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Important learning lessons include learning what you don’t know Nancy Alvarado | Sat, Apr 04 2015 12:00 PM

"Ií, uvi, oni, komí, o’òn, iñu, uxa, ona, iín, uxi ... what comes next?"

I shrug and laugh and wait to be taught again. Never mind that I have been taught already at least 100 times. My teachers are always patient, willing to repeat themselves again and again. They laugh with me, and sometimes at me, but they will count with me, finger by finger, from one to 10 in Mixteco as many times as I ask.

Try as I may, I cannot learn to count to 10. It will not enter my brain. It will not stay.

Several times a year I have the pleasure of spending time with indigenous agricultural workers who labor in the fields south of Ensenada, Mexico.  Most of them are migrants from lush green Oaxaca, transplants to these fields of dust because there are no jobs in their native state.

They are tiny people at 4 foot 11 inches, I tower over many of them. Their dark-skinned faces are characterized by the bone structure and astounding cheekbones of the indigenous tribes of the south.

Often, they do not speak much Spanish but rather are fluent in Mixteco, and sometimes Zapotec, Triqui or Nahuatl.
Both the very young and the very old wake at dawn and work until dusk, hunching over tarragon plants or reaching up to pluck corn. After a hard day’s work they are generally still willing to joke and chat, to help us with backbreaking labor, to teach me a few words of Mixteco. I have been taught to count to 10 more times than I can remember, something toddlers learn without thinking. I am an educated professional, a teacher, and I cannot learn.

If I watch the migrant families work, I am made keenly aware that this is only one of many things they know that I do not: how to pick 30 buckets of peas per day, how to build a house out of pallets and blue tarp and live in it, how to stoke a cooking fire and make a family meal of the leftover vegetables the field foreman gave away at the end of the day, how to make a salary of $10 a day stretch to cover food, clothing, school fees and make the payment on a plot of land, how to make vegetables and flowers flourish in a place with no water so there is not only food but beauty.

The quantity of things I have not learned, despite my fancy education, is immense.

After a while, I give up. I can count as far as five without prompting, but it easier to laugh, to play the part of the dumb gringa. I am humbled and uncomfortable not knowing how to do things.

As teacher and mom, I am used to being an expert on practically everything a preteen needs to know. At this moment though, I know how my students feel when they cannot remember the answer to 7 x 8 or how to spell “with” or the capital of North Dakota.

I know how my English-learner husband feels when he can’t make the Spanish sentences in his mind come out of his mouth in English.

I know how my teen daughter feels when watching the road and checking the mirrors and keeping an eye on the speedometer and shifting gears seems like too much.

Often when I watch my students, my husband, my daughter, their struggles have seemed foreign to me. Of course 7 x 8 = 56. Of course in correct English you say “I have a question” instead of “I have a one question.”  Of course you shift gears when the sound of the engine tells you to. Those things are as obvious to me as counting to 10 in Mixteco is to a dark-skinned toddler here on this dusty hillside.

Back in the United States, I cling to my newfound vocabulary like a talisman that brings patience and humility rather than good luck. When I catch myself breathing back a sigh of impatience at the student who writes “whith” instead of “with” on his paper for the hundredth time, or still doesn’t remember 6 x 8, when my teen daughter steps on the gas instead of the brake, I whisper to myself, “Ií, uvi, oni, komí, o’òn…”

I only count to five because I cannot remember what comes next.

I remember, instead, all of the things I do not know.

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