Monday, August 23, 2010

English Class Blues

The following is a recollection  from my years as an ELL Instructor, the names changed and personalities composited to protect student identities.

A boy who had come to the U.S.A. from Russia once asked me. "What is 'have the blues?'"  

"The blues is to be sad. It is a sad feeling, called 'the blues'"

If there is a sad feeling called the blues, he wanted to know, was there a happy feeling called "the reds"? 

"No, there is not - not in usual speech." I fished for a consolation to his obvious disappointment. "You can say someone is 'in the pink.'" 

"Pink?  This is to be very happy?"

"In the pink can mean either healthy - or happy."

"Then someone is 'in the red' he is very happy - or very, very healthy! I am red!"  He poked the delicate  shoulder of our Ukrainian beauty.  "You are blues, Oleysa!" 

She ignored him, eyes focused on her workbook, the tip of her blonde braid twirled around her drawing pencil.  Typically she said little in class, but her written work was sterling.

Rarely finishing written assignments, Ivan usually worked the room. He felt entitled to admiration, strutting his superiority while tormenting the girls relentlessly.  Olesya rarely rose to the bait.

A sibling's disability, a sick grandmother, left behind in Ukraine - by age eleven, the slight girl had lived lifetimes, her gentle stoicism as compelling as Ivan's mercurial charm. She lived with her aunt and several cousins in a small apartment, twin baby cousins waking her in the night with their crying.

Ivan's American stepfather met the boy's divorcee mother on a worldwide business trip. His instant family moved to a spacious home and American luxury.  Ivan had the advantage but Olesya was his star competitor.

"Red is rich." Ivan pointed to his cheek. "I am right?"

"No," I sighed. "To be in the red, means you owe money."

"I already know red. I know! Okay."

Olesya rolled her eyes. "He don't know nothing."

Ivan snatched her pencil, scribbling red slashes across his notebook, until the lead snapped.

Her eyes welled.

I remembered; the colored pencils were a gift from the left-behind grandmother.

Ivan waited, shoulders cringed around his ears. Beside his notebook lay a battery operated pencil sharpener, just one of the parade of new gadgets Ivan brought to class.

My eyebrows raised with meaningful disapproval, I rapped his desk with my knuckles.

Ivan shoved the pencil sharpener toward Olesya.

For a moment she just stared at the contraption. Then, with slow, delighted precision she sharpened the eight pencils, each tip to a pinpoint, laying them out in a fanned row across her desk. With a pleased grunt, she unscrewed the sharpener, and emptied the shavings onto Ivan's red-slashed notebook.

Ivan stared at the pile of colorful shavings, closed the notebook and slipped it into his backpack.  Crossing his arms over his chest, he announced. "Blue is also opposite of red. Rich. Like my dad. He is blue. My dad is in blue."

"Better to say - your dad is in the black - to be in the black is to be making money. To get rich.  We will be in the black if we sell everything in the store." As I spoke, Olesya laid her pencils in rainbow order in the pencil box.

 Ivan's lips puckered, emitting a rude sputter. "English! It is made up by drunks in the street."

A rare, radiant smile lit Olesya's face. "Ivan got blues. I am so pink!"


  1. So many subtle nuances going on here, like a very sophisticated sitcom/drama. I bet you have many other stories like this.

  2. what a great story. i've often wondered how anyone learns our confusing language. sometimes i agree with Ivan's final summation. :P

  3. Lovely story and yes, I think sometimes the English language is confusing even to those who have used it all their lives :) T.


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