Red Apples, Green Apples, Bad Apples

By Mimi Seydel

The mirror on the wall speaks in tender voices, but gives a blunt answer as to my fairness. Why your nose so big? How your face get so red? What those blue things on your hand? The children seated around me see me in pieces—veins in my hands, the scar on my arm, the mole on my chin.

My limp hair gets patted and approved. A girl rubbing my freckled forearm says, “You soft.” In the light of a window, a boy is stunned by the color of my eyes. “They green!” Not brown, like everyone else’s.

When I give the class clown a stern look, he bursts out laughing, trying my patience even further.


“It’s your eyebrows.” His hand doesn’t quite muffle his mouth. He takes a deep breath. “I can’t help it. They so funny.”

They dissect me not just because I look different from what they are used to. They are always taking close-ups of everyone— grandmothers, teachers, each other. They map the freckles, the whorls, the veins. Avid collectors of details, their minds impel them to favor the novel, the more to record.

I am a white person close enough to touch, as novel as you can get.

This is not some remote village; the school lies twenty minutes from my childhood home. Like the roving docents of mobile museums and zoos, I bring to the school a condensed, portable version of other places, allowing the children to sample a few of its treasures. Officially, I am the French teacher.

It’s a serious program. Each class meets for thirty minutes every day of the week. “Why we didn’t have French today?” A student will ask if an odd event preempts our schedule. “You had an assembly,” I’ll say, or, “You went on a field trip.”

“Oh.” The edges of time, still soft and pliable in the child’s mind, will shrink just a little when he fits that answer over it.

“I’m glad you missed me,” I’ll say. “On se reverra demain.”

“That mean tomorrow?”

Oui, demain.”

“Okay, see you demain.”

A second language will never come as naturally as the first, but the elegant internal process driving us all to our first words still operates to some degree in young children. There are games we can play to tap into at least some of the subconscious currents of language instinct. We sing, and pretend, and listen to stories, play Simon Says and charades.

We also sort, count and make patterns.

Kindergartners work in pairs to sort red paper apples from green and yellow. They can tell me how many of each they have by counting, un, deux, trois . . . Numbers one through ten are a snap to learn.

Then we play an elimination game, the French equivalent of one potato, two potato. The children stand in a circle. I tap the first child, then the second, then the third.

Une pomme verte, une pomme rouge, une pomme d’or . . .

A green apple, a red one, a golden one, and then, c’est toi qui est dehors — you’re out!

Assieds-toi!” Everyone shouts, and the fourth child drops down.

We keep going, with rising excitement, till the last child is left standing. Some try to dodge the inevitable, switching spots to escape their fate as the finger comes around, but end up “out” anyway. A few will simply refuse to sit down, and then of course, there are those jack-in-the-box clowns who pop back up when they think I’m not looking. Those cheaters end up out of the game, too, not by chance, but by my decree.

Once in a blue moon, I’ll see the rare quiet child, eyes following a tabbing finger, counting the game out to himself, calculating for his own pleasure how it all will end. But most children prefer the suspense. They shudder and giggle, and beg encore! They want to do it again and again, for the rest of their lives. The winners always beam with relief, as if they’d actually run the fastest or outsmarted the rest, when all they are really is fleetingly lucky.

It’s much easier to make predictions from color patterns laid out flat on the floor. The children take turns composing with paper shapes alternations that become more and more complex. First, one shape and two colors, then three colors, or one color and two or three shapes, eventually colors and shapes get involved together. When we call them out — vert, vert, rouge, vert, vert, rouge . . . or ovale rose, triangle orange, ovale rose, triangle orange . . . our voices take off from the visual runway, reciting the series on and on beyond the number of repeats set down on the floor.

Babies digest the patterns of their parents’ grammar while clamoring around the house tasting furniture. No one has to sit down with them and explain where nouns and verbs go. It’s enough to point a picture and ask, “How does the cow go?” and “How does the pig go?” The child says “moo” and “oink” and absorbs a pattern for asking questions, which he will put to use with a vengeance at about age four.

When children begin to speak in sentences, they know the rules so well that they apply them to exceptions. The dog “ated” the cake, and there’s just one clean “clo” left to wear. Eventually those charming mistakes stop sounding right and they fade away on their own.

But a second grammar isn’t as easy to learn when it contradicts the first. The mind clings stubbornly to principles it has worked out for itself. As easy as it may be to learn isolated words like pomme and rouge, the fact that “the red apple” becomes la pomme rouge and not la rouge pomme takes hours of hearing it said until it sounds right. Laying out the patterns provides plenty of repetitions.

