The Story Of Their Lives
|I certainly didn't want to dampen the girls' enthusiasm, and I liked their initiative.|
"I'd rather just keep your copy if that's OK," Nancy told me.
"No, I'll get you a new one," I insisted. "It's no problem."
"Really, Mr. Michie, I'd rather just keep this one," she said. Then, after a pause, she added, "Put it this way: Would you rather have an old friend or a new friend?"
Dear Sandra Cisneros,
We have been reading your wonderful book, The House on Mango Street. We've enjoyed reading the real-life situations and relating them to our own lives. We are in an 8th grade Dramatic Reading Group at Seward Elementary School in the southwest of Chicago. We are planning to record the stories so other students can listen to them.
We would like to know how much of the story is based on your life. Your stories are very exciting, funny, and touching. We would really like to meet you if you ever get a chance to come to Chicago. You can contact our teacher, Mr. Greg Michie, at 4600 S. Hermitage, Chicago, Illinois, 60609. Once again, we really enjoyed reading your book.
"What do you think?" Nancy asked after I finished reading the letter. It was something they had decided to do completely on their own. "It's just a first draft," she pointed out.
"Can we send it to her?" wondered Alejandra excitedly.
I certainly didn't want to dampen the girls' enthusiasm, and I liked their initiative, but I was worried that they might have unrealistic expectations. "I think it's a great letter," I told the girls. "But I doubt I can get her personal address. We could send it to her publisher, and maybe they'd forward it on to her."
"Do you think she'll answer?" Virginia asked with hopeful eyes.
"Do you think she'll come, Mr. Michie?" followed Yajaira.
I knew the chances of getting a response from the author were slim. But you could never tell. When my cousin Eric was in junior high in the early 1980s, his teacher had required each of her students to write letters to two famous people. Eric chose the intriguing combination of actor Sylvester Stallone and jailed mass murderer Charles Manson. His parents were somewhat surprised when, a month or so later, Eric received an eight-by-ten- inch glossy of Stallone in the mail. But it was the eerie, rambling, handwritten, six-page letter from Manson that was the real shocker.
"What I think is this," I said as gently as I could. "Sandra Cisneros is a very busy woman. She probably gets hundreds of letters sent to her, and I doubt she even gets to read them all. And even if she does read yours, she might not have the time to write you back. I hope she does, but you know...Don't count on it, that's all I'm saying. Don't be surprised if you don't get a response. It doesn't mean she doesn't appreciate your letter."
"So you think we should take that part out about coming to visit?" asked Maritza.
"I just don't want you to be disappointed. I think the chances are really, really small that she would be able to come. I don't mean to be negative. I'm just being honest. I think the chances of her coming are, like, this big," I said, holding my thumb and index finger about an eighth of an inch apart.
"We could take that part out," Virginia suggested.
"Why? I say we should leave it," Alejandra said. "You never know, that's what I say. Think positive."
"That's true," echoed Nancy. "You never know."
I just hoped she answered their letter. A card. A note. Anything.
One morning in early May, I took the girls to the offices of WIND radio, an all-Spanish station, to record the Mango stories in a professional sound studio. They all had the jitters at first--probably intimidated by the whir of the reel-to-reel tape machine or the oversized microphone that hung in front of them, seemingly staring them down, daring them to speak. But once we got rolling, they tried to ignore the fancy equipment and just let the stories flow. There were plenty of slip-ups, extended pauses, and mispronunciations. But the girls rooted for each other, reveled in every story, hung on every word. By early afternoon, we'd taped all 25 stories.
|Though the project was officially done, the girls wanted to continue our morning meetings. I was glad.|
Though the project was officially done, the girls wanted to continue our morning meetings. I was glad. I had come to look forward to our time together as much, if not more, than they had. What had begun as a side project, a spur-of-the-moment idea, a brainstorm born out of necessity, had developed into something truly extraordinary. But, as I was coming to discover, that's part of what teaching is about: the willingness to explore with kids, to reach with them, to follow a dimly lighted path together, often unaware of the dazzling surprises that may await around the bend. Our Mango Street meetings had come to embody so much of what I thought school ought to be about but too rarely was. I guess on some level we all realized that, and none of us wanted to let it go.
During our last session together, the week before the girls' graduation, I asked them to write about what they'd gotten out of the experience:
The best thing of coming to this program and reading The House on Mango Street was that the stories were very interesting and they all have a feeling that I have once had. Sandra's stories said she will never go back to that old house, but people said you'll come back because you cannot forget what you once were. I think this was a great time we spent together because we kind of got to know everybody much better. I really feel I have some kind of family with my classmates and Mr. Michie.
