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Speaking a Foreign Language
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Eighth grade at Presidio Junior High in San Francisco was not much better than 7th grade. The school still reminded me of a prison with sunken schoolyards with cement walls and long, dark hallways that led to depressing classrooms. And some of the kids there were downright mean. The only reason no one picked on me anymore was because I went nuts in PE class and attacked the girl who constantly teased me. I punched her in the mouth. She deserved it. She wasn’t just mean to me, but others as well. Of course, I got into trouble, but it was worth it.

Now I was in eighth grade, but I didn’t have too many friends, just people I said hi to in the hallway. My real life was in the neighborhood with the kids I grew up with, not these strange people I didn’t know. That’s when I met Fee Loo Wong, a small, shy girl who wore glasses like I did. She was new. She looked so timid and innocent, and I felt sorry for her because junior high was no picnic for anyone in my opinion.

My homeroom teacher told me that I was Fee Loo’s “sponsor” and I was to show her the ropes. I was surprised because I never got asked to do anything. We mumbled shy hellos to one another and shook hands. Apparently, we were in some of the same classes together. Maybe that’s why they chose me to be her welcoming committee.

I saw Fee Loo again in my Math class. I was pretty much failing. Math was by far my worst subject and English was my best. English was the only class I got A’s in. A pretty Chinese girl named Anne sat next to Fee Loo in the back, and I could hear them murmuring in Chinese.

Then it occurred to me. What if Fee Loo doesn’t speak English? I had not even thought of that. Or maybe she did. I had no idea. Sure enough, after class, I talked with Anne and Fee Loo and found out she spoke two dialects of Chinese as well as Burmese. She and her family had just moved to the United States from Burma. I was impressed by that, and by how sweet Fee Loo was. I told Anne I was supposed to be Fee Loo’s sponsor, but that I of course did not speak Chinese or Burmese and could she help me out?

Anne said she’d be happy to take over as Fee Loo’s sponsor if I wanted, but I said no. I’ll try it but I’d need help.

A couple of days later, we sat in the cafeteria together. Communication was a little sparse, but we managed somehow. I was working on Math and Fee Loo looked over at the math book, took my pencil, and showed me exactly what to do. Wow! She was a genius at Math! Suddenly, I had this crazy idea. I grabbed my English book, opened it, and showed Fee Loo.

“You help me with Math, and I will help you with English!”

Somehow, I was able to convey my point, and Fee Loo nodded ecstatically.

“Yes, you help me — English!” she pointed to herself. “I help you — Math.” She pointed to the Math book.

We became instant friends after that and hung out every day. And sure enough, I was able to help her with English and because of Fee Loo, I actually passed eighth-grade math. She showed me some Burmese and Chinese symbols and how to create them, and I taught her phrases that I used all the time such as “Far out!” and “Right on!” She started to say these phrases, and her Chinese friends would laugh. They were all very kind. In fact, Fee Loo’s friends became my friends too. Suddenly, I had the coolest group to have lunch with every day.

Fee Loo told me about her large family, and took me to her house to meet them. She had a grandma, mom and dad, and several siblings who were all kind to me though none of them spoke much English. Her mom worked in Chinatown as a seamstress in a basement and made beautiful clothes for her entire family, including Fee Loo. I took her to meet my family. My mom absolutely loved Fee Loo and my brother and sister laughed because I taught her English slang words. The latest one was, “Groovy!”

Fee Loo remained my friend all through the rest of junior high and high school as well. Though we had different friends, we always remained close and she became close friends with some of mine. Many years later, I would stand next to her as she became an American citizen.

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