Language Learner

inspired by Sherman Alexie


“Hello Sara, what word would you like today?”

What word? What word? Whichever word I choose, Mrs. Derhammer will write in her neat, circular kindergarten teacher’s script on a crisp, clean card. This will be my word to add to my collection of words. What word do I want today? Will it be cauliflower? Elephant? Maybe the word Joanne used yesterday; that was a fun word!


“’Facetious?’” She prints it out carefully, spelling it as she goes: “F-A-C-E-T-I-O-U-S. Facetious.”

She hands me the card, and I grip it tightly in my warm, little hand, reading the letters over and over.

Fourth Grade

Mrs. Abbott herds us all to the back rug after recess to read to us. It’s my favorite time of the day. The girls sit together and play with each other’s hair, quietly braiding. Boys sprawl out on the floor. But everyone listens.

She’s been reading us a historical novel called My Brother Sam is Dead. The protagonist is a young boy who is caught in the middle of the Revolutionary War. Mrs. Abbott’s voice fills with intensity as she describes his hiding from a hoard of “Redcoats” who have taken over the street out front of his house. The British have captured a slave, a man who was charged with fighting for the colonists, and his allegiance and color offend the British. The author describes in gruesome detail how the British behead the man. Around me, the boys respond raucously: They laugh and cry out, “That’s boge!” I sit silently, staring at the floor; tears leak silently out of my eyes and splash onto the dirty orange carpet.

Sixth Grade

I discover a stack of notes thrown in the trash. They’re intricately folded in that secret way that girls have for letters for their friends or for love letters, and the handwriting is big and loopy. I am immediately enraptured with the mystery of finding this correspondence, and I harvest them all from the trash.

At home, I pour over these letters from Tammy Simpson to Blake Slaughter. Tammy is a tough eighth grader who once threatened to beat me up thinking I was my twin sister who was dating her “little brother” who she thought was too good for Stacey. Since then I’ve been half terrified of her and half in awe of her. She has brassy red hair that’s curly and teased up big and stiff. Her cat’s-green eyes are always rimmed in heavy black eyeliner, and her pegged jeans are artfully torn at the knees.  Blake is in my grade, but he’s always seemed older. He has always been the tallest in the class, and he had an earring way back in fourth grade. I’ve always thought he was cute, and we “went together” for a day in fifth grade until he broke up with me for being “too straight,” too shy to sit with him at lunch, too afraid to kiss him.

I can’t tell if the letters are love letters or break up letters. And I don’t know why they’re in the trash: Is their relationship over now, or was one of them just cleaning out a cluttered backpack? Tammy writes of how much she hates her life, how she wants to kill herself, how Blake is the only reason she doesn’t. She repeatedly, flirtatiously, calls him her “little prick,” which seems like an insult to me even though I don’t know what it means. She keeps telling him she loves him and she hates him.

I am enthralled by the intensity of it all. What is her life like? What must it be like to want to die? What must it be like to only want to live for love?

In a notebook that I buy just for this purpose, I begin to write a story, a book, I tell myself, with a central character inspired by Tammy. The story opens with the protagonist walking alone by herself along a nighttime road lit by the purple fluorescent glow of street lights. I don’t know where the story is going, but I know I want it to say something about loneliness and the pain of troubled families, and love, things I don’t truly understand. I never finish it.

Tenth Grade

All of us have congregated in the upstairs hallway before school starts in our big, sprawling crowd, spread out on the floor. Andy comes over to relive the all-ages punk show at Club Soda that we were at the evening before. He bought a few zines, and he’s particularly excited about one called Fiat Lux. It was written by a guy named Lonewolf who was traveling with the headlining band, Once Again. He loans it to me, and I start to read it as I sit in my desk first period.

Ms. Jilek is taking role and getting the day’s lesson ready. All around me, students are chatting, but I find myself immersed in Lonewolf’s writing. The zine is a personal zine, all about how he has a terminal illness and will die young. He has decided that he wants to live a full life despite this. He dropped out of school. He traveled to Europe and hitchhiked around. He trainhopped all over America. He studied philosophy and read continually. And as I read, I feel a pit developing in my gut, and I feel myself floating away from this honors English class, away from Ms. Jilek and her matching earring/pin set and her denim jumper and her fluffy, curled, grey hair; away from students lamenting too much homework or talking about the parties of the weekend.

