When the Heart Understands

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    “Miguel,” his mother said impatiently, “eat your breakfast.”

    Miguel’s dark eyes were troubled. He played with his cereal, stirring it slowly with his spoon.

    His father’s voice was more gentle. “Yes, Miguelito. If you are to learn well in school, you must eat.”

    No tengo hambre (I am not hungry),” Miguel said.

    “Speak in English,” his father reminded him. “In order to improve your English, you must speak it.”

    “I am not hungry,” Miguel repeated in English. “And I do not want to go to the school.”

    “Why not, my son?” his father asked.

    Miguel lowered his eyes. “They laugh at me when I do not speak the English well. I do not want to be laughed at.”

    “Miguelito,” his father said softly, “are these children not your friends? I am sure that they mean no harm. It’s just that your accent is strange to their ears.”

    “They do not like me, Papa. I know it,” Miguel said sadly. “Three days ago, when I first went to the school, they were very nice to me. I thought that they were my friends, but now I know that they are not. I would never, never laugh at someone who makes mistakes, especially if it was someone that I liked.”

    His father laid a hand on Miguel’s shoulder. “Do you remember the story I read to you from the Bible—the one about King Solomon and how he asked God for only one thing?”

    “I remember,” Miguel replied. “He asked to have an understanding heart.”

    “Exactly,” Miguel’s father said, smiling. “This great king knew that when the heart understands, a man is indeed rich. Perhaps that is what my son needs, an understanding heart.”

    Miguel looked at his father. “I do not know what you mean, Papa.”

    His father’s eyes twinkled merrily. “Perhaps you will,” he said. “Tonight I would like for you to come to my Spanish class.”

    “Can I really come to the class and listen to you teach the Americanos?

    “Yes,” Papa said, “but only if you go to school—now!”

    “Good-bye, Papa!” Miguel shouted as he picked up his books and scurried off to school.

    It did not seem possible to Miguel that only three months ago he and his parents had left the country of his birth. Papa had been a professor of English at a school there. Here he worked in a supermarket during the day and taught Spanish to grownups at night.

    As he came into class, Miguel’s teacher smiled warmly at him. “Good morning, Miss Smith,” Miguel said slowly, trying to pronounce each word correctly. The day before, this simple greeting had made the entire class laugh at him.

    As Miss Smith said, “Good morning, Miguel,” she looked around warningly at the other children. Miguel remembered that at the end of class yesterday Miss Smith had asked everyone but him to stay for a few moments. He had felt a little hurt at not being included, but now he realized that she must have talked to them about laughing at his English. He lowered his head and went quietly to his seat.

    Miguel tried very hard not to make mistakes in speaking English, but he said “leg” when he meant to say “arm” and “left” when he meant “right.”

    But no one laughed or even smiled.

    That evening after supper Miguel went to Papa’s class. It amazed him that grownups should find it hard to learn Spanish. Surely it is the easiest of languages to speak, he thought. It is English that is difficult!

    After greeting the class, Papa read a sentence from a textbook: “‘Where are you going today?’” Then he said to one of the students “Now, Mr. Robins, please translate that sentence into Spanish.”

    How simple the lessons are, Miguel thought. Anyone would know that the translation is “A dónde va usted hoy?”

    But that was not what Mr. Robins said. Mr. Robins said, “De dónde … ve … usted ayer?”

    Miguel felt a big bubble of laughter building up inside him. Then it broke out, and he laughed and laughed.

    Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, his laughter stopped. A feeling of deep shame washed over him. He had done the same terrible thing to Mr. Robins that the children in school had done to him!

    But there was no look of anger or hurt feelings on Mr. Robins’s face. Instead, he was smiling. So were the other students. The smiles became grins, and suddenly the room seemed to explode with laughter, with Mr. Robins laughing hardest of all! “What did I say?” he asked Miguel’s father.

    “You said, ‘From where do you see yesterday?’” Papa smiled. “A very strange question, indeed.”

    There was another burst of laughter.

    After class was over, Papa put his hand on Miguel’s shoulder. “You see, Miguelito,” he said, “when one has the understanding heart, one can never be laughed at. Tonight we laughed with Mr. Robins. That is because he joined in the laughter. The person who has grown up in his heart does not get angry at his friends for small things. He understands that his friends do not mean to hurt him.”

    Miguel thought about that for a while. He decided that tomorrow he would ask Miss Smith to let him speak to the class. He would tell them how sorry he was that he had misjudged them. He would tell them how he had laughed at Mr. Robins’s Spanish and that it would not hurt his feelings anymore if they laughed with him as he learned English. And he would laugh with them, for they really were his friends.

    [illustrations] Illustrated by Lori Anderson