From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

Long “i,” Silent “e”

I knew she would eventually trap me. I would be caught, snared in my own educated ignorance. I knew that she would leave me wondering about her unschooled intelligence—which always seemed to make as much sense as the things I had worked so hard to learn.

We had been through this before, many times. And now it was a complex assignment to try to make sense of the things that seemed so unexplainable, ineffable and mysterious to those of us who have grappled with teaching and its often-reluctant dance partner, learning. These were elusive issues that, as an educator, I had to face. I also knew that when dealing with a challenging student, there was the possibility of my being pinned to the mat by my frustration at my own inability to share abstract ideas.

My sense of duty obliged me to try, and in the short drive from my mother’s home to her favorite restaurant, I did try.

“It’s not pronounced like that, Mom,” I said carefully as I continued with my cautious explanation. “It’s prime rib, not prim rib.” In pronouncing the correct usage of the word, I jerked my head forward a little, thinking that somehow it might help get my point across.

Qué?” she said, confused. Confusion annoyed her. And when she was annoyed—about anything—she lashed back at whomever or whatever caused the perplexity.

Cómo que it’s not ‘prim’ rib? I always been corrected by you, Señor Big Shot. But I remember when you telled me that English is like being a mexicano. You say that the English language is mestizo like us, mixed up with other things that came from someplace else. So how it comes I need to know anyway? I been asking for prim rib for all these years and nobody says nothing to me about that. I see them smile, and maybe they laugh a little when I make my order, but I always get my prim rib. Just like I like it, too! I do good with my own language my own way.”

To bring her back to the avenue of my explanation, I offered gently: “You see, Mom—and I’ve taught you this before when I tried to teach you to read—in a word like ‘prime’ the ‘i’ is long and the ‘e’ is silent.”

Of course, she protested as most students do when learning is imposed upon them. “¡Ay, Dios mío, the professor wants to ‘splain to his tonta mamá how smart people should talk!”

I started off by reviewing the two types of letters I had once tried to teach her: consonants and vowels. She remembered none of it and didn’t mind telling me so. I proceeded anyway, with over dramatic images of Anne Sullivan flashing through my mind.

“When you have a word that has the letter ‘i’ in it and the letter ‘e,’ and those two letters are separated by a letter like ‘m,’ the ‘i’ is called ‘long’; think of it as being LOUD. You could say the ‘i’ is loud; you can hear it, can’t you?” With emphatic lecturing, I showed her how the long “i” could be heard: “Pry, pry, pry. Do you hear the loud ‘i’ in pry?”

“¡Qué estúpido, hijito!” she said, commenting in a tone similar to that of the self-absorbed young people who filled my classrooms with their own unsolicited and apathetic points of view about the world, education and long “i’s.”“Pry is a word?” she then asked, testing the grip of my lesson with each honest question.

“When you put pry together with ‘m’ and ‘e,’ we say the ‘e’ is silent. It’s just a regla, a rule, but it’s helpful to know. It’ll eventually improve your language.”

Silently we drove on busy streets. Having raised a number of children single-handedly, my mother could figure things out for herself; she always had. Her answers came to her on her own terms, and if they fit the question, that was sufficient. So when she had reflected on the unsolicited lesson I offered, when she started to see the language at work in her head, she put forth a genuine hypothesis.

“I think I know the reasons why they do that,” she offered, her face scrunching to show that her brain was seriously at work. She nodded her head, as if she were carrying on a conversation with herself. I sensed that my mother’s linguistic theory would be impressive, and I listened closely.

“You see,” she began, “the letter ‘e’ is redondo, round. It’s short, too. The letter ‘e’ is chaparrita y panzona. And you know when you see people who are chaparrita and panzona, they are quiet because they feel embarrass about being short and fat, ‘specially womens because mens make them feel that way. Look at your tía Panchita. She is so quiet and she barely talks loud enough to hear her; she is like a silent ‘e.’ But you look at her husband, your uncle Silvestre. He is like a loud ‘i.’ The ‘i’ can be loud because it is alto y delgadito. The little dot is like the head, and if you have a head you have a mouth, so it even has a way to be loud. But the pobre ‘e,’ she don’t have no head or no way to speak up. And people who are tall and skinny think they are so big shots, and they talk loud and laugh loud like they want everybody to look up to see them, muy presumidos. That’s why the ‘i’ is loud. It stands muy macho and with too much confianza. It probably makes the others feel like they have to be silent. Y aunque confianza te da asco, there it is anyway, the loud ‘i’ for everybody to hear him. It’s too bad some have to be the quiet ones and there are others that are loud and think they know everything.”

As we now sat at the table waiting for someone to take our order, I decided not to tell her about silent “i’s” and long “e’s.” Nor would I expound on the other vocalic citizens in the community of expressive and inexpressive English letters. My mother’s own methods—rules or no rules—were obviously enough to get her through a mixture of language and ideas.

At dinner we both ordered prim rib.

Rick Rivera

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