In the middle of a boring 5th grade civics lesson the school principal opens the door. A small skinny boy with big black eyes walks behind her. The principal says something to the teacher, who looks annoyed. The principal doesn’t look at the boy as she leaves the room. I can tell he’s scared by the way he stares at the floor, holding himself like he’s afraid to breathe. The teacher uses her mean voice. “This is Alfilio. He’s from Colombia. He only speaks Spanish.”
I know what it’s like to be scared and can’t bear to see him looking so little and frightened. I raise my hand like my teacher keeps telling me to do and offer to share my desk. The teacher shrugs. She points to me and says, “Go sit next to Nancy,” but he doesn’t understand her words. I smile to show him that he’s welcome and motion him to come over, but he doesn’t move. I’m afraid my teacher will get mad at me again for disrupting the class. She says I disrupt the class because I ask too many questions. But he looks so lonely I don’t care what she says. I go over to him and take his hand. I smile and point to my desk. I sit down and motion for him to sit in the empty space I’ve made. The boy hesitates, then nods and sits. Tears are wetting his face but I don’t have a hankie. He wipes them with his hand. I wish I could put my arm around him but this might make my teacher even angrier. I wish I could say, “Welcome,” but I don’t know the Spanish word.
After school I go to the library and take out an English/Spanish dictionary. I write down words and phrases for him in English and Spanish: Welcome. Bienvenidos. Thank you. Muchas gracias. I do not understand. No entiendo. Please speak more slowly. Por favor, habla más despacio.
The next day during recess I teach him some words and phrases. After he repeats what I tell him, he says, “Thank you,” in English. He smiles shyly. I wish I knew the Spanish words to tell him that he’s smart. I’m impressed at how quickly he learns. While I’m teaching him, some classmates rush over and call him bad names. They make fun of him. I get mad and tell them to leave him alone. “He’s not dumb. He’s learning English. Why don’t you learn Spanish? Then you could speak to him.”
The boy pulls me away from the children. Two of the bigger boys, their faces filled with hate, threaten to punch him back to where he comes from. They yell at me to stop being a goody-goody. Alfilio is shaking with fear. At home I’m afraid a lot, but not now. I’m too angry. I hate their stupid cruelty so I stand in front of him. “Leave him alone!” They’re not going to hurt him while I’m around. I don’t know what would have happened if the bell hadn’t rung. The boys run away when a teacher tells us to go inside.
My teacher sends a note home to my parents: Nancy is disrupting the class. This must stop or I will send her to the principal’s office. As usual, I sign the note with my dad’s impossible-to-read signature.
Every night I copy phrases from the dictionary to give to Alfilio. I can see how much he wants it so I let him borrow it. He promises to bring it to school each day.
A few days later I take the subway to the city to go to a bookstore. The clerk says the English/Spanish dictionary I want costs 50 cents more than I have. “Please, can I give you 50 cents next week after I babysit?” I tell him about Alfilio and how much he needs the dictionary. I practically jump up and down when the clerk agrees to lend me 50 cents.
I can’t wait to give Alfilio the dictionary, but I don’t want to get in trouble again so I keep it hidden in my jacket. After school, when we’re alone, I give the dictionary to him. He can’t believe it. He keeps handing it back to me. “No,” I keep saying, “es un regalo por tu.” I’m not sure I’m saying it right but he gets the message. He takes the book and cradles it to his chest. He doesn’t even try to wipe away his tears.
“Muchas gracias,” he says.
“De nada,” I say, hoping it’s the beginning of a real conversation.
Alfilio isn’t in class the next day or the next or the next. The teacher never says what happened to him. My desk feels too big and too lonely.