Dear Mrs. ________,
You were my teacher in third grade.
I was in the “advanced” reading group. Me, L., and M.
We were learning expressions and idioms, though I don’t remember if we used those exact terms at that age.
The workbook said to form a sentence with the words “itching” and “camera.”
Ok, I thought, I’m not quite sure what this means, but I got this.
I am in the advanced reading group after all.
I wrote: “He got a rash from using the camera and put on lotion because he was itching.”
You read what I wrote and said “No, Theresa, he didn’t get a rash from the camera and need lotion.” In a tone that seemed frustrated and annoyed. Maybe disappointed.
Thirty five years later and I can still remember what you sounded like, and how your words sounded to me.
What I should have written, and what M. and L. probably wrote, was something like, “He got a new camera for his birthday and was itching to use it.”
I had never heard of the expression before.
I didn’t read it in books.
My parents never used that expression.
I was born in the U.S. and spoke English all of my life but there were still nuances that I didn’t quite get.
My parents and grandma spoke Tagalog at home to each other, and English to me and my brother. With a smattering of Taglish.
My lola didn’t know much English so she spoke to us in Tagalog.
She was the kind of Filipina grandma that watched American soap operas every weekday afternoon while she ironed, folded clothes, or sat down to rest from housework.
So her limited English was confined to several basic words and the names of all the characters in General Hospital.
But I bet she understood the plots of all those soap operas spanning over thirty years.
Both my parents had lived in the US since the 1960s, fluent in accented English that they learned through American colonial education in the Philippines.
I felt ashamed for not knowing expressions or idioms.
I felt ashamed that I was in the advanced reading group but had made a mistake
I felt ashamed that you called out my error in front of my classmates.
I felt ashamed that my classmates knew more than me.
I felt ashamed of my family, my grandma who didn’t speak English, the different languages I heard at home, and that I wasn’t American enough somehow.
I felt ashamed that we were/are seen as perpetual foreigners in this country.
I felt ashamed that my parents never used the expression “itching to” at home.
Twenty six years later,
I earned my doctorate.
I wrote a dissertation semi-tome in academic English.
My research focused on the ways in which academic textbooks perpetuate racism.
I teach undergraduate and graduate students.
I support university faculty and their teaching, and transforming their teaching to be more inclusive, equitable, and liberatory.
Thirty five years later,
I asked my school-aged daughter if she had heard of the expression “itching to.”
She shook her head.
Thirty five years later, I can still feel the tone in your voice.
I bet you had no idea that your words would spiral a cycle of self-hate, shame, internalized colonialism, re-learning, healing, redemption, teaching, and self-love.
But you’ll understand when I don’t say “thank you, teacher.”
[Note: This piece was first published in Richmond Story House’s Zine #3, August 2018.]