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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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Green Bean

 

by Jacqueline Doyle

 

 

 

A cockroach zigzagging slowly across the classroom floor provoked a wave of giggles.  "Ewww," said one of the girls. "Gross."


Jerome, three desks away from Margaret, reached out and squashed the cockroach with one of his size nine Nikes. The giggles grew louder.

 

"Class!" Ms. Sanborn rapped on her desk. "Attention! Take out your pencils and paper."

 

Margaret dreaded Fridays, when they wrote in-class essays for their Autobiography Binders. "You will treasure this autobiography when you are older," Ms. Sanborn told them. "Your children and your children's children will want to read it too."

 

Margaret had gotten a C on the "Introduce Yourself and Your Neighborhood" essay, and would have to rewrite it. She couldn't imagine showing it to her children and grandchildren. 

 

My name is Margaret O'Reilly Sanchez. I am 10 years old. I live in Oakland, California with my Mom and Dad and our dog Ralph. I was born in Stockton but I don't remember it. My Dad says it was hotter than hell there so I'm glad we moved. Oakland is sunny most days but not hotter than hell. Sometimes in the summer you can hear people shooting guns at night. My Dad says Oakland is going to the dogs, but we like all of our neighbors. The Trans give us oranges on New Year's because that is their custom. Mrs. Tran bows and smiles when we see her in the street. The Johnson's moved here from Alabama a long time ago, and there are lots of them. They have two houses, one on the corner, and one two doors down from us. The Ortize's are new. They play salsa every night, and my Dad says it's like a goddamn dance party. The police have come twice to tell them to quiet down.

  

"Hell and goddamn are not words we use in essays," Ms. Sanborn wrote in red at the bottom of the essay. "Work on your diction and sentence variety! Three sentences in a row starting with 'I!'  Think harder about your organization and paragraph breaks! Can you find something more positive to say about where you live?"

 

Margaret didn't know what she was going to say instead. Her mom and dad didn't have any suggestions for her rewrite. "It's wonderful the way it is," her mom said, and gave her a hug. Her dad had left a yellow post-it on the essay, because he got home from work late that night.  "Just tell the truth," he wrote. "Don't worry about Ms. Sanborn. She doesn't live here, and she uses too many exclamation marks!!!"

 

Lots of kids said Ms. Sanborn was the hardest fifth grade teacher. She wore blouses buttoned up to her chin, with floppy bows on them, and pulled her blonde hair back in a tight bun, even though she was young for a teacher. When she graded their papers, she wore reading glasses on the end of her nose. She got mad when the class was too noisy.

 

"Class!" Ms. Sanborn said again. "Quiet down unless you want detention!" She glared around the room, seeking out the troublemakers. Margaret shrank into her seat, even though she hadn't been talking.

 

"Your essay today will be on your ethnic heritage." Ms. Sanborn wrote the prompt on the chalkboard in looping script. "Where are your parents or grandparents or great grandparents from? Tell us about your ethnic heritage. Are there particular holidays or foods or family stories you associate with your cultural roots?" She turned to the class and tucked some stray hairs into her bun. "Pay attention to each part of the question, write as neatly as you can, and budget your time carefully. You have twenty minutes."

 

Margaret picked up her pencil and looked at the lined notebook page in front of her. Which heritage? Her Mom and the O'Reillys'? Or her Dad and the Sanchezes'? She hesitated.

 

One of my friends calls me a "green bean," she finally wrote, because I'm both Mexican and Irish.

 

She looked at the page and then at Jesús next to her, who was scribbling away like anything and had already filled half a page. Easy for him. He was probably writing about Cinco de Mayo, or the time his family went to Disneyland and then to Ensenada.

 

Margaret swallowed the lump in her throat and wrote the first thing she could think of.

 

Grandma in New Jersey calls me Little Peggy or Pegeen sometimes even though my name is Margaret, and my Abuela in Los Angeles calls me Margarita, which I wish was my real name because it sounds like a flower, prettier than plain Margaret. When we visit she always makes potatoes, and she passes them to my Mom and says, "Here you go Moira. You'll want some of these." Mom and Dad laugh about it later when we're driving home to Oakland. "You'll want some of these," my mom says and they both laugh and laugh.

 

They talk Spanish in Los Angeles, that is mostly my Abuela and the old Tías, and I don't understand them, but my Mom doesn't either. My cousin Jorge says I'm stupid and calls me a "paddy."

