Xoyatla Is a Proper Noun

Six students study their Scrabble tiles. I watch as Juan Ramon places X, then Y on either side of a letter O. “Xoyatla is a proper noun,” I say. “No proper nouns in Scrabble.” These almost men and women laugh at me.

Over the past few years I have learned to pronounce ZOY-AT-LA, the name of a village, sixteen miles outside of the city of Puebla, in Mexico. So many of my students come to New Jersey from this place where Spanish is a second language. The first is Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. I have learned to hear the differences when students switch from Spanish into Nahuatl, its deep throat-swallowed consonants and “ishes” caught behind the teeth remind me of some Eastern European tongue.

In his sophomore year I sat next to Efrain Nolasco in front of a computer screen filled with Google Earth satellite images. We followed a highway out of Puebla City, through bougainvillea-hung suburbs, onto a dusty unpaved road. My eyes drifted to Efrain’s tattooed knuckles. I could not picture this serious, polite boy as part of the violent gang he had left behind. I followed a wide alley formed by the adobe walls of family compounds.

“My house,” he said as he touched the screen. “No job for me there. Just making mezcal.” He clicked again and a narrow dirt path appeared. Leather-skinned men stirred what looked to me like 44-gallon drums heated by piles of burning wood. Brown fibrous plants were packed into the rusty drums. Here in New Jersey Efrain learned to slice salami and make salads at a local deli where his knuckles were covered by thin gloves.

In the next photo, pale yellow butterflies flitted above a shallow, rock-filled river. “Pretty, “ I offered.

Efrain never talked much. He had gone through seventh and eighth grade silently observing the chaos of American middle school culture. In tenth grade he told me how his puppy, named Chucky after the horror-movie doll, had followed him around the hills of Xoyatla. With little visible emotion and few words he explained how the dog had died when a load of firewood tumbled on his sleeping body. I wanted to touch his tattooed hands.

(After graduation Efrain will move to New York City where he will work in the kitchen of an upscale café. He will return to my classroom and hand me a gift box containing a gold-rimmed plate nestled in tissue. The Statue of Liberty, in the center, will be partially covered by a sticker that reads “24 carat gold.” A precious gift.)

Over thirty years before this Scrabble game I sat in a room I can’t remember in Thailand, hoping to find work so I could stop my backpacking trudge around the world. Bangkok was a comfortable city for foreigners. Cheap. Good food. I saw an advertisement for learning to teach English as a Second Language, completed the one-week course and felt hopeful. Both my husband and I had college degrees in education and a few years’ experience in New Jersey. I was tired. My husband was tired. We wanted to stop. If we could work for a year, earn a little money, sleep in a bed and take hot showers, we could continue our trek to Australia renewed.

Just north of Thailand, in Laos, we found teaching positions. We were thrown into the whirl of lesson plans and observations, teaching three or four classes a day, from beginners to advanced. I loved it. I wasn’t able to speak the Vietnamese, Mandarin, Lao, or Thai of my students, but I was able to teach English. During the school day I was a part of the bouncing energy exchange in my classroom, my energy to them, theirs to me, and back again. I felt more at ease in a classroom of students who looked nothing like me than I had ever felt in my hometown. Thirteen years later, I am back to where we started, to the high school we graduated from. And here I am in Room 209.

In Scrabble and in life my students do not follow useless rules. Glancing up at me, their kind obsidian eyes twinkle as a Spanglish word is placed in squares. “No, no. English only.” I hear myself and find my words a joke.

Blanca touches me, her hand on my wrist. Her skin is rosy bronze. She doesn’t attempt to spell, only watches the game. She has struggled with English and even reading and writing Spanish. Maybe she’s dyslexic; no way to test her here. Still she has persevered, but sometimes retreats inward, protecting any dignity she can. But in Home Economics she has shone, precisely cutting patterns and stitching perfect seams, displaying creativity and intelligence.

Miguel’s turn. His fingers place three tiles on the squares to spell taco. “Is it legal?”

“It is,” I answer, unable to explain this question of legality which hovers in the air above the game we play in 209.

Miguel has been a JV soccer player for our school for several years and has worked long hours at McDonald’s. Because of Miguel I learned the name of Lionel Messi, who plays for Barcelona, Miguel’s favorite soccer team. Since seventh grade he has watched me at the front of the room as I point and draw and cavort to explain my language. He surprised me once when he rose from his chair, tapped his heels, and danced a few steps – reminding me of a mariachi band I had watched in a Cancun hotel years before.

