The migration of the chalk

In a small town in Mexico, a teacher gave me the chalk and demanded a lesson in revolution.

Published October 15, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"Grabbing the chalk" has become my expression for instances when memorable students declare intellectual independence of Confucian norms of propriety in the classroom. The chalk migrates to its true home as I give it to a student and take a seat with a class. Such moments are deeply satisfying to all concerned, spreading wonder that the mandarins are still capable of listening.

One of the greatest chalk-grabbers was a student named Peter, who veritably leaped from his seat almost every day to scrawl arcane diagrams on the board and demand from the audience entry into his interior monologue. Once he presented an intriguing model for explaining economic and political systems, a two-axis grid that clarified capitalism, socialism and communism. I dutifully copied it down, not knowing how soon it would empower me to become a chalk-grabber myself.

About a year later, I was on a sabbatical studying Spanish in a tiny Mexican village north of Puerto Vallarta. I was the only student of a woman named Mariana, sitting for two hours each day in front of a crude blackboard while she patiently brought me to a modest level of competency in her native language. Mariana, fervent and committed, was a gentle woman of about 30, who spoke very little English and had a voice I could barely hear. The blackboard was our forum of communication. As ocean waves crashed in the background, we struggled through the intricacies of verb tenses and vocabulary. She cared deeply about her teaching and took great pride in my learning.

Toward the end of our time together, Mariana began asking me to explain basic political and economic theory to her, particularly the differences between capitalism, socialism and communism. She explained that she needed to know where she stood on the "controversias grandes," and wondered if I could help. It seemed preposterous to me, overwhelmed with shyness by the fragility of my Spanish, that I could accomplish such a task, so I shrugged off her request repeatedly.

Finally, after a week of her persistent urging, I stood up from my old wicker chair, took the chalk and stared at the decrepit blackboard. The chalk felt like lead in my hand. She was my teacher, my maestra, and here, in her village in Mexico, I had the audacity to stand up in front of her and presume to explain global economic theories in Spanish.

"Este lamina es un representacisn o modelo de la sistema econsmico y polmtico," I began, drawing Peter's diagram out of the dustbin of my memory and wincing at my accent.

Mariana had been questioning me closely about my impending trip to Cuba, timidly confiding her own sympathy toward communism, even though she admitted not knowing exactly what it was. She knew that poor people in Mexico were becoming increasingly restless, and she was aware of the rebellion in Chiapas and the latent unrest in Nayarit, where we were. In fact, we had passed through several military checkpoints on the way back to the village from our trip to Compostela the day before, which our driver had explained was part of an intimidation tactic by the Mexican government, intended to prevent
a popular uprising. There had been more than 200 soldiers with M-16 rifles lining the highway.

In response to the line of well-armed soldiers, Mariana told me proudly: "Many of our men have rifles." I visualized the old single-shot, bolt-action .22's the government allowed farmers to keep in order to kill rodents and other pests. The new Mexican revolution would be quixotic to say the least.

Mariana, pregnant and sweating in the afternoon heat, watched me at the board like her life was at stake, which it might have been for all I knew. I gripped the chalk and glanced out across the palms to the small bay that encompassed the village, the four or five palapa restaurants strung along the shore; I saw two large sailboats swaying in a light breeze, boats from El Norte, from California, probably. Not exactly an invasion, but suddenly I resented them. They looked like the outposts of an empire. There in Mexico, revolution still seemed like a real possibility -- not some academic theory.

Suddenly I remembered that education is not a luxury in most of the world, and I'd damn well better know what I was talking about. Even if I hadn't fully made up my mind about communism, what Mariana knew and thought could have a direct effect on her involvement in a real political battle. My own unresolved feelings about communism was a major reason I was going to Cuba. As Alice had said to the caterpillar, "I'm afraid I can't put it more clearly, for I can't understand it myself to begin with." I looked back at the blackboard, at my drawing.

"Este linea," I said, "es la linea por sistemas econsmicos." Mariana leaned forward intently, completely ignoring my abysmal accent and pronunciation. I reminded myself that the outcome of the next Mexican revolution probably was not at stake in this lesson. Mariana's grandfather might have been a Zapatista for all I knew. She might only have been learning the words for what was already in her bones.

I was scheduled to return to California in a month, after the trip to Cuba. She would live here for the rest of her life. And all over Mexico people were beginning to think, again, about what there was to lose and what there was to gain from these words that sat on the blackboard like undeciphered secret codes.

I hoped that the next time a student "grabbed the chalk" from me I would sit down gracefully and remember Mariana, who reminded me of the thrill and terror of knowing something that someone else wanted to learn. And I hoped that I would remember Peter, who gave me the tool for that day's lesson.

Yesterday, a student grabbed the chalk in my philosophy class and began explaining her "take" on reincarnation. My mind flew to Mexico before she could finish. I wondered if Mariana remembered an afternoon when the chalk migrated, again, to its natural home in the student's hand.

By David Alford

David Alford lives and works on a ranch in the Sierras, near the town of Avery, CA.

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Academia Books College Communism Latin America Mexico