Personal Essay: Juanita / by Bear Guerra

We landed in Nutley, a small suburban town in northern New Jersey, just a couple of weeks before classes started. To say I was terrified is an understatement — I was a shy fourteen year-old who spoke no English, who didn’t know anyone, who missed her friends terribly back in Caracas, and had no idea how ruthless teenage peer pressure in America could really be. On that first day of school, I walked for ten blocks down Franklin Avenue, the main strip in Nutley, until I reached the campus. I arrived sweaty and flushed. Around the entrances to the main building, I saw clusters of kids wearing their brand-new outfits, laughing out loud or gossipping as they checked each other out. My hands inside my jean pockets, I stood alone and avoided all eye contact while keeping a faint smile on my face.

Much of that day is kind of a blur. But somehow I ended up in the right homeroom after the first bell rang and got a hang of how my locker worked. A few nice girls reached out to me ocassionally in the halls speaking in incomprehensible English; telling them my name was as far as our conversations would go. “Rook-san-dra,” I’d say, breaking it up into easier-to-pronounce chunks. “OK, Roxanne!” they’d reply. And so it is that I was christened Roxanne for much of high school. 

Spanish wasn’t heard anywhere. That is, until I ended up in my fourth period class. With her thick Puerto Rican accent, Mrs. Boutin greeted me by speaking in my language and calling me by my real name. She wore no make-up, reading glasses, and a short pixie haircut parted on the side revealing a little gray. A long black chord hung around her neck containing her keys and her staff ID. I immediately loved her no-nonsense way.

“Ruxandra, take a seat donde tu quieras, OK?” I remember her saying in her rapid-fire Spanglish. Only two other students in the class spoke Spanish — Argentinean sisters who’d been in Nutley for over a year. But the others, from Vietnam, India, Russia, and China, seemed to respond to Mrs. Boutin’s hybrid language skills as well. When class ended, Mrs. Boutin sought me out to reassure me that I’d be learning English in no time. I wanted to believe her. I really did. But that evening, as I laid in bed thinking about going back to school the next day, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly overwhelmed. I cried so much that my eyes stayed red and puffy well into the next afternoon.

Little by little, I started to settle into my new life. Shauna Zaremba, another freshman in gym class, approached me one day with stories about her family and about her cats; the next day, she went on about her favorite band, Depeche Mode, and much more. I found her endearing for trying to connect with me despite my lack of English. The next time we saw each other, Shauna handed me a keychain that read: “I smile because I have no idea what’s going on." By then I could understand enough English to get the joke. Her gift would become a token of our friendship for years to come.

But during those first few days, weeks, and months, no one embraced me more -- and more kindly -- than Mrs. Boutin did. I loved our talks after class or when I ran into her fleetingly in the hallways. She was the only one who would ask me whether I missed home. I’d look forward to spending an hour-and-a-half sitting in her class, trying out my beat-up English skills as I talked about my day. Much like a group therapy session, us students would often sit facing each other listening to our stories of how we got there, how we were settling in, and what we thought about life in America thus far. I remember Tai, a refugee from Vietnam who struggled with his pronounciation. This was his second year with Mrs. Boutin, and hopefully not his last, he once told me, laughing. Maybe my English wouldn’t improve much either after just one year? I wasn’t the only one in Mrs. Boutin's ESL class who wished I could stay on indefinitely.

By the next Fall, I was ready to fly the coop. Seemingly overnight, I was able to form coherent English sentences and carry on conversations. I grew increasingly confident — or perhaps, conceited — and my attention shifted to my looks, to being cool, and to losing my accent. When my mom and I would go to the supermarket, or whenever we were out and about, I’d often ask her to speak to me only in English. Few things made me happier then than strangers telling me they couldn’t tell I had a “Hispanic” accent. 

Settling into a new country is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. This is especially so when you’re a teenager: You are endlessly curious about the new world around you and eager to break free to explore it on your own, yet you're also nostalgic for your old home, constantly craving others' approval and nurturing. All those things that you believed made you into “you” — your friends, your music, your room, your daily rituals — quickly become obsolete as soon as you change cultures. And just when you think you've been born again into an American, you realize you don’t belong here nor there; you speak Spanish with a gringa accent and your English idioms are all backwards, your friends say. 

I left Nutley once I got into college, at eighteen. Before leaving town, I found Mrs. Boutin in her classroom and hugged her, thinking we’d never cross paths again. I finished college and went on to move about restlessly and happy-go-luckily throughout the U.S. and parts of South America — from New York to California, and then on to Texas, Massachusetts, and Bolivia; then back to Texas, California, Colorado; and now, to Ecuador. I do not think I’ve found my home yet. There’s no doubt in my mind that leaving Venezuela as a teenager set me up for a life of insatiable searching.

Yet one person has remained a constant — in my mind, at least — during all these years: Mrs. Boutin. For a long time, I wondered about her and tried to find her email. During one visit to my old high school ten years ago, no one could seem to track her down. Then, we found each other in 2009, in the most conspicuous of ways — through Facebook. “I don't know if your travels ever take you this way, but you would be MOST welcome to visit,” she wrote me. “We have a nice little guest room, which you would just have to share with our cat, Gracie and Lady, our adopted Border Collie.”

These days, I call her by her first name, Juanita. After 35 years of teaching ESL in Nutley High School, she’s now retired and living in Mississippi. We send each other emails every few weeks with udpates — she describes her busy days at the local shelter for cats where she volunteers; I tell her about my work and travels with our baby in tow. Twenty years have passed since I finished high school. I haven't seen her since. But one of these days, I plan on getting on a plane to visit her, to stay at her guest room in Mississippi. 

--Ruxandra Guidi.