How do I explain a color?
This past year I spent my mornings in a Spanish language kindergarten, and that is where I met J. When the school year started the only response I could get out of him was a shoulder shrug, and when he did speak, it was always in English… confusing considering he is in a kindergarten class filled with children who all speak Spanish as their first language. We only speak Spanish in the classroom. His parents don’t speak English. Yet he only spoke English.
Being in the classroom in an assistant capacity allowed me to spend one on one time with J in a way that is not normally feasible in a typical classroom setting, and over the course of the school year he has made significant improvements. He can write his name legibly, for instance, and has started rephrasing his all-English-questions to me when I respond ¿Mande? with something more closely resembling Spanish. Even if it all comes out in English, he at least responds. The shoulder shrugging has all but disappeared.
He is behind in other benchmarks besides language development and letter recognition, which seems to indicate that school will continue to be a struggle without additional support from an individualized education plan, though his enthusiasm for learning continues to increase, and I find that hopeful.
The week before Spring Break we were finishing our unit on La oruga muy hambrienta or in English The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The niños set out to make una oruga (a caterpillar) and glue it onto a paper bag. Then they were to feed la comida (the food), actually little tarjetas (cards) with the picture of the food and the word written on it, to the caterpillar while they retold the story to their partner. This was -for obvious reasons- a multi-step process. I noticed that J was struggling with cutting out the tarjetas de comida, so I came over to assist. I cut them into strips, so then he could cut them into squares. I got up from his table to help some other students, and when I came back, he proudly showed me his jagged-edge squaerish cards. ¡Muy bien! (very good) I told him. Then I handed him two sheets of paper with two circles each and repeated the teacher’s instructions: Colorea 3 verdes y un rojo (color 3 green and one red) y no dejes espacio blanco (and don’t leave any white/blank space) He nodded and took the circles. I walked to the other side of the room. I came back. He was on his second circle. They were both red. No mi vida. Ya hiciste el rojo. (No, you already did red) He looked panicked like the time we colored Cat in the Hat’s hat in a pattern of red white red white red and the last bit blue. I had made dots on each line with the correct color as a guide, but when I came back to check on him, the whole hat was red. He likes red.
But today we had time to start over, so I told him: No te preocupes, te traigo otro (don’t worry, I’ll bring you another paper). And I did. Empezamos de nuevo (We’ll start over). Ahorita verde, todos verdes. (Now green, all of them green) ‘ta bien? (ok?) He nodded.
Another child needed help with the glue and when I came back to check on his progress he was diligently coloring the new circle… red.
Mijo, te dije verde –ver-de-. No rojo. (I told you green, gr-een, not red) He continues coloring, so I point to the circle and say Eso no es verde. (This is not green). He pauses: “Teacher, which one is verde?” I look at him. He’s not kidding. He doesn’t typically make jokes, and his eyes confirm that he is absolutely serious. He has no idea which one is verde nor has it occurred to him to look at his classmates’ círculos for any clues. In less than three months he would be finishing his first year of school, which has been solely Spanish instruction, and he had no idea what verde meant. It made my heart hurt and brought home the severity of the situation. Inside I was thinking: Oh honey, I am so worried about you! I wanted to scoop him up, to rescue him from this impossible task, but I knew that would solve nothing. I knew that I had to believe it was possible, that he can do this.
Instead of saving him, I sat down slowly, took a deep breath and said: Te ayudo (I will help you) Esa (this) I said holding up a green crayon with utmost reverence es verde (is green). I peeled back the edge of the paper to expose more of the crayon for coloring, looked at him and said Verde, as if it was the most important fact on this Earth because in that moment it was. Then I pointed to the box. Escoja otra verde (pick another green one), and we sat and colored our verde círculos side by side, repeating verde, verde, verde. Como si fuera nuestra avemaría.