Woes of a Fifth Grader

Nataly Salvador, 11, works on the script for the class play in "Spanish World." (Photo by Jackie Mader)

There were 20 children seated in rows on a red-and-blue tiled classroom floor at P.S. 24 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.  It was 9 a.m on a Monday morning and the fifth grade students were studying math.  In the second row, legs folded beneath her, 11-year-old Nataly Salvador bent over a composition notebook.  Her long black hair fell forward over the pages and she pressed her palm to her forehead as she worked.  She paused, bouncing a silver glitter pencil against her jeans, and whispered to herself.

“Guys don’t stare into space,” said her teacher, Aracely Camacho.  “Please do the math in your book.”

Nataly wore imitation Ugg boots, her jeans tucked into the ankle, and a felt zip-up sweater that was striped black, green, and blue.  Unlike most of the girls in her class, she dislikes pink and red. Her backpack is a collection of grays and greens, her coat a pattern of blue plaid.  She describes herself as a girly tomboy.

“All right my little ones,” Camacho said as she called the students to attention so they could check their answers.  When the group was asked a question, Nataly raised her hand low, as if not entirely certain she would be able to answer correctly if called upon.  She’s more confident when the subject is reading, her favorite.

Nataly has been attending P.S. 24 since the first grade.  The school is bilingual, meaning that students divide their days between classes held entirely in English or Spanish.  Of the 759 students who attend P.S. 24, 90 percent are Hispanic.  Like many of the children at the school, Nataly’s first language was Spanish, the language spoken primarily by her parents, who are from Puebla, Mexico, though Nataly was born near Coney Island, Brooklyn.

“Most teachers say two languages is better,” said Nataly.

At 10:30 a.m. the class switched from “English World” with Camacho to teacher Martin Alvarado’s “Spanish World.”  Nataly worked on a script for the class play about the values of friendship.  She sat at one of two class laptops and used her pointer fingers to type a translation of her work into Spanish.  She found the task difficult because English is easier for her than Spanish.  Several times she asked other students how to say certain words, like script (“guion”) and backdrop (“en el fondo”).

This is Nataly’s last year at P.S. 24.  Next fall, she, and the rest of the fifth grade class will be scattered to middle schools throughout Brooklyn.  She was passed over to interview at her top choice schools – Math and Science Exploratory and a Park Slope middle school – but she still has hope for P.S. 51, a talent-based school, or Sunset Park Prep, where her older sister is in the eighth grade.  Nataly is not looking forward to middle school.  She worries about the pressures she has seen her older sister face.  “I don’t want my sister to get into bad things like drinking and smoking and gangs,” she said.  “I’m against all of those bad things.”  She also feels close to her current classmates and doesn’t want to lose the bonds she has built over the past five years.

At recess, she is usually surrounded by a gang of girls, and during class she easily falls in and out of conversation with other students, cupping her hand over her mouth to whisper a secret into another child’s ear.

At home, Nataly is used to moving around.  She has lived in five different homes since she was born.  Her family moved from Coney Island to 41st Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant when she was 4.  They lived in two other houses in the neighborhood before moving to their present apartment at the Kingsborough City Housing Projects.  Nataly says she doesn’t like living in her neighborhood because “there are too many gangs and too many people killed.” Three people were killed last year, two in the building adjacent to hers.  She thinks one of the murders was of a teenage girl, because the memorial was pink; when people die, she explains, neighbors put out drawings and photographs.

Nataly lives with both of her parents, Maria and Jesus, her older sister, Michelle, 12, her four-year-old brother, Alexis, and her father’s older brother, Uncle Julio.  Each morning Nataly travels 45 minutes to attend school in Sunset Park, though there is an elementary school directly across the street from the Kingsborough Housing Projects.  She takes the subway with her mother and sister, while Alexis, who has Down syndrome, goes to a preschool run by United Cerebral Palsy preschool.

“He’s very smart and very talented,” she said of her brother.  “He calls me ‘amour,’ because it means love in Spanish.”

While the children go to school, Nataly’s father, Jesus, 41, travels to the Bronx, where he does construction work.  “My dad takes it slow,” Nataly said.  “He does it well, very neat and nice.  He’s safe – not like the others.”  When she was younger, she would visit her father at work and remembers the tall walls of cement, wood saws, and hard hats for safety.  She knows many construction workers can get hurt on the job.

At 11 a.m., Nataly moved back to English World.  A man came in to Camacho’s class with a bag of individually wrapped oranges.  The children, whose days begin at 8:30 a.m., won’t have lunch until 1:30 p.m and this is their snack.  The oranges were already sliced in half and served while the students read independently to themselves.  Nataly sucked the fruit out of the pre-sliced orange skin while reading a story about a white midwestern girl from 1854, based on the American Girl Doll Kirsten.

For Nataly, school is a six-day-a-week activity.  Not only does she attend an after school tutoring program everyday, but she comes to school each Saturday for Saturday Scholars, an additional study program offered to the students.

On Sundays, she attends Mass with her family.  Her extended family – grandmothers, cousins, aunts and uncles – are all very Catholic, she said.  She has met most of them only once because they live in Mexico, a place she visited for the first time last year, when her family traveled back to Puebla.  On her fingers she counted her cousins; she thinks she has at least a dozen.  She also recalled that there were many dogs in the city, stores to buy tortillas, many malls, but also many trees and beautiful mountains.  Her parents took her to El Seco (which means dry or withered in English),  which she described as a place where poor people live who don’t have a home, just thin wooden structures.

“Our parents wanted to show us what it was like, because they think we are ungrateful,” she said.  The stayed in El Seco for several days and went to a carnival; they washed their clothes by hand and hung them dry on a clothes line.

Before lunch, Comacho read a book aloud to the class: “Bud, not Buddy,” by Christopher Paul Curtis.  The class discussed the significance of the main character owning land in 1934.  “Because he is a person of color, and at this point in history people of color were being discriminated against,” Comacho said.  The class is reading and writing historical fiction.  Nataly wrote about a little girl from New Mexico, though she prefers mysteries and scary stories: “I love it because it’s scary and I start getting a sick feeling in my stomach.”

“I’m very energetic.  I can’t sit still for one second,” explained Nataly. She bounced on her heels as she talked.

During recess, her friends were seated in a circle playing a sing-song hand-slapping game.  It was a cold winter day, but the children didn’t seem to notice, running between clumps of activity on a shadowed asphalt basketball court.  This is where many of the parents will gather at 3 p.m. to pick up their children.  But not Nataly, who will remain on the fourth floor for aftercare, until her mother picks her up, and they travel the 45 minutes back to a less-welcoming part of Brooklyn.

“This school has a lot of memories for me,” Nataly said.  She is popular, full of smiles, focuses on her school work, and giggles in class, but she is not without worry: worry for her father at work, her sister at school, worry over test scores and how they may determine the new middle-school she will attend.  For a child constantly moving at home, school can brings a sense of constancy, but that will soon change for Nataly, who will soon be exposed to even more of the worries of the world: the stresses of becoming a teenager.  At least until May, under the roof of P.S. 24, she will still get to be a kid.


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