Maria Had a Dream: A Post for MLK Day


This is a true story. It took place during the 2008-09 academic year. In those days, we had not yet heard of “DACA,” and we were not yet spelling “Dreamer” with a capital “D.”

My volunteer assignment at the inner city school was to work each week with Maria, a first grader. Maria was from Mexico. I don’t know what her immigration status was, but she was probably sin papeles.

Though she had no apparent knowledge of the English language—zip, nada—Maria was attending regular first grade with mostly English speakers.

Our instructions were this. At each tutoring session the teacher handed me a large pack of cards. On each card was printed a three-letter word. One consonant, one short vowel, one consonant. “Tip,” “hit,” “pat,” “sit,” and so on.

We were to say the sound of each letter, then put the sounds together to make a word. “Puh-aa-tuh, pat.” “Ss-ih-tuh, sit.” I would do it first, and Maria was to do the same thing, after me.

Maria was a patient, cheerful, and diligent child. During the fall we worked at the same task week after week. Practice generally makes perfect, and so it was in this case. Maria became proficient at sounding out three letter words. “Cuh-aa-puh, cap.” “Mm-eh-nn, men.”

Still no English conversation, though. She could say “cap,” but she didn’t know what a cap was. She could say “tip,” but she didn’t know what it meant.

My friends heard me mutter that we might as well be teaching our children to sound out words in Old Church Slavonic.

After the Christmas vacation, we resumed. In our first session of the new year, Maria began to ask, “What’s a cap?” I pointed to the baseball cap I wore. “What’s dig?” I mimed digging a hole—to much giggling by Maria, and anyone else who happened to be passing by. “What’s tin?” “It’s a kind of metal,” I said. “What’s metal?” We got up and walked around the room identifying items made of metal.

On the way out of the school, a light bulb appeared above my head. Other little girls might dream of dolls or princess dresses. Maria dreamed of having the words with which to express herself in her new environment. What this kid needed was a picture dictionary. On the way home, I stopped at Barnes & Noble and got the Dr. Seuss English-Spanish picture dictionary.

Enter a caption

Next week, when I gave her new books to her, Maria was as flabbergasted as I have ever seen a human being. Once she had turned a few pages and saw what she had. Summoning every bit of linguistic skill she had, she said, to my great surprise, “I will learn everything in this book!”

The following week she made me understand that her whole family was learning English from the book. She also communicated that she had gotten in trouble, because she was violating her bedtime by staying up to practice the 1200 words or so in the book.

Another month passed, and Maria was carrying on a fine conversation in English.

I had to go to Washington in March. While there, I bought Maria a coloring book featuring Washington’s national monuments and other sites.

In the middle of the book, spanning both pages, was a line drawing of the White House. Maria became so excited that she could hardly contain herself. “That’s Obama’s house,” she said. “I want to go to see Obama’s house!” There ensued an extensive conversation about how far away Obama lived from our city, how best to get there—by car, bus, train, or airplane—how much each option might cost, what steps you would take, for example, to book an airline ticket and take a plane to see Obama’s house.

When she saw the rather crude line drawing of the Lincoln Memorial, Maria exclaimed, “That’s the man on the penny!” Clearly, a perceptive child.

On the last tutoring day of the year, I said goodbye but Maria said she wanted to show me something before I left. She took my hand and led me back to her first grade class, where her teacher had pinned, on the wall outside the classroom door, a poster of Martin Luther King and President Obama, something like the image depicted above.

Maria kept holding my hand, but used her other arm to point to the picture. “That’s Martin Luther King,” she said. “He had a dream.”

Continuing to point, she went on, “That’s Obama. He had a dream, too.”

I have to say, I just about lost it.

“Yes,” I said to myself, “and I believe I know a little girl who’s got a dream, too.”

Maria would be about 15 now. I wonder where she is. I wonder whether she still has a dream.