Across the table Lucia stretches a worn hair band and pulls back her hair of midnight silk, careful to make sure each strand is secure, in place. She rearranges her tiles on their wooden resting place, looks up and flashes a smile.

For their final project each of my students has written an autobiography. The story is in sections. The first is titled Leaving Home, followed by The Journey, First Days, and Learning English. Lucia struggled to write her memories. She often sat still in front of her keyboard, hands folded in her lap. I pulled a chair next to her and said, “Can you tell me about the day you left?”

Her eyes filled. She told me that day was the first time she had left her village. She smiled when she described how she hugged her grandmother, who does not speak Spanish and will not answer her door if someone calls out in that foreign tongue. She recounted bus rides and the questions at the airports in Mexico, how she was confused by the demands in Spanish. Her eyes grew wide, long lashes almost touching her arched eyebrows. The part of her story that I will remember forever is one sentence on her typewritten page, “The man took my hand and pulled me through a barbed wire fence…”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “How did he pull you through the fence? Didn’t you get scratched?”

Lucia pushed her chair out from the desk so she could use her hands to illustrate how first one man climbed inside the barbed wire fence. Lucia leaned through the opening while the man on the outside lifted her feet. At the same time the man on the inside supported her shoulders. Like a sack of flour, they passed her between the barbs, her hair catching on the sharp metal. Her cheeks flushed pink and her hands shook as she explained. I covered her hand with mine and stood to move on to the next student. My heart ached.

Teachers have often complained that my students do not do homework. I go to their classrooms, explain that after school Juan goes to cook until ten o’clock and then cleans until two, then home for three hours sleep before catching the school bus. I ask for more time.

“There is no computer in the home, no supplies to make the poster. A taxi to Wal-Mart costs twenty-five dollars.” I stock my classroom like a craft store. Eat my lunch next to Miguel while he creates a slide show on mitosis. How can I not? I see their faces and their souls and cannot turn away.

The classroom door opens and Kelly, an exchange student from China, swings in and heads for the plastic cookie jar. Her friend, Banessa, from a town outside Mexico City, reaches into the jar and grabs a handful of broken animal crackers. Banessa works two jobs after school and on weekends. She’s sending money back to pay for her younger sister’s quinceanera celebration. The Scrabble players yell playful insults. Kelly makes a face and tips the container. She closes her fist around the cookies. The girls rush out the door and head for their next class.

These Scrabble players are my seniors. In a few weeks they will join the other members of their class on the football field, enter to the beat of Pomp and Circumstance and exit to the triumph of Star Wars. They will each be the first in their families to graduate from high school. What comes next they don’t know. Neither do I, but for a few more weeks they are safe, here in Room 209.

The speaker above the flag in the front of the classroom squawks. The players stop to listen. “Cheerleaders will be selling bagels tomorrow outside the gym during periods one, two, and three. Support the girls’ trip to Disney World for the National Championships.”

My classroom is a time warp like Dr. Who’s blue police box, or maybe a culture warp, another world. Banter, back and forth in Spanish, lilting smooth connections in the spaces between the words. Sentences ending with vowels. Some words in English, accented, TV slang, ghetto-laced. In Nahuatl, mysterious, guttural, sprinkled with sounds of ancient Aztec priests chanting incantations of myth and prayer. Teenage banter. I love the sound.

Other members of the staff ask me, “What language do you speak? Spanish?”

“No, Spanish wouldn’t help me with my Chinese or Indian students,” I tell them.

“Then how do you teach?” they ask.

“I use my hands, my face, and lots of visuals. Movies, the computer.” I don’t know how to explain the reaching with my heart. Knowing when to touch or not touch a hand or shoulder, depending on the culture of my student. Offering a ride home, or a cool drink. I don’t know how to explain that this isn’t my job, but my life.

Juan Ramon places an E and a D, to make a past tense. His hair reaches the middle of his back.

“All men in my family have long hair,” he told me. Geronimo, his father, has hair streaked with silver strands, flowing like Niagara Falls. Juan journeyed in a van full of sweat-covered men and women, standing from Arizona to New Jersey. One man died along the way, standing, bouncing along the interstate in the dark.

