November 30, 2004

Learning a new language in their new world of Iowa

In a small basement room tucked at the back of West Liberty's library, five of the city's newest residents met two Mondays ago. They've come from Colombia and four very different parts of Mexico, but all five have one thing in common - the desire to learn English.

Low voiced and hunched over their desks as if having trouble seeing the page, each adult in turn reads from a journal, an assignment to explain in ingles what they ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner the day before. It's 6:15 p.m., and each one of the adults already has put in a full day's work.

"Today is Nov. 16, 2003," one reads, "It is 8:30 in the night. For breakfast this morning, I ate cookies. For lunch I ate enchiladas. For dinner I ate eggs, beans and toast with butter."

J.D. Munoz, still decked in his McDonald's managers uniform, stands in front of the class. He leads this session, one of four sessions that Muscatine Community College offers weekly at the library. He corrects their pronunciation and tense, partially in English, partially in Spanish: "8:30 at night," he says, "8:30 in the morning, 3:30 in the afternoon."

The student who'll read next mouths his journal entry as Munoz elaborates. A yellow-covered "Photo Directory of American English" sits next to his paper.

After each journal reading, Munoz also is quick to tell them "good job" and point out what they got right. It seems so minor telling them he was impressed that they used "ate" instead of "eat," but each of his students' faces brightens. One of them crosses out a word in his notebook and scribbles another one in the meager space above it. They listen a little more closely to the next journal reading and smile when he uses "ate" instead of "eat."


Not too far into the class, the students hear a guest speaker, a young woman in her 20s. A native English speaker who grew up amid southern Iowa's cornfields, she's studied espanol for several years.

Still, her face blushes as she begins speaking in Spanish. She talks at a moderate pace, obviously trying not to stumble over her sentences. Sometimes an English word, such as "which," slips into a sentence.

The students listen politely, their eyes growing larger when she slows, like parents waiting for a child to say the word that the meaning of the whole sentence hinges on.

Later, she looks away, trying to think of the word, a long "uh -" breaking her speech. The students lean forward, resisting the temptation to blurt out the word they know must come next.

She will not learn, after all, by being given the an-swers.


Most of the students wear hooded sweatshirts, beat-up caps and blue jeans. One used to be a newspaper reporter in Mexico City. For a woman from Colombia, Thursday was her first Thanksgiving in the United States.

Munoz tries to explain the holiday. "It's about being with your familia," he says. The students give him knowing nods.

"And the pilgrims," he adds. Some of the students' brows furrow.

Later in the class - it goes 21/2 hours until 8:30 p.m. - they'll learn something about the American farm of the 1930s by reading "Charlotte's Web." Besides expanding their vocabulary and understanding of English grammar, it'll help them better grasp the rural history of the state they've moved into.

The young woman passes a handout to the students when Munoz tells them to take a short break. As the students rise and accept the handout, they do not say gracias.

They say "Thank you."

(originally published Nov. 30, 2003)

November 16, 2004

Finding something to do now that yard work is done

Right about a week before Thanksgiving, the yard work ends. Usually a few hard freezes and the first snow put a stop to it. If not, as is the case this year, we simply run out of things to do about the yard.

Oh sure, there's always something: oil the gate hinges, rake the few leaves that have flittered in from a neighbor's lawn, hang the Christmas lights early. But the main tasks of our outdoor work - mowing, raking, gardening - are over. Besides, the sun lets off too little warmth on a Saturday afternoon to make such puttering anything more than a chore.

Gradually we accept that the next few months will be spent inside, with only a few breaks for shoveling snow. Most of us pray there only will be a few breaks.


Every once in a while I talk to someone who lives down South. Upon discovering that I reside in Iowa, he'll invariably say, "You must get a lot of work done, having to spend so much time inside."

Ruminating for a moment, I ask, "Why's that?"

"Exceptionally long winters - you can't go out in the cold, right?"

Now, I suppose we Mid-westerners do spend a little more time inside during winter than other seasons; cabin fever is a documented psychological condition. And many times I've seen my father on a cold winter day, staring out the picture window at the sky graying over the cornfield, hands behind his back.

Just as the snowflakes begin to swirl, a smile would swing across his face. He suddenly had something to do.


"Old school," some would call me father and others like him: A man who believes activity alone is not enough. Instead, it must be productive, with a tangible, measurable result.

You can rake leaves be-cause leaving them on the ground encourages weeds. You might rake leaves be-cause a green lawn is a sign of middle class self-respect.

Yet the real, subconscious reason most men like my father rake leaves is because it requires planning with a clear beginning, middle and end.

Our efforts must begin with a strategy. From which corner of the yard will we start? How many piles will we make? How far apart will those piles be to minimize our labors?

Undermining our work, like a villainous story character, the wind blows leaves off our pile, forcing us to redouble our efforts, or to reorganize our piles in a way that minimizes our losses.

Realizing a short time later that our last pile has been bagged, we wipe sweat off the brow with the back of a wrist and as muscles ache lean against the rake handle then gaze at what we've accomplished. Our eyelids flutter. We've exhausted ourselves enough that a nap is in order.


Call me "new school." Or more aptly "all school." I've come to believe that activity doesn't demand constant planning or work to be useful when the activity is seeking knowledge.

Of course, that's a difficult concept for many to accept. Poor reading rates, lowest common denominator television programming and the profusion of recreational options in our society imply that leisure for many does not equal learning. Further, if learning doesn't lead to dollars, then it's not worthwhile.