The language class is a safe place to learn how to switch from one system to another, and how to accommodate variations. “You misspelled September,” a clever child wants to tell me. “That’s not September,” I enjoy telling her. “C’est septembre.” What’s new is not necessarily a mistake.

A child draws a toy cow from the bag and names it.

La vache.”

Oui, très bien. C’est la vache. Et où habite la vache?” We are sorting the animals by habitat. I point to a paper plate decorated to look like a forest. “Dans la forêt?”

The children respond with an emphatic non.

A la ferme, alors?”

Oui!” All heads bob yes.

La vache habite la ferme,” I say, and they repeat, as the child who holds the cow sets it down on the plate decorated to represent a farm.

I am counting on the children’s prior knowledge of animals and habitats to guide them in this lesson. Knowledge they may have from personal experience, from science, from fairy tales or nursery rhymes. There are no particular answers I’m looking for; the point is simply to speak French, to say where the animals live.

Où habite l’ours?” I ask when a child draws the bear.

La forêt!” say several children. But Demarius says, “No, that ain’t right. La l’ours go in la jungle.”

We take a vote.

L’ours habite la jungle?” A few hands go up, whether to support Demarius, or to make a guess is not clear.

In the zoo of some young minds, the bears have been pre-sorted into a package with lions and tigers, as if they’d all been found living together in the wild.

L’ours habite la forêt?”

More hands go up. Question settled.

When Keisha draws the frog, some children decide it belongs in the sea with the shark, because frogs swim. In fact, it could go in the forest or in the jungle, or even on the farm, if the farm has a duck pond.

I might have set the lesson up to make the answers indisputable, and then given a test, expecting the answers to have set like cement in my students’ minds. But something happened along the way of my learning that makes me want to leave some matters unresolved, like the flaw left in the Navajo blanket, to let the spirit wander.

I was deceived by the A’s I made in high school French into thinking that if I went to France, I’d be able to speak the language. But as soon as I landed in Paris I realized that the progress I’d made in the over-nurturing classroom had done nothing to prepare me for the unpredictable, real-live language that French people speak among themselves. I was forced to navigate through a fog of slang. I only began speaking fluently when I stopped straining to be flawless.

So, even as they absorb the grammatical patterns, I want my students to learn to improvise and take risks, to be prepared to make mistakes, and allow for exceptions.

“Shanneria’s not my friend,” says Naomi. I’m in her classroom while the students are getting ready for a black history assembly. I’ve tried to encourage her to finish her math work so she can join them, but instead she’s been rocking back and forth in her chair.

“You’re friends,” I say. “I’ve seen the two of you together many times.”

“No, she ain’t. She too white. I only like people that has the same color skin as me. Like Marcus.”

Shanneria and Marcus are within earshot. They look up when they hear their names.

“Why make a rule like that?”

Naomi shrugs. “I don’t know. I only like people with my own color skin.”

“What about me?”

“That’s different.” She has to think fast why. “You a teacher.”

The class has begun to line up for the assembly. Tall, light-skinned, freckled Roger stumbles over to whisper something in Naomi’s ear. “Well, I do play with Roger,” she says, without my having said a word.

“So, your system doesn’t really work very well,” I say. “You need to find a better way to choose your friends.”

She’s not listening. She’s gone off to line up with Roger and Marcus. Shanneria’s still in her seat, wiping off tears with the back of her hand.

Sometimes a child will fall into a pattern of behavior that streaks a daily zigzag of disruption through the class. A sequence of provocations will be followed by denials or justifications. “I didn’t do nothing,” or “She hit me first.” The teacher is then pulled into the cycle, to punctuate at intervals with first the look, then the warning, and finally the consequence. And yet the punishment is no surprise. Rather than deter, it simply completes the sequence, and confirms the child’s sense that life isn’t fair.

This is called “getting negative attention” but as with publicity, there is, in the mind of some children, no need to qualify when it comes to attracting the spotlight. I try to resist the pattern, step around it, but the usual maneuvers become part of an even larger theme.

I consult with the counselor, attempt to call home, have hearts-to hearts with the child to get to the source. There is always a heartbreaking back story— imprisoned father, abusive stepmother, predatory neighbor, something I can’t undo. I follow the procedures, add anecdotal evidence to the files, use recommended strategies, change the seating arrangements, give out stickers for good behavior. I wrestle with the problem in my dreams.