“What about a toilet?” I asked, thinking of the urges of my aging body.

“Plastic buckets,” he shrugged.

Juan’s recipe, apple taco with caramel sauce, for a contest at the culinary vocational school has earned him a scholarship at Johnson and Wales University, but he has no papers. Undocumented, he cannot attend. (He will return to Xoyatla to marry his boyhood sweetheart, open an Internet café, and have a son called Steve. We will become friends on Facebook.)

On the game board, words intersect. The pattern grows, becoming more complicated. After school one day, when my students who don’t have to rush to work were drawing maps and using the computers, the Spanish teacher, Mr. Matos, thought he would play a joke. Leaning into my doorway he told me, “Immigration just picked up three of the kids in front of Wawa.”

My heart and stomach lurched as I grabbed my purse and headed out the door. “Who?” I asked, trying to remember who had papers and who didn’t. Matos met me in the hall doubled over with laughter. I still shake remembering that afternoon.

Carlos has been quiet during this Friday afternoon Scrabble game, earning only a few points from his words. His right hand sketches a landscape on a scrap of paper and I can see worry in his eyes. He has a friend suffering from depression and Carlos, like me, wants to fix problems.

Carlos has passed the English test required for graduation on his first try. He arrived in my class less than four years ago. How did he do it? Outside of school he has worked as a baker for years. Muffins, pies, wedding cakes, giant chocolate chip cookies: he learned to do it all. He has worked from the day he arrived, even after his brother was deported.

After graduation, he will phone his mother. She will chastise him for not starting a family. She doesn’t understand that her son is a great man with big dreams and a tender heart. When Carlos and his friends take me to lunch they dream aloud of a small coffee shop. Bakery goods and sandwiches. The three of them can do it all.

Carlos can eat ten oranges in a row, hardly stopping to breathe. I watch him finish one and grab the next. Tomorrow I will bring another bag.

My students scrape the letter tiles into plastic bags. Blanca folds the Scrabble board and places it in the box. They stand and stretch and push the desks into neat rows. Other students shoot into the room from the bustling hall, say hello, then out again to join the other kids rushing towards the buses. Quan, a Chinese junior, looks in, spots some friends, and hurls an insult, “Pendejos.” His Mexican friends in ESL have taught him well.

I answer, “What’d you say?” My brain takes time to translate. “Hey, no curses!”

“Talking about soccer,” Miguel responds, eyes crinkling at the corners.

I tease them, “It’s the name of your team and you’re the captain.”

We’ll play Scrabble tomorrow here in our classroom. Juan Ramon, Efrain, Blanca, Lucia, Miguel, and Carlos will munch animal crackers and lay out the tiles in the wooden trays. When the door is closed we’ll talk about immigration and green cards. I’ll explain why a yearbook costs so much money and why the American students don’t have to follow the school dress code but my students have to here in 209.

For a few more weeks we will open the board, line up the letters, and create the language and rules we understand without translation. Patience, hard work, respect, perseverance, hope, and love.



Cynthia Inman Graham grew up a South Jersey piney/clamdigger. She left home with her husband to travel and work around the world where she learned relationships bind humans through space and time and culture. She returned, taught Special Education and ESL at her alma mater high school for over twenty-five years, then retired to begin a second journey of writing.


  1. Brings back touching memories of my Spanish speaking students I so loved and was so unprepared professionally to help, but my love touched them, thank God!

  2. Cindi…so hard for me to express how wonderful your story made me feel in my heart. I am so proud to know someone like you, who could write an article so overwhelmingly beautiful. You’ve touched so many lives, they are blessed! And knowing you….you are saying, “No, I am blessed to have been there for them!” Love, Vonnie

    1. Thank you, Vonnie. You’ve touched lives, too. You know who I’m talking about. Not everyone can teach the two times tables each day for a school year with patience and cookies.

  3. Love the article Mrs. Graham. I cried thinking and remembering those days. Thank you for ALL and EVERYTHING YOU did for us, your ESL students.

    1. Oh, Lucero, so good to read your comment. It was such fun when you shared your love of poetry in ESL with me- a magic moment. You have gone on to have such a fine family and I know your boys will be read to and taken out to explore the world with you as their strong, word-loving mother. (In two languages! Lucky boys!)

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