Spanish Story: Counting Cleverness, Bringing Life
Just a Minute by Yuyi Morales is a story about a woman named Grandma Beetle who gets paid a visit by Señor Calavera, and here’s how it goes when I read it to children:
The kids gasp when I show them Señor Calavera.
“He’s a skeleton!” they say. Many little brows furrow, eyes grow wide, some of them put their hands to their faces.
“He is a skeleton,” I say, and I say it in a spooky, sort of shocked voice. “Not only that,” I add, and point to Señor Calaver’s head, “’Calavera’ is Spanish for something.” I tap my finger on his head. “Do you know what it is?”
“SKULL!” they all scream.
“That’s right! Skull! Oh my gosh, you guys, I’m scared!”
“What’s he gonna do to Grandma Beetle?” they ask.
“Well, he tells her it’s time for her to go with him,” I say.
The room grows quiet.
“She’s goin’ to Heaven?”
“She’s gonna die?”
I point to Grandma Beetle, who’s looking right at Señor Calavera, and she’s smiling. “It says here this is a trickster tale, and I’m looking at Grandma Beetle, and wondering if maybe she’s going to trick Señor Calavera.”
“How old is Grandma Beetle?” one kid asks.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“She has grey hair,” the student continues, pointing to the cover.
“I think those are sparkles,” I suggest.
“Nope. That’s grey hair. She’s old.”
Turns out, Grandma Beetle strings Señor Calavera along. “Just a minute,” she says on every page, “I have to….,” and she explains a chore she has to complete. Señor Calavera waits, usually patiently, and on several pages, he helps.
“He has flowers for eyes!” a student notices. I turn the book and look. “He does!” I exclaim. “And look, he has some decorations on his shoulders, too!” I show the kids and we all smile. We find a little bit of beauty in what it is we’re all afraid of.
The story is also a counting book, and for each excuse Grandma Beetle makes, a new number is added on.
“Can you show me quatro?” I ask, and hands shoot up. Tiny fingers splay out in four.
“Uh oh, you need two hands for seis,” I say, and kids look at their hands, figure it out, then show me six.
I point to some who are holding up five fingers on one hand, and one finger on another hand. Others hold three fingers on each hand, still others hold four fingers on one and two on the other. “Look at all the different ways of showing seis,” I say. “Just like there’s different ways to say a word.” Such a tiny thing to be joyful about, with death hovering around, waiting, but we revel in this observation anyway, and each number after six, students think about different ways to show me the same thing. I love watching them stare at their hands and figure out what it is they can do with them.
It is Grandma Beetle’s birthday and all her grandchildren come to the party she’s been preparing for.
“All my guests are here, and together they make ten.”
The grandchildren are confused. There’s only nine of them, not ten, but Grandma Beetle pulls up a chair for Señor Calavara and says, “Here he is. Diez.” Smiling, the class and I raise both hands in the air to show ten.
“The Diez Family!” one little boy says, and I think, sure, maybe being a family means pulling up a chair for who’s (or what’s) not been invited.
It’s not the same as pulling up a seat at the table for death, but here’s a story about what letting in something that hasn’t been invited into my life:
I once took a writing class when Hadley was three, and Harper was one. The class was on Tuesday mornings, which meant I needed to find a babysitter. I put together a binder full of minute-by-minute instructions on how to put the girls down for naps, which TV shows are OK, and how much time to watch them for, which snacks are appropriate, and how to peel the skin off an apple. I am not exaggerating that I gave her a binder. I am not exaggerating that I wrote down minute-by-minute directions of what should happen with alternative notes regarding what could happen.
I was sick to my stomach leaving the girls. I was utterly excited to take a writing class. I felt guilty and selfish. I felt joy and delight.
I was thinking and feeling in extremes, and this is an uncomfortable place to be, so I called my friend Celena.
“I’m wearing heels, for crying out loud!” I wailed into the phone. “Plus, I left early because there’s a Starbucks across the street and I wanted to get a coffee and walk down Wisconsin to my class just like Meg Ryan does when she walks to her bookstore in ‘You’ve Got Mail.’ I’m a miserable person living in a fantasy. What is wrong with me?”
“Take a breath, Callie,” Celena said. “And since it’s you, take two.”
She told me the girls will be OK. That this is a good thing what I’m doing, for them and for me. “They need to see you pursue this dream, even if you’re not sure you can do it. They need to see you try.”
“This was not in the plan. I was supposed to be at home.” I said.
“Says who?” Celena asked.
“Me?” I said.
“So you changed your mind. Hadley and Harper need to see that, too.”
The story is over, and it’s time to check out books. The class gets up from the carpet, and starts towards the Clifford books, and the Mo Willems’ stories.
One child, a girl with floppy eyelashes and shaggy brown hair just like I used to wear it stands next to the rocking chair where I’m sitting.
“Hi,” I say, and she flinches, also something I would’ve done at that age. I probably still do it sometimes.
She points to the book then looks at me, barely lifting her head. I smile, get up from my chair, and offer it to her. She sits, and opens the story.
She is learning English. The first book she checked out this year was a Spanish to English dictionary, so thick it seemed to groan when she gave it to me to check out. Now, she rocks back and forth and swings her legs as she looks at Grandma Beetle and Señor Calavera. I hope she’s found a story to make her feel more at home.
She reads and she reads while her classmates search for stories, and color their own Señor Calavera skulls.
I wonder if she is more like me, or more like Celena. I hope she is just like both of us—shy and bold, and looking for a friend to draw out both. Maybe she’ll find a friend in Grandma Beetle—someone who knows there’s work to do, who knows darkness spreads quickly these days, but who also knows it is no match for the light that is within.
Here are some invitation for poems for you to write this week:
- Write a poem about a little bit of beauty you found in what it is you are afraid of
- Write a poem telling the different ways there are to say (or show) a word (or number)
- Tell about a time you pulled up a chair for someone (or something) that was not invited
- Tell about a time when you changed your mind
Freatured photo by William Broad, Creative Commons, via Unsplash. Post by Callie Feyen.
- Poetry Prompt: Monarch Butterfly Sleepy Transformation - June 5, 2023
- Poetry Prompt: How To Write A French Poem - May 15, 2023
- Poetry Prompt: Create by Feel - May 8, 2023
Leave a Reply