Having this class has been wonderful because we learned from reading the stories that life could be worse. That we aren't the only ones with problems in life. Esperanza is a girl with hopes of one day moving out of Mango Street and having a house of her own. She's a girl in which you could probably see sadness but excitement at the same time in her eyes. She is very hard to please and isn't satisfied with just any simple thing. I enjoyed reading these stories a lot because of the things we talked about. It seems that when we come in here, we get to express ourselves and say things we can't say in other classes.
After they'd finished writing, we talked about their futures. We discussed the transition to high school, the difficulty of maintaining friendships, the possibility of continuing on to college. "All of you can be in college in four years if that's what you want," I told them. "Every one of you has what it takes. But when you get there," I said, holding up Mango Street, "don't forget this." I opened my copy and read from "The Three Sisters":
When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can't erase what you know. You can't forget who you are.
"First we have to graduate from high school," Yajaira pointed out.
"Yeah, and when you do, I'll be there to watch it," I assured her.
"So is that a promise?" asked Yajaira.
"A promise," I said. "As long as I'm still living in Chicago, I'll be there."
|Like a good teacher, Cisneros didn't talk at the kids or down to them. She talked with them.|
The next week, the Mango Girls graduated from Seward Elementary, having never received a response to their letter to Sandra Cisneros. I had privately held out hope that a reply might magically arrive at the last moment, but nothing came. Ah, well. I had warned them, hadn't I?
For their graduation gift, I gave each girl a copy of North of the Rio Grande, an anthology of short stories on the Mexican-American experience, and typed up for each a page-long "prophecy"--a narrative account of my predictions (or wishes) for the next 20 years of their lives. We exchanged addresses and phone numbers and promised to keep in touch. It was easier than saying goodbye.
"Mr. Michie?" called the fuzzy voice on the intercom early the next October. I hated being addressed as "Mister" by other adults, but the practice is viewed in most schools as an indispensable component in maintaining the "wall of respect" between students and teachers.
"Yes?" I was typing up an assignment sheet during my prep period.
"Can you take a phone call?"
"Yeah, I'll take it in Rhonda's office," I answered. I walked next door. Rhonda Hoskins, our lead teacher, wasn't there, so I picked up her phone and punched the flashing red button.
"This is Greg."
Hi, my name is Susan Bergholz. I'm calling from New York."
"I'm calling on behalf of Sandra Cisneros. Sandra received a letter from a few of your students last spring inviting her to visit your school, and she asked me to call to see if we could set up a visit while she's in Chicago in December."
I was taken by absolute and complete surprise. The woman on the other end was the author's literary agent, and she told me Cisneros would be willing to come to Seward to meet with the five girls and to speak to a larger group of students, as well.
I think I actually skipped down the hall after hanging up the phone. Or maybe I floated because I don't remember my feet touching the ground. I darted around to several classrooms, looking for anybody to share the news with. I didn't want to tell any students yet--not until we had the details worked out and I knew it was a sure thing. But I couldn't wait to call the Mango Girls. I was so happy for them. It felt great to be proved wrong.
On the morning of December 17, a packed auditorium of students and teachers settled into their seats as I stepped to the podium to introduce our special guests. I was flanked on one side by Yajaira, Nancy, Virginia, and Maritza; and on the other side by Alejandra, Elizabeth Mireles--a current 8th grader and a gifted poet in her own right--and Cisneros. We had arranged for the five girls to be excused from their high schools for the day to attend the assembly, and they all arrived dressed in their Sunday best. After I completed my brief opening remarks, each girl stepped to the microphone to read one of her favorite selections from The House on Mango Street. Elizabeth then read an original short story she had written.
Cisneros was last to take center stage. Like a good teacher, she didn't talk at the kids or down to them. She talked with them. She had them exploding in laughter one minute and lost in introspection the next. She shared stories of her own frustrations as a child in school, told of teachers who hadn't encouraged or understood her, and even passed around a copy of her 4th grade report card for the kids to inspect--all C's, except for an A in art. She read from her books, telling the kids that being Mexican was what made her writing so special. "I'm very proud of that," she told them. "I'm very proud of my culture."
After the assembly, I looked on from the margins as Cisneros met with the Mango Girls in the library, where she chatted with them, signed their books, and answered their questions. But the girls didn't act as if they were meeting a celebrity. It was more like they were welcoming home an aunt or an older friend they hadn't seen in years--a soul sister, una hermana del alma. They weren't awe-struck, just filled with a deep sense of appreciation and respect. For someone who knew what it was like to be in their chanclas. Someone who hadn't forgotten.