For me, though, stumbling across a Web site about the stars nearest our sun offers the chance for a tantalizing journey. I probably won't ever use this information, unless somehow finding myself at a cocktail party full of astronomers.

Frequently, though, I find myself leaning back in my executive chair and staring at the map of our stellar neighbors - Alpha Centauri, Barnard's Star, Wolf 359 - and thinking the strangest thoughts: From which corner of the map should I start clicking onstars to discover their location in constellations and potential planets? How many stars should I bother to visit, as most in our galaxy are unremarkable dim, red dwarves? How will I be able to keep track of "where I've been" if some stars are skipped?

Every once in a while as these thoughts cross my mind, especially on a brisk November day, I'll quick glance at the window.

Each time, a smile fills my face. I now have something to do.

(originally publisher Nov. 16, 2003)

November 14, 2004

The day most of my classmates came down from the tree

Billy Honecker possessed a unique notion of who could climb the oak tree at our elementary school. I'm not quite sure what it was, but somehow his concept centered on whether he approved of you or not.

If questioned about why he told you to go away if coming near the oak, Billy always gave some reason. Linda liked to read books, and that bothered him because no one should read too much. Wendy was overweight, and if she got onto the first branch, he was sure she'd break it - then our tree never would be the same again. As for Jim, there was nothing wrong with him exactly, but his father didn't hunt, so that made the son a bit suspicious.

This occurred back in the days when schools weren't concerned about being sued if a kid fell from a tree and broke his arm. Back then, a good climbing tree was just considered another piece of playground equipment.

And what a grand tree it was: wide swaths of sturdy branches whose top stood as tall as the school building itself. It grew on a slope, so if you stood upon the north side, there was less tree to climb before reaching that first branch. The principal had a rule that we couldn't go higher than that, but some of us tried reaching the top anyway.

• • •

If there was one kid who could reach the top, it was Scott. Skinny as a No. 2 pencil, his arms held Popeye-like strength, which made him a little weird to look at but perfect for climbing trees. He could pull himself up to the next limb with ease but was light enough that the ever thinning branches beneath his feet wouldn't crack.

One day while Billy had to stay inside for the first part of recess, we decided the perfect opportunity had arrived to see if Scott could climb the tree. The teacher would be busy with Billy, after all. So as the sun shined down upon us and the unpicked September corn waved in the breeze in the field beyond, we gazed up to watch Scott ascend.

He'd made it half way up, to the fourth branch from the ground, when Billy arrived from his conference.

"What's he doing up there?" Billy wailed.

"He's trying to reach the top," someone said.

"He's not allowed in our tree," Billy said. "He talks stupid."

We had to admit, Scott's voice was a little different than ours. But you got used to it, and after awhile didn't even notice.

"That's dumb," Linda said as she marched off. "Why don't you try being more tolerant?"

"Tolerant" was one of those buzzwords the teacher bandied about.

"Give me a break," Billy said. "Don't say I'm not tolerant when you're not tolerant of what I think!"

• • •

To our fourth-grade minds, Billy had a point. How could we criticize someone for being intolerant without being intolerant ourselves? Didn't Billy have a right to not like someone, no matter how dumb the reason seemed? And who were we to think his ideas were dumb anyway?

Fortunately I had a crush on this blonde haired girl who essentially was the valedictorian of our 12-person class. So I always was trying to be smart and had borrowed "How to Win an Argument" from a friend's dad, who taught rhetoric at a nearby college. The book didn't make much sense, but it helped me figure out why my father always won our arguments.

It struck me at that moment that Billy was applying a logical fallacy, specifically a type of ad hominem argument. Linda's claim had been "refuted" by attacking her rather than her contention. In short, Linda didn't practice what she preached and so had no reason to be critical.

It's kind of like when one drunk says to the other, "You know, we've got a drinking problem," and the other responds, "You're a drunk, so don't call me one!" - and they just keep on getting soused.

And Billy just keeps on being intolerant.

I figured there was no point in explaining this to him. "Scott, come on down, we'll go somewhere else," I said. He did, and then the rest of us kids, awed at how far he'd gotten, scrambled after him, leaving Billy to clamber around the oak by himself, all red in the face the whole while.

(originally published Nov. 14, 2004)

November 07, 2004

Gloating, sulking: 2 hues of 1 color

Jimmy Rocca was a sore loser - which made him a poor winner. Because of it, playing softball at our rural elementary school, the first row of the neighbor farmer's cornfield marking our outfield grass line, always became a chore.

We've all known sore losers, the kind who sulk and accuse the other side of cheating or getting a lucky call from the ump.

But the poor winner is just as immature. And Jimmy Rocca was a master of immaturity: "Ha! You guys really stunk!" he'd shout as the recess bell rang. "We could've beat you with one hand tied behind our back!"

Most of us wished we could tie one hand over Jimmy's mouth. We could take a teasing, but in Jimmy's case, victory demanded total, unconditional surrender on our part.

"We've never beat you that bad before!" he'd yell as we scrambled down the hallway to our classrooms. "Next time we'll probably beat you by 10 hits!"

Gradually his talk shifted to how incompetently we'd handled even the things we did well during the game. "If you wouldn't have swung so early, that one hit would have shot right into the cornfield, and you could have had a homer instead of just getting to third," he say. "If you would have thrown it to first instead of second, you could've got two outs instead of one."

Whether we said anything to Jimmy didn't matter. He was going to keep talking until he got off the bus.

Some think Jimmy was just overexcited. Sure, you can't blame someone for celebrating. But to get egomaniacal about it? To express the same symptoms as if he'd lost? Hmm ...

(originally published Nov. 7, 2004)