One day, something happens. A piece of blue crayon, for example, peeled and broken to bullet-size, misses its target and hits me just under the eye.

My emotional circuits smolder; frustrated, bewildered and depressed by the conditions subverting my good will, I stand speechless. The children are alarmed.

“She’s turning red, y’all,” someone warns.

Tornado drills occur at least once a season, when the weather changes and brings on storms. The siren sounds; the children jump from their desks. The real danger is in the excitement that stirs around their already active bodies, so many chances to shove or trip a person, swipe or knock over a thing. No longer posing as the Good-Witch French Teacher, I must now walk on as the Drill Sergeant, a part I can only play with a lot of bluster.

At least we don’t have far to go, just to the hallway, where the students huddle, heads-down, against the cement block wall, away from windows.

So positioned, like a row of supplicants, their posteriors exposed in the name of safety, the children seem paradoxically vulnerable, especially the ones who were, just seconds before the alarm, throwing spitballs or passing licks or refusing to sit down.

A fellow teacher covers her smiling mouth. “I’m sorely tempted,” she jokes under her breath, “to give them all a good whack on the behind.”

“No kidding,” I say.

Two small bodies shake with silent giggles. Somebody snorts. Somebody farts. Hilarity must be suppressed.

“Everyone stop talking! Don’t make a sound! Anyone talks now, silent lunch later.”

Stripped of our teaching props, our magic boards of bright images, our recordings, our texts, our beloved subject matter, we stand revealed as nothing better than wardens.

We cross our arms.

“Keep your heads down!”

It’s hard to pretend there is danger. We hear the siren and always assume it’s only a test, because that’s what it has always been so far. The more times we follow the procedure, the safer we think we are. Drills bore us, and lull us into the comfort of our habits.

Whenever a white person visits the school, children assume that person is my relative. “Is that your daughter?” they’ll ask, or “Is that your brother?” The irony of being the token of a group, representing a difference, is that though you are more than ever aware of being an individual, you are inevitably perceived by others as generic.

I’m sitting in for a first grade teacher, who has stepped out of the room to mount her black history bulletin board. The children are watching a documentary on Martin Luther King.

The film follows the historical sequence of events, clips of the eloquent speeches interspersed with footage of key marches and demonstrations. It’s a story they will hear again and again, every winter of every year, until it is clear and fixed in their minds.

The children gaze up at King’s iconic face and listen respectfully to the familiar vibrant voice, comprehending the solemnity if not the content of the famous orations. But it’s the intermittent cuts to the mayhem of demonstrations, especially the snarling police dogs in Alabama, that get full their attention.

When the film is over, the children are unusually still. Someone gets up to turn on the light. Then all eyes turn to me.

“Why did those white policemen put the black people in jail?”

“Why are white people so mean?”

“Why they turn those dogs on those folks?”

“People like that are called racists,” I say. “Not all white people are like that.”

“They have people like that in Atlanta?”

“There are lots of white people in Atlanta who are not racist.” Nearly everyone I know, in fact.

I look at their frowning faces. I can hardly expect them to take my word for it. Was I not, just the other day, standing over their defenseless bowed bodies, arms crossed, imposing an arbitrary order?

Their minds are busy sorting. Their eyes look down to the right. Where does the bear belong? Who is my friend? What are white people like?

“But Madame,” Demarius has figured it out, how it can all work, how he can be in the room with me, and still be safe. “You Latina, right?”

A prominent black official in the city government is under scrutiny. The local paper has called for his resignation. The governor has formed a panel to investigate. The matter comes up while I’m making copies in the lounge. A teacher I respect expresses belief in this man’s innocence. “You know what I believe? They want him out,” she says. “They just can’t stand to see him be successful.”

I understand who she means by “they.”

“What would be in it for them?” I ask. The position, like most in the city, has for decades been held by an African-American and that is not likely to change. “What could they gain?”

We look straight at one another. Motes and fibers drift in the neutral air between us, invisible to our naked eyes in the windowless room, but we know strong light would reveal them.

“Not everyone is like you,” she says. She means it as a compliment, but also as an indulgence, and so she says it twice.


Mimi Seydel has written a memoir about her years teaching French to disadvantaged children. Her stories have appeared in VQR, Xavier Review, Natural Bridge, and elsewhere. She lives in Atlanta.

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