“She speaks English!” my dad announced. “Come here and help your cousin with his homework,” he said.
I was sitting on the floor with my sister, most likely playing with a toy. I must have been in third or fourth grade and as my dad had proudly announced, I had finally learned to speak English.
In the years to come, I would become increasingly annoyed and resentful whenever my parents pointed out that I spoke English. In fact, grew to hate it. I also became less and less inconspicuous about these feelings as the years went by, but at this point, I was still fairly happy to help out.
My cousin was sitting at the table with a few sheets of paper, waiting for me to explain it to him. My dad and his dad were also eagerly waiting for me to help him complete his homework. My cousin didn’t speak English nearly as well as I did. So, naturally, it was my duty to help him.
I scanned the pages. There was a paragraph at the top of the page, pictures of hearts (Valentine’s Day themed?), blank spots, and a sentence or two at the bottom. Okay, I thought, just read the top paragraph, find out what the question is, explain it to him and that’ll be that.
Except, I ran into a problem.
I read the paragraph over and over. I re-read it, sentence by sentence. I put it all together. I re-read each sentence again. It made no sense to me. I didn’t understand the question.
It wasn’t because my English wasn’t good enough, though. I didn’t understand it because it was a word problem–math. I had not had much training in math. I didn’t even know multiplication.
Also, my cousin was in eighth grade.
“I don’t know,” I said–ashamed.
“But, you speak English,” they said.
I knew what that meant. Speaking English meant that I automatically had to have all the answers. So, I went back to reading the worksheets. I told myself that if I could at least figure out what the question was, then I could tell my cousin and then maybe he would know what to do. After all, this was his homework and he must have known what was going on in class or at least recognized the material. I didn’t need to know the subject myself, I just had to figure out how to help him figure it out. I was determined.
I asked my cousin if he had at least seen this type of work during class. He said he didn’t know.
I asked if his teacher had given him anything else to explain the homework. He shook his head.
Do you have previous assignments for reference? No. He laughed.
It became clear to me that he also expected me to have all the answers for him. I was extremely frustrated. I felt defeated, but how could I help him?
“I don’t understand it,” I told our dads. “It’s math. I don’t know what it’s asking.”
They both sighed and made comments like, what’s the point of you knowing to speak English then? and I thought you knew how to speak English?
“I know how to speak English. I just don’t know this homework.”
Then all three of them sighed. They concluded that my cousin couldn’t do his homework.
I had failed.