During her two years of teaching English in Madrid, Devon Hughes — along with her students — struggled with language acquisition (in her case, Castillano). A former English major, tour guide, and aspiring writer, communication had been her “daily bread”, which later made asking and paying for her daily bread at a Spanish corner store all the more embarrassing and humbling. The following poem, written during her time abroad, was inspired by an eye-opening experience that turned one morning’s usual commute on the metro into an unusual, highly self-aware journey.
by Devon Hughes
Deaf to the words in Spanish
floating over the click-clack-screech and squeal
of the metro, yellow line south,
headphones wedged in my ears.
We slow then stop.
An old man, the color of café con leche,
unbends from his blue
plastic seat across from me, hikes up his trousers
with a jerk of his thumbs
My eyes follow his slow form
until the passengers waiting on the Legazpi platform
outside my car’s automatic doors board
– a mother taking her
daughter to primary school.
My school is on the Southside,
full of Moroccan immigrant children
shouting in the stairwells, always trailing their rolling
backpacks that smack,
each and every concrete
And this girl,
now seated in the old man’s warmed plastic
chair, clutches her own cursed contraption.
A snap of her head, and she stares
into my light eyes with one, uncovered dark eye.
A sterile, skin-toned patch covers the other.
Her pink, bottle-thick glasses magnify
like her headband, backpack,
and sweatpants with grimy cuffs.
Clutching a pole as the metro lurches forward, the mother leans
down and speaks into the plastic shell
encircling the girl’s ear, attached to the pink glasses.
I push my earbuds
and look across
to the dark tunnel wall outside the window,
to my reflection,
a blur catches my eye, and I focus
on an African boy,
maybe sixteen, standing further down the car, telling
a grand story with swoops and splashes
of his hands in the air
for his sister’s benefit.
His sister nods.
I pluck out my headphones.
A suction pop
and only the sound of the metro
scraping the tunnel walls fills the vacuum.
The sister nods again
and signs back.
Across from me, the daughter
tugs on her mother’s free hand.
One look around the rocking metro car, and I realize
I am the only passenger without
glasses, patch, or hearing aid.
The sudden sound of the recording
announcing the next stop makes me start.
– Hospital 12 de octubre –
An hour later, as I watch a fellow teacher
smack the back of an eraser against the blackboard
to silence a rambunctious class of 2nd graders, I recall
the lines of mute children
queuing at the slowing metro’s doors.