I suddenly feel very cold and very afraid. I have never lived. I will never really live. I have just been going through the motions. I have been going to school to get good grades so that I can have a comfortable life. But what will it all mean? In that instant, reading about a young man facing his young death, I know I will die. I feel it palpably, and I want to get up and run out of the classroom.

Of course I don’t. I sit and go through the lesson. But somehow this moment stays with me. It lives in my backpack tucked in with all the homework crammed in. It lives in my thoughts at night when I try to sleep. It lives in the poetry I try to write in my journal.

Twelfth Grade

It’s a beautiful spring morning, but I feel dreadful. I spent the night throwing up, feverish and shivering. Normally I wouldn’t go to school feeling like this, but I have no choice. It’s the advanced placement English literature test, the test I have been preparing all year for, and there are no make-ups. This is my only chance.

I drag myself to school, wait in line outside the library. All the students around me buzz with nervous energy, but my mind is a fog, and I feel queasy. We eventually are checked in, herded to our seats, and given our tests to begin. Several times throughout the test, I have to get up and run to the bathroom to throw up. (How can I still be throwing up? I can’t possibly have anything else in my stomach to heave up!)

Despite this, I fall in love with the short story we are to analyze, “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros. I make sure to memorize the name of the author and title of the book so I can buy it later.

Months later in summer, I get my score report: a five: the highest score possible.


Right Now and a Memory

August 3, 2014, 1:30 am
My infant son is sleeping fitfully next to me. I find that every time he stirs or struggles, I am roused, awakened. Maybe it’s a curse for all parents—this worry about everything that could happen. Terrible things flash through my mind of all the ways he could be hurt or worse. So, when he stirs, I do too, and now I am awake.
He woke me up at one, am straining and fussing for a nipple that wasn’t there. I can only guess that, in his baby mind, breasts just appear from out of his slumber, filled with warm milk…so he always surfaces from his sleep—usually not fully—looking, searching for it, eyes closed, grunting and turning his head this way and that. He’s begun to strain so much he inch-worms himself in his little co-sleeper. He’ll end up perpendicular to where he started, just his head in his bed and the rest of his body in ours. Or worse still, one night he came rolling into me while I was asleep. He only did that once, and, as far as we can tell, he’s not actually rolling yet, but this is just one more thing to worry about—he, swaddled, rolling over, and, because his arms are pinned to his side, being unable to hold himself up.
Hence I don’t sleep well.
So I’m lying here, unsleeping, remembering. I remember this:
This really happened:
I’d driven to Chicago from Ann Arbor. It was summery, and the city held on to the heat. Even after the sun went down the pavement released its trapped heat of the day, and the buildings and smog cradled it, holding it: a muggy, Midwestern summer.
Nighttime, we set out walking. I don’t remember now if we had a destination or if we were aimless. But we walked for hours. We ended up in a place that felt to me, someone unfamiliar with the city, as the edge of town: factories, train tracks, warehouses. There was a chocolate factory there that my Chicago friends knew about.
As we got close, the smell of chocolate took over the night. The sky glowed pink with the lights of the city. Chicago isn’t ever truly dark. The factory was silhouetted black against that pink, and in front of the factory, parked on the train tracks that bounded the factory, was a train car.
A long tube or hose stretched from the car into the factory. The car was pumping its goods into the factory to be processed, but coming out of the top of the car and then falling back down like snow to coat its roof and the ground around it was sugar: sugar falling like snow. How could we not climb the ladder up, dance in the falling sugar, eat handfuls, not caring that our hair and insides of our shoes were sticky, not caring that we were covered, like the top of the train car, in sugar?
Afterward, buzzing and sticky, we went to the river. A bridge went over the river with several lanes of traffic for cars. But the bridge also had a pedestrian walkway with places where we could crawl down underneath the bridge and sit on the platforms made of girders. From these nests, we could hear the whir and thump of traffic, and we could watch the boats with their points of light guiding them under the bridge.
We breakfasted at IHOP at six am and stumbled back to the apartment in Logan Square where we fell asleep in our clothes with sugar still in our hair.