There was a Brazilian student in my class for a few months in the fifth grade. Her name was Esther. She spoke a little English and her round face was beautiful when she laughed, so we could tell when she understood our lunch table conversations.
On her first or second day, she and I stood in the same circle of girls on the blacktop at recess. She was dressed just like us, in cotton stretch pants with loose knees and a multi-colored ski jacket detailed with stripes of reflective fabric.
I knew her coat must have come from a local store, certainly not from South America, but I wondered what it had been like to go and pick it out. Having never needed a winter coat at school before, without knowing the context of a New England playground at recess, how did she wind up with that coat? Did she choose it for the colors? The “secret” pockets? Did she just let her mom pick it out? Did she wonder what her classmates would wear? What we would look like?
We were all asking questions and she answered all of them, the soft lisp of her accent evident when she tried several times to pronounce a word that made her uncertain. If she couldn’t understand, she answered with a perplexed, apologetic expression. Another girl would try a new question.
When I asked where she lived, she hesitated. She closed her eyes, thinking with her dark lashes against her face. She was still searching for familiar words, either in my question or in her answer, when she looked at me again, so I put the tips of my index fingers together like the point of a right-angled rooftop. I held them up and drew a house in the air between us.
“Home?” I asked, and pointed gently at her.
“Oh!” she said, just as I realized that homes might not be shaped that way in Brazil, a triangle on top of a square with a door on the front, like in a child’s drawing. “Fox Hill?”
Esther’s dad was in the U.S. for business, so he and his wife and their two children rented a condo in town while they were here. Older singles, young couples, and some small families settled long-term in the Fox Hill community, but a lot of people just stayed there while they were house hunting. Sometimes it seemed like everything about Esther’s presence at school was temporary.
Esther practiced her English and got good at our games, but she read a lot, too, mostly novels in Portuguese. She sat by herself in the back of the classroom while we prepared for Middle School placement tests. When the boys and the girls got split up and sent into different classrooms for our first Sex Ed lesson, our teacher took Esther to the library. She didn’t participate in anything that had to do with the future, and that meant any time after she went home with her family in the spring.
On Esther’s last day of school, her dad came to class to talk to us about Brazil. He brought strawberry candy and some posters and a video with English subtitles. The narrator could have done the voiceovers for any educational video I’d ever see in school in the U.S. His deep voice talked about Brazilian wildlife, the waterfalls, the music and government in the cities, the food and folklore in the farmland, all in Portuguese. We read along in English.
When he got to the rainforest, though, and started to talk about the tribes that live there, the translation changed. The narrator was still subtitled in English, but words in the indigenous language only made it as far as their Portuguese translation on the screen. Men and teens danced and chanted, but we couldn’t read their words. Young children clapped animatedly, some of them staring straight into the camera lens. Bare-chested women hovered near a fire, speaking to each other and laughingas though they weren’t quite sure what to do while they were being filmed.
Well, that was awkward.
Esther’s dad said something about the subtitles and got up to see if he could change the language. He started to mess with the VCR and my teacher got up and took the remote, presumably to help. He looked down at it in her hand like they were putting their heads together to decode the buttons. It took him a second to realize that she was fast-forwarding the tape.
The screen swam. The subtitle text was a white cloud at the bottom of the screen.
When Mrs. Hudson pushed ‘Play’ again, the film was ending on a shot of the waterfalls, the camera zooming out. She switched the TV off and crossed the remote under one arm and she stood that way beside Esther’s dad while he quizzed us on the video. He tossed flag pins and pieces of candy to everyone who gave a correct answer. When he was done, she invited us to thank him and we clapped. Then he took Esther home with him even though we had just come back from recess.
The rest of the afternoon was quiet. We worked at our desks, already forgetting Brazil and strawberry candy and Esther. Mrs. Hudson worked at her desk by the window. At intervals, she called students over to talk about something, maybe the last geography quiz or sloppy penmanship. I could already hear kids packing up their book bags in other classrooms by the time she called my name.
“I just wanted to know if you wanted to talk about anything, Emily,” she said, not smiling, because she never did. I didn’t say anything and she took a deep breath. “I know you’re one of my sensitive ones over there,” she said slowly. When I realized what she was getting at, the roster of students who’d been called to her desk that afternoon ran through my head. We were all girls. We could all be called, “quiet.” We had all cried in the classroom on one occasion or another. We were “the sensitive ones.”
I told my teacher that I was okay, and it was the truth. The naked breasts didn’t bother me. I was untraumatized by the human body and Brazilian culture. It was far more harrowing to have my fifth grade teacher look me in the eye and say, in as many words, “you are such a prude.”