple _____________ (intuition, intuitively), Guilbault learned at an early age she would have to rely on herself.
12. Guilbault describes the difficulty she experienced moving from a _____________(stability, stable, stabilize) environment to one of confusion.
13. Guilbault was particularly ________________ (anxious, anxiety, anxiously) about boarding the school bus.
14. When she was able to _____________ (acquire, acquisition, acquisitive) a library card, Guilbault turned to reading for comfort.
15. In her quest to fit in, Guilbault realized early that she had to learn self-_______________ (rely, reliance, reliable).

Part D: Purpose and Main Idea: Choose the best answer.
*Assimilation is defined as the absorption and integration of people, ideas, or culture into a wider society or culture. Ex: “the assimilation of Italians into American society.”

_____16. The main idea (the MAIN POINT) of the selection is the writer’s discovery that
a. assimilation is much more than simply learning a new language and customs.
b. she learned to assimilate at school but to keep her private life at home invisible and separate.
c. humiliation and rejection were painful but necessary first steps on the road to becoming assimilated.
d. her mother’s encouragement and support helped her to endure the alienation she first experienced at school.
_____17. The writer’s purpose is to
a. complain about the lack of support young immigrant children receive at school.
b. suggest ways that immigrant children can successfully conquer their fears about assimilating into American culture.
c. criticize her parents for not doing more to help her assimilate.
d. relate her experiences and feelings of rejection, alienation, and accommodation as she tried in vain to become accepted.

Part E: Locating Supporting Details

For the main idea stated here, find two details that support it and write them on the blanks provided. I’ll start you off.
Main Idea: “Guilbault faced many unpleasant things when she boarded the school bus each day.”
Support: 1) The older kids laughed at her.
2) She couldn’t understand what the other kids were saying.

Part F: Reaction and Response: Compose a paragraph (5-9 sentences) answering one of the following questions. You only need to write on ONE.
1) Write about a time you felt like an outsider or minority. What were the circumstances? How did you feel? How did you react?
2) Write about a time you had an embarrassment at school. What were the circumstances? How did you feel? How did you react?
3) Write about a time that you did something that made you stand out. What were the circumstances? How did you feel? How did you react?

Write any questions you have about the reading here:

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