 

In New Jersey they talk English but they don't talk to me much, or to my Dad. The last time we were there Aunt Patty whispered to Grandma loud enough so I could hear, "She's very dark, isn't she?" and they were shaking their heads and squinting their eyes funny. I asked my Mom if it was bad to be dark and she said Aunt Patty was a bigoted bitch but not to repeat that or ever use that word.

 

Margaret stopped, and then erased the last sentence, holding the paper steady with her forearm as she rubbed hard with the pencil eraser from left to right and then from right to left. Her mom had told her not to repeat what she said and she was also pretty sure that she wasn't supposed to use the word "bitch" in an essay. The clock said 1:37 and she couldn't remember when the twenty minutes had started. Her stomach hurt.

 

I don't know about holidays but sometimes we go on a plane to New Jersey where we have turkey at Thanksgiving and sometimes we drive to L.A. where we have turkey too, and once my Dad's relatives came to our house from L.A. and my Mom said afterward that she'd never do that again but I don't know why. On Christmas Eve we have tamales. One year Abuela made them and sent them to us in the mail. They were delicious! We eat tacos for dinner a lot but I don't know if we eat anything Irish. Grandma asked if we were going to eat corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day this year but my Mom says if she never eats corned beef again it will be too soon so I've never had it.

 

My Aunt Donna, who's a schoolteacher and lives in Whittier, has a book about La Llorona that she reads to me and the cousins sometimes, and it's pretty scary, something like the Irish Banshee that my other cousins told me about the time we all slept at Aunt Patty's with sleeping bags in her rec room. My Uncle John, he's old and a priest and winks at me, tells jokes all the time but I can't remember any of them right now. Usually there's a priest, a minister, and a rabbi, and the priest is Irish and the smartest. On Thanksgiving he watches football all day at Grandma and Grandpa's and he likes it best when Notre Dame or Boston College plays. "You can't beat good Catholic ball," he says. Uncle John tells lots of stories. My Dad says he's a character.

 

When Abuela calls on the phone she always asks me what we ate for dinner. She asked what we ate at Grandma and Grandpa's too and was surprised that the mashed potatoes were the flaky kind that come in a box.

 

Margaret thought she'd done well with her paragraph breaks. She reviewed the prompt on the board.

 

I'm not sure what cultural roots are. A plant needs roots to grow and this essay is almost over. It needs sun and water too. There's more sun in Mexico than Ireland, and more water in Ireland than Mexico, but I've never been to either place. We might go to Mexico some time but my Dad says it's dangerous and he doesn't want us to be kidnapped, which I don't want either. Mom says he's being silly. Ireland is very far from California but maybe when I'm older I'll go there too.


All of my O'Reilly uncles have very red faces and all of my aunts have very white faces and maybe in Ireland they'll say I'm very dark but they're probably not all bigoted bitches like Aunt Patty.

 

"Time is almost up," Ms. Sanborn said. "You should be writing your conclusion. Make sure your name is on your essay before you turn it in."

 

Margaret started to erase the last sentence but decided to cross out "bitches" and leave the rest. She wrote Margaret O'Reilly Sanchez on the top of the page, and returned to the last paragraph with a sigh.

 

My Abuela in Los Angeles says she has nothing against the Irish. "Pat Riley," she always says, "now there's a man knows how to dress. You can bet the Lakers would be doing better if he was still in L.A."

 

"Ay yi yi. Those Armani suits, that dark tan, that slick gangster hair." My Tía Graciela laughs, wiggling her shoulders and butt and shaking her chi chis. "Muy guapo." I understand their Spanglish when they say that even old, that viejo Pat Riley's one hot looking mick.

 

In conclusion, I am proud of my ethnic heritage.

 

"Pass your papers to the front of the room and take out your American history books," Ms. Sanborn said. "No talking!"

 

Margaret tapped Jessica on the shoulder and passed her paper forward. She hoped she'd get a better grade this time. Last year Mrs. Cordero had given her As, but fifth grade was harder, and they had to get ready for middle school, Ms. Sanborn said. "Not one of you is ready." Ms. Sanborn didn't seem very happy with the Autobiography Binders so far, and two weeks ago had decided to drop the "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" essays from the table of contents and not include any of them. "This is just not appropriate essay material," she said, shaking her head and adjusting the bobby pins in her bun. Margaret's mom and dad laughed when she told them about it.