I held my breath as damp feathers wiggled through cracked eggshell. Behind incubator glass, chicks pecked their way into my third grade classroom. The little house on the Kansas prairie materialized in my minds eye for the first time from the black and white words on a page. The floral air of the San Diego Zoo butterfly house wrapped itself around me. Jeweled wings alighted on my t-shirt; the delicate proboscis uncurled. I began the paper one Sunday afternoon during my sophomore year of high school and typed late into the night—an essay on history transported me to my great uncle’s farm attic. College Chemistry 201, mid lab, forehead propped between thumb and forefinger, I furiously scribbled the equation onto the flipside of the paper to the acrid smell of Bunsen flame and crucible chemical.
And then, learning as engrossed slowly gave way to learning as lectured into. My eyelids drooped as thousands of power point slides flicked across the screen in a dark room. I thumbed through pages of small black print—academic credits blurred in my mind. What will be on the final exam? I stopped reading the non-assigned.
Now you welcome me back to the pleasant spaces in my mind. You call me back to my first grade classroom where the days of the week are posted on the bulletin boards, the comforting smell of paste fills the room, and I clutch tens counting models in both hands. You let me listen before I spit out. The new verb swirls in my mouth, settles on my tongue. Then I swallow. New phrases absorb into my blood stream and emerge as part of me—energy and muscle. Once again, I return to my kid kitchen, and I point to the pot, “What is this? And this? Say it again!” I am transported to my childhood couch with an entire day stretching before me in which I will luxuriously engulf a Newbery Honor book whole.
Language is human, and I am able because I’ve done it before. This learning will be me diving into their world of overcrowded painted matatus, wood smoke chai, and grandfather riddles, but it will become my language too. The language will become part of me as I grab hold of it like the hand of a new friend and pull it into me. I will climb into their history, into their social set-up of things. I will pop the hood and peer into the hot engine while it runs. I will turn it off, reach in with a wrench, and slowly unscrew every nut and bolt until the parts lay about me on the ground. Next will come the long process of fitting the parts back together, making mistakes, correcting, reconstructing the gaskets, fitting the screws, and tightening the lid back on.
My greasy hand will turn the key, and the motor will clear its throat and hum. I’ll turn the radio dial and hear, in Chi Makonde, a small mtoto voice explain the Kingdom of God.