Sunrise, Sunset


A student at the language school taking private classes two years ago told me that he had no grandkids because both of his daughters were too self-centered to have children. Instead, they had cats. I was surprised, therefore, when he later mentioned a grandchild. A granddaughter, to be exact. “Really?” I said, interested but wary of seeming incredulous. It’s not unheard of, after all, for people to spoil their pets as if they were their children, or refer to their animals as their babies. I’d even heard people call themselves the aunt or uncle of a sibling’s pet. Never in my experience, however, had anyone claimed to be a pet’s grandfather. Still, when he mentioned his granddaughter, I pictured him tickling a kitten under the chin. I smiled at the idea. This man lived in the city but also had a house in a nearby village, so I imagined a litter of kittens crawling up his leg and onto his lap before he shooed the whole feline family out the door. “Granddad needs a rest!”

But when he mentioned his teenaged granddaughter coming to the house for lunch every day while her mom was at work, I wondered aloud who this child was, and he explained that she was the granddaughter of his wife, his second wife. With a chuckle, he said that during the meal, he and his granddaughter held conversations in English that drove his wife crazy because she didn’t understand what they were saying. The girl was studying at the language academy too, he told me, and wondered if she’d ever been my student. He showed me a picture, but I didn’t recognize her. “Maybe when she was little,” I suggested. “I had a little girl once with the same name.” But I never investigated.

The grandfather quit class when he had a knee operation. A year went by. Then this past fall, I had a new group of students. One had the same name as the man’s granddaughter. She was 16. I studied her face for signs of the child I remembered or the adolescent her grandfather had shown me. She was much prettier than in the picture and very different now from the little girl I remembered. Running through my head more days than one was the song “Sunrise, Sunset,” from Fiddler on the Roof. When had she grown to be a beauty? I hummed. What I said, though, was “I know your grandfather.”

She rolled her eyes and said he made her speak English with him at lunch. “But I can’t understand him!” she exclaimed, which had often been exactly my difficulty. I’m going to like you, my smile said, and she certainly turned out to be a wonderful student—willing to talk, ready to try new expressions, not afraid of making mistakes herself or embarrassed to catch her classmates making them. She has an alert, pretty face, thick, dark, swooping eyebrows, long brown hair, light gray eyes, and a sense of fun that shows in her tongue-in-cheek dramatic performances. Throughout the year, I had often asked myself if this was really the little girl I’d known, and I marveled at how she’d changed. Without much awareness of its happening, I went from wondering to believing. I was amazed by the changes but also proud of the transformation from that mousy little girl with a slack, unhappy face to this vibrant, funny person who put on a show but, behind the act, was almost demure. She was polite, never taking her phone out in class, always answering my questions quickly, and, when she arrived late, never failing to excuse herself. “That’s okay,” I always said, glad to see her.

One day in the spring, she asked to leave early because she had to go welcome a French exchange student she and her mom were hosting for three days. When I asked the following week about the girl’s visit, she said, “Yeah, it was okay.” The girl though was messy, my student added, and that had caused a problem. Oh? Yes, she explained, because the French girl had stayed in the spare room, and left her clothes all over the floor. “I told her to pick them up,” said my student, “because my mom had to get through to the clothesline, and all her clothes were in the way.”

My student made a face, the one her mother might have made at the distressful situation of a guest in her home causing trouble. I nodded sympathetically. My student rolled her eyes in such a way that I knew she was commenting on her mother’s distress, her own uncomfortable role as intermediary, and the brewing tension. Her mother, who speaks neither French nor English, told the girl off in Spanish. The girl didn’t speak Spanish, and so she had laughed. “She laughed in my mom’s face,” my student said, putting on an exaggeratedly shocked tone. “In her face!” she repeated.

“In her face,” I echoed. “Oh my. What did your mom do?”

My student revealed through her tone, words, and expression exactly how taken aback her mother had been. “‘E—, we have to tell the school, this isn’t acceptable,’” my student said in a distressed, fluttery imitation of her mother. It was funny. We both laughed. And just like that, I loved this mother, too. I sat back, full of admiration, primarily at the wonderful person my student was, but also at her magical transformation, the kind in fairy stories. I wouldn’t have given two cents for that small child’s progress in English, or anything else, and here she was, a marvel! Was this really the same person, I asked myself. How wonderful that she was. Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers, Blossoming even as we gaze.

A few days later, my student was alone in class, and we began talking about the years she’d spent at the academy. “Do you remember that I was your teacher?” I asked, thinking she might not. She’d been so little, and it was a long while ago. I hoped she would though.

She frowned slightly. “Noooo,” she said.

How could I jog her memory? Perhaps she would remember a classmate, but though I pictured perfectly well a crafty little girl who had been this student’s companion in class and run circles around her, I couldn’t remember a name. “Oh, what was her name?” I asked aloud. I pulled my old class lists from the cabinet. There in the roster was her friend’s name, and hers. But the last name didn’t look right. I double checked with my student. Sure enough, it didn’t match. I looked at some different lists, but her name did not appear. “I’m not sure if it was you or not,” I said uncertainly, not wanting to be wrong.

As had her grandfather, the student offered to show me a picture, this one of herself as a little girl. She pulled out her phone to look for it.

“This little girl was shy.”

“I was shy!”

“You’re not now. What happened?”

“My mom threw me in a class when I was so little!” Again that careful, clear voice, that almost triumphant delivery. We both laughed, though evidently the experience had been traumatic, the child paralyzed. What a class that had been, and one of my first teaching at the academy.

She held the phone out to me. I barely recognized the student in front of me in the features of the chubby, challenging face staring out from the screen. I was certain I’d never seen her before. “No, the little girl I’m thinking of was very different,” I said, slowly. I wonder I didn’t blurt it out in my surprise.

So they were not the same, after all. The awkward child had not blossomed into this confident teen. Something else though had happened: the chubby, fierce little girl had bloomed.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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