The Gypsy Who Taught Me What Christmas Is

Today I witnessed a Christmas miracle in a six-year-old who doesn’t even understand what Christmas is. She is tiny, even among her fellow first graders, and wears the same red sweatshirt nearly every day. Her black hair is always pulled back in the same long braid and her skin is a few shades darker than most of her classmates. She is a gypsy. And in Spain that makes her “the other.”

Madrid Street

Gypsies here (and in most of Europe) are not the free-loving hippie folk that I used to associate with the word. In Spain, gypsies are a separate race, both physically and culturally different from Spaniards. Gypsies — more politically correctly, and more rarely, called Roma– have lived on the Iberian peninsula for centuries, but they have never integrated into Spanish culture. Gypsies are typically migrant people, often working in traveling fairs, shows and circuses. They are stereotyped as drug dealers and thieves. From my eyes, they are the last, albeit slightly modernized, remnant of the Javelin-tournament era where traveling storytellers and dancing bears enticed village people while their cohorts pick-pocketed the crowd’s gold coins. Or at least thats the feeling I get from many of the Spaniards at school.

In a  country where every resident has access to full health care coverage, the blatant racism towards gypsies stands out like a glaring anomaly to an otherwise equality-driven society. The word alone incites a specific facial expression among most people that falls somewhere among pity, exasperation, anger and ambivalence. And that’s in Spain, where the Roma people have more rights and access to services than just about anywhere else in Europe. One of those rights, which gypsies apparently don’t have in some other European countries, is to public schools where they are integrated into normal classes.

For many at my school in the Madrid suburbs, that integration is both a blessing and a curse. For example, in fourth grade there is a gypsy boy who missed the first two months of school because his family thought it was more important for him to work at the fair than to go to school. He is ten years old, he can’t read and he can barely write. During his bilingual science class he draws pictures and traces the English words his teacher writes for him while his fellow students recite the differences between metamorphic and ionic rocks. When I asked him what his job was at the fair he said with a proud smile, “I was the dragon.”

Spanish toys and candy

Candies and toys for sale at Feria de Abril in Sevilla.

Of the handful of gypsy students I work with, not one of them can tell me the colors in English. Most can’t even write them in Spanish. The first grade girl I mentioned before can write her name but only barely. She hasn’t figured out yet what the letters mean. That stems largely from the fact that she’s continuously absent from school. In the two days per week that I am in her classroom, she is absent about a third of them.

But when she is in class, she is bounding from wall to wall with excitement. “Me ayudas?” she asks during every section of every activity, bouncing in front of me until I come over to her desk and attempt to explain which picture is the fireman. Today while the students were pulling out their English books she ran over and threw her arms around my thigh, the highest part of me that she can reach. She just stood there for awhile hugging my thigh. When I reached down to pull a stray clump of her hair behind her ear the other teacher in the room warned me to “be careful of her hair.” Apparently she’s afraid the girl may have lice. The teacher later explained to me that the child lives in what amounts to a slum outside of Madrid, where the houses are made from scrap metal and “low quality building materials.” That would explain the warts and sores I’ve seen on the girls face and hands.

Granada Gypsy Hills

Some immigrants in Granada lived in caves dug out of the hillside overlooking the city.

When I first walked into class today the first graders were all rummaging around in their bags, getting their materials out for the lesson. This gypsy girl was tugging on something in the small pink drawstring bag that she carries with her to school. She doesn’t have a backpack, or a worksheet binder or a red homework folder… or any folders for that matter. She doesn’t have any of the school goodies that pour out of her classmates roller-wheeled backpacks and trifold pencil cases. But she doesn’t know that. She has her pink princess drawstring bag and a pouch with a couple of pencils.

And today she had something else that she was struggling to pull from the pink bag. “Me ayudas?” she asked me as I walked in. I took her bag and pulled out a heavy sack of something wrapped in a plastic bag. “What is this?!?” I asked fearing that it was what it felt like: a sack of paper-wrapped ground beef. It took me a moment to understand her reply. “Es para los niños en pobreza!” she said, both pride and sympathy flashing across her face.

Then I saw it. The red lettering on the bag. This was the plastic bag teachers were handing out last week for donations to the holiday food bank. Inside the little gypsy girl’s ripped plastic bag was a brand new sack of lentils. She was donating to the poor.

Never Stop Loving


A Piano in el Salón and Politics in the Kitchen

Breaking news alerts announcing each minuscule hint of an agreement to avoid the debt-ceiling apocalypse have turned my phone into a strobe light today. “Senate close to agreement,”… “Deal is imminent” … “President Obama applauds Senate”… “House GOP now meeting,”…

Letters to the President

“Delivering” letters from Texas first-graders to President Obama in 2012.

