March 21, 2022 by The Citron Review
by James Morena
I never wanted to teach. Never played teacher and student, commanding kids to sit in Scholar, to complete imaginary-but-backward-planned lessons, or giving praise for them following expectations. I glided through school. Did just enough to earn Bs, copied girlfriends’ homework, crammed minutes before tests. I took pride in never having completed assigned readings: Grapes of Wrath, Death of a Salesman, The Catcher in the Rye. In fact, I purposefully stopped reading books at the last chapter, then bragged to my boys, “Yo, dawg,” about never having finished a book. I read, for some strange reason, cover to cover, my first book at age twenty two: Dennis Rodman’s autobiography, Bad as I Wanna Be. Today, I am an English teacher.
As a child, Father, sister, and I poked fun at my Filipino mother, at my Filipino Mother’s broken tongue. At her inability to say F words, which is strange as she must pronounce the name of her native land incorrectly: Pilippines instead of Philippines or Pilipino instead of Filipino. Father, Cindy, and I took pleasure, over and over, in making Mother say words that she struggled to articulate. We loved it. We bonded over it. We slapped each other on the back, we shouted, “You make her say it,” or “Get her to say – .” We hugged each other. We stood toe to toe with each other. We ate family dinners, guffawing with food-filled mouths, together because of it. Our two favorite words to make Mother say were “beach” and “sheet.”
“Ma, say, ‘We’re going to the beach,’” I often said.
Father and Cindy my audience. Mother’s kitchen our stage.
Mother played along when I was young, “We going bitch.”
“She said bitch,” I repeated, giggling with Father and Cindy.
We often belly laughed, falling backward onto the couch or the floor. I took advantage at age eight, nine, ten, of having the opportunity to shout “bitch,” “bitch,” “bitch,” over and over without Father popping my mouth. We three loved each other.
When we learned that Mother struggled with the word “sheet,” it was on.
“Ma, say, ‘Go get the sheet,’” Cindy said.
We three giggling beside her, around her, behind her back. We were the Three Language Musketeers.
“Go get shit,” Mother obliged.
“She said ‘shit,’” I shouted, tumbling to the floor. “Shit, shit, shit.”
“Ma, say, ‘I slit the sheet, the sheet I slit, upon the slitted sheet I sit.‘”
We laughed for hours at that riddle.
As a teenager, I knew that if I flustered Mother I could get out of trouble. I used words that I knew she struggled to understand and to speak. When I came home late or drank from the liquor cabinet or stole twenty dollars for her secret stash, I said as an excuse, “My condolences for your fallacious argument. I had a controversial faux pas that needed navigating” and on and on, until Mother’s brain twisted and her English broke so she had to shout in Tagalog: Isara mo ang bunganga mo! Malapit na akong sumabog! That’s when I knew that I should stop talking and that she was about to explode by whacking me over and over with her wooden-cooking spoon.
I didn’t know it then but now I realize that it was my white father who often instigated our fun making. Cindy and I had no need to use the word “beach” since we didn’t live near one. We also never washed clothes or turned down our beds, so we had no reason to say “sheet.” I didn’t know it then, but now I know that my white, military father had recruited Cindy and me into his Power-Over Army.
When Mother first arrived in the United States, she immediately signed up for then passed an English language course. She displayed her course-completion-certificate on the living-room wall. Above the TV. She framed it. She dusted it. She pointed at it then said, “If I can do. You can do anytang.” She motivated her kids. She inspired us, but Father took offense to her displayed power because he had no certificates or awards or anything to mount. So we became his soldiers. We threw grammar grenades. Word bombs. Wounding Mother with shrapnel from sentence fragments. Father built a wall with his fists, preventing Cindy and me from learning Tagalog. He banned Mother from speaking her native tongue in his house, though she did speak it when he wasn’t around. He too took college classes, earned an English degree, then replaced Mother’s certificate with his higher credentials.
Mother didn’t deserve that treatment from her family. I know she never asked, in neither English nor Tagalog, for us to disrespect her. Perhaps she’s the reason I became a teacher. Today, ninety percent of my students come from immigrant families. Most of them speak only Spanish at home. When they read aloud I can hear their accents. We corral words for pronunciation. I spend hours giving specific feedback on their written assignments. I also take pleasure in listening to them speak to each other in Spanish, which I know enough, the curse words, to ensure propriety in the classroom.
I don’t have the opportunity to apologize for taking advantage of, having power over, my Filipino mother because she died some years ago. Undiagnosed Parkinson’s took her ability to walk, to think, to speak. She mumbled for years. She muttered until she died. Everything incoherent. Her frustrations often showed as she shook and cried, searching for any form of language, any means to communicate. For this reason, I preach to my students that reading and writing is the most important subject because everything is reading and writing. I tell them that their words are their superpower and that they should use their strong voices to wield it. But, I am too embarrassed and don’t have the words to admit to them that throughout my childhood, I was a little sheet and acted like a little beach to my Filipino mother.
James Morena earned his MFA in Fiction at Mountain View Grand in Southern New Hampshire. His stories have been published in Orca, Forge Journal, Pithead Chapel, Rio Grande Review and others. He also has published essays and poems. James teaches English at university and high school levels. You can interact with him on Insta: @james_morena.