The Big Read: Miami Stories Blog
These Miami Stories are being collected by The Center for Literature and Theatre as part of The Big Read 2014. To learn more, and to submit your own story, visit our Big Read site.
Liz Balmaseda’s First English Teacher Leaves Her Tongue-tied
Before I learned to speak English, I flung about pretend words, hoping that by mimicking the strange, twangy language around me, I’d sooner or later hit a real word.
English was the language of television, of rock-‘n’-roll, of neighborhood girls who could do The Shimmy. It was a code that I desperately wanted to decipher. I badgered my father each time we watched the Dick Van Dyke Show. Papi, what does tired mean?
In my Cuban girl mind, America’s slangs and rhythms all rolled into one pulsating, pizzazzy soundtrack featuring everything from Bewitched to James Brown’s Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag. Unlike the open, flowing expressions of my family’s Cuban Spanish, English seemed to demand greater dexterity. It required pursed lips and lots of reserved, “shhhh” sounds.
I was 6 years old and headed for the first grade at Palm Springs Elementary in Hialeah. I could pronounce only my name, Elizabeth Rosalina Balmaseda Mas.
I don’t remember what I expected that first day of school, but whatever it was paled in comparison to Mrs. Roberta Sussman.
She was the personification of groovy, 22 years old in a mini-skirt and brunet flip-do, a hip chick citizen of 1965. She was gorgeous and funny, and she could do The Shimmy. Still, I was petrified. I studied her careful pronunciations, the slow-motion ovals of sound, and I tried to re-create them in the mirror of my East Hialeah bedroom, as my mother fried palomilla in the kitchen.
At home, I talked incessantly about “mi teacher” and repeated all of my great, new words. Syllable by syllable, they were becoming mine. I’d recognize them in my library books, silently turn them in my mouth and, like Mrs. Sussman, fire them from the hip.
"Mouth!" That’s what she called kids who talked out of turn.
It has always been a mystery to me how I learned to speak and read English at the same time. But I remember it as a great, happy adventure. I don’t remember the other children or teachers. Sometimes, I confess, I even forget the name of the school - I was there only that academic year, 1965-66. But I have never forgotten Mrs. Sussman.
She has always remained the larger-than-life figure, perched atop her desk, her legs dangling like a little girl’s. I still envision her at the blackboard rendering neat parallels with a three-pronged chalk holder, making bears’ bellies out of the letter B.
Soon, I was chatting up Mrs. Sussman as if I had been born in Miami, as she was.
Sometime toward the end of the school year, the unthinkable happened. With Mrs. Sussman at my side, I competed in the first-grade spelling bee, sponsored by The Herald.
One of the last words: doll.
Borrowing some of mi teacher’s cockiness, I came back: “D-O-Double-L.”
Mrs. Sussman was just as excited as I was to hold the first-place trophy. Later, she said they wanted to give me a “certificate.”
"What is that?" I asked.
"It’s a special paper," she explained.
"Oh, that’s OK, I don’t need a paper," I told her, "I can just tell my mom and dad that I won."
I remember she laughed out loud. Days later, she came to my house and brought the special paper. To this day, my mother talks glowingly about the teacher who came to our house to visit.
After the school year ended, my family moved to West Hialeah, and I transferred to John G. DuPuis Elementary. I took along my love of English. I went on to memorize poems and read tons of books. Through the years, I happily drifted back to Mrs. Sussman’s class.
When I heard her voice on the phone last week, I could hardly speak. She had called to congratulate me on a recent column. In turn, my thank-yous tumbled out awkwardly, between sobs, as I tried to enunciate all the feelings of a 6-year-old refugee girl.
"Elizabeth," she began, her voice now 34 years deeper, "I remember the first day you walked into my class. I remember exactly where you sat. I remember the dresses and the bows. I remember your father’s short-sleeved shirts, perfectly creased. I remember your mother’s smile. You must know this - your parents were so proud of you."
Two days later, we were in her office, racing through the past three decades. It took us 41/2 hours to scratch the surface. In her world, she is now Bobbi Schulte, a 56-year-old mother of two, divorced and remarried, no longer a teacher. She co-owns managed-care community health clinics.
Reminders of past
Even so, I recognized glimmers of her previous life in her fabulous, mauve nails, her double-pierced ears, her sassy talk.
As she told her story, she filled in the blanks of mine. She had wanted to be a singer, not a teacher, but wound up in the classroom, following her mother’s career. Mine was the first class she taught. I was the only Spanish-speaking child in the class.
"I made flash cards for you. I painted a rabbit - a conejo, right? You were so eager. It all happened very fast for you," she said.
She quit teaching four years later, when her first child was born.
"But I never forgot you. For years I prayed for you," she said.
"Why?" I asked.
Her words stunned me.
"You were a Cuban refugee girl in a redneck town. I never wanted anyone to hurt you," she said.
All of my memories took on a new light. I wanted to say so many things, but my words tangled. How do you begin to thank someone so pivotal in your life? Long before Air Jordan inspired children to aim higher, my Hialeah teacher gave me wings of gold. She gave me the words with which I write. She gave me the very power and protection that she prayed for.
"You know, I still don’t know how I wound up as a teacher that year," she mused.
"Maybe you were there so you could teach me," I offered.
She tossed her head back, and we laughed for a long time.
This piece was published as a column in The Miami Herald on July 24, 1999, when Liz Balmaseda was a metro columnist at the newspaper.