I’ve heard this story before. I’ve written this story before. And I can picture exactly what my day would be like if I’d chosen to stay on the path that so many of my peers strived to get to. It would have been frantic and stressful, frustrating and unsatisfying. It would be hammering out headlines in moments of sheer panic, then combing through Twitter in search of an update or a new angle. I would have typed myself into oblivion and left late, feeling defeated and behind the curve. Thus is the maddening immediacy of online news.

Instead, as history repeated itself in Washington, I stuck my tongue out at a Spanish second-grader, trying to help him understand the English “th” sound. While a Twitter tizzy of took off across the ocean, I got contagion-hugged by half a class of first graders whose tiny hands could hardly reach my belt loops. Today, while my country was in a politics-driven craze, I drank my morning coffee sitting down and basked in the afternoon sun on my balcony.

Glorieta de QuevedoAnd amid the cognitive dissonance of last year versus this one, it hit me: I live in Madrid. I’m not visiting, or touring or just passing through. This is my new home. And from this distant vantage point I can see the frivolity of many of the things I used to live and die by in D.C. Is American politics a big ‘ol mess? Yes. Is the sun going to rise and the coffee going to brew and the email from my Mom going to come through tomorrow if Congress doesn’t pass a bill tonight? Why yes, yes it is.

I tried to explain to my roommate in my improving but still crap Spanish what all the fuss was about in the States right now. All the Spanish news channels are covering the shutdown and the debt ceiling debate, but let’s just say the story is about 1/100th as long as last night’s soccer match re-cap. As my voice began to rise in frustration and annoyance at the history that was repeating itself in D.C., my roommate sighed, nonchalantly plopped another piece of sushi in his mouth and said “Bienvenidos al club, Amy.” Then he told me that Belgium went two years without a government while three leading parties battled for control. He told me about never-ending-cycle of Spain’s two most powerful parties which strategically tweak the laws to keep themselves in power, “like a fish with his tail in his mouth, it just goes round and round without end,” he said. Then we got sidetracked while I tried to pronounce “pass a budget” in Spanish — try saying “se aprueba el presupuesto” ten times fast! — and ended up laughing about appliances.
Royal Botanical Garden Happiness

Afterward as I walked toward my bedroom down the long hallway of our apartment, an intricate and peaceful melody drifted from the salón. I stopped for a moment to listen to my other roommate, a concert pianist and opera singer, as her fingers danced across her new keyboard. And that’s when I knew for the first time with certainty, that I’d made the right decision.

Obama, Osama and English Oral Exams

It’s oral exam time at Frei Luis de Granada and that means my fifth grade students are pulling out all their creativity to construct a short dialogue in English. Some wrote about going to a discoteca, others spoke about eating apples and oranges. But one group out-shined them all with this completely random and utterly odd conversation…

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Bin Laden, you are dead.

OSAMA BIN LADEN: No, you’re dead!

OBAMA: Shit.

BIN LADEN: No! Shit!

…. That is all.

Best English Textbook Comic Ever.

English textbooks are notorious for their cheesiness, their odd way of stringing sentences together to include only vocab words and their bad (at least to my American ears) grammar (exhibit A: “I have got brown hair.” Exhibit B: “My maths exam was hard”). But today in the 6th grade English book I discovered the crown jewel of textbook hilarity:

Best English Textbook Comic Ever

“Houses fell down. Our pop star, Paliko, disappeared!”

Just in case you can’t read the text bubbles, I’ll summarize for you. A heavily-bearded Eskimo man storms up to a cooky-haired professor during his morning coffee and asks him for help. The problem? “Men” — just men, not scientists or people or a company. No, it’s much more ominous than that. Just “men” — came to the village asking to put in an oil rig. What happens when these oh-so-ominous men go to pump oil in Alaska (or cualquier Arctic area that said comic is set in)? “Food tasted horrible. Houses fell down.” – oh yes, these are direct quotes from my new favorite cartoon of all time. And then? What could be worse than the horrible tasting fish and collapsing houses that this oil rig in the Arctic apparently produced? “Our pop star, Paliko, disappeared! Paliko’s house disappeared too!”  

By the time I got to the frame of frantic-looking Eskimos waving their hands and shouting “Where’s Paliko? Where’s Paliko’s house?” it was all I could do not totally lose it (I was reading the comic to the students, none of which had any clue why I found their comic so hilarious). The so-not-subtle moral of this seeming innocent English practice page? Don’t drill in the Arctic! If you do, you’re houses will fall down and your pop stars will disappear!!

Me encanta this socialist, environmentalist country of España.