‘Teaching English from an Old Composition Book’ by Chicano poet Gary Soto deals with the realities of teaching Mexican-Americans the English language to help them gain better opportunities in America for both living and professional purposes. Soto’s writings often express the experiences of being placed on the margins of society and the struggle for survival that arises due to marginalization. As a Mexican-American himself, his works explore those very realities of the community, their daily lives, problems, moments of joy, etc. Soto writes mostly for children and young adults. He is also known for his Chicano poetry that uniquely captures the acute sense of ethnicity and his belief that certain emotions, values, and experiences transcend ethnic boundaries and allegiances.
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‘Teaching English from an Old Composition Book’ by Gary Soto is about an exhausted teacher looking around the classroom and describing his surroundings while teaching English composition at a night school.
An element of tiredness permeates the atmosphere of the entire poem as the speaker conveys the pitying conditions of his students and the classroom. The students work to make a living during the daytime. They work hard to make ends meet. At night, it becomes hard for them to concentrate on the nuances of a different, foreign language. The speaker employs imagination in teaching the students. Thus the class becomes a place of fantasy. That euphoric feeling does not last forever.
The students ask the teacher the meaning of some words. He grasps at meanings traveling between two languages. Eventually, everyone in the class gets tired of their role-playing, and the class comes to an end. Even amidst the chaos and exhaustion, the words “tally-ho” and “Es como adelante” ring in their minds, urging, “let’s move forward.”
You can read the full poem here.
‘Teaching English from an Old Composition Book’ is a reflection of the daily life of immigrants; the back-breaking work to make a living, the learning of English to have an easier life in America, the exhaustion seeping from all the characters in the poem. Yet the quiet hope and dreams vibrate in the air through their fantasies of having a better life. That is what makes the poem an accurate portrayal of the life of immigrants. Not knowing a foreign language is a weakness, a vulnerability that needs to be covered up to blend in with society. The verbs and prepositions read from the old book do not make any sense to the students. Words of one language not having an exact equivalent in another is an underlying hint at the linguistic crises faced by immigrants.
My chalk is no longer than a chip of fingernail,
Chip by which I must explain this Monday
The music of how we feel as the sun falls,
Exhausted from keeping up.
At the beginning of ‘Teaching English from an Old Composition Book,’ the teacher begins by saying how he needs to teach verbs on a Monday night using chalk no longer than a “chip of a fingernail.” The actions in the poem from the very beginning are shrouded with the blanket of want. The small chalk, tired students, the bare room with only the coffee machine, and the busted piano all contain a certain sense of lack; a lack of energy, better equipment, or a livelier and bright environment.
All the students are not from a well-off background, coming to school in the daytime for education. They are immigrant workers who work from dawn to dusk to earn a living and then come to class exhausted after a hard day. In that room, the teacher himself is tired and frustrated teaching at night. The students work as roofers and cleaners. That explains the economic and social background of these students, who nevertheless make an effort to learn a new language in the hope of a better future. It is the pathos of the immigrant experience, the exhaustion “from keeping up,” the struggle and hopes that come with this identity.
I stand at
The blackboard. The chalk is worn to a hangnail,
Drinking sodas and beers, cutting flowers
And steaks—a pantomime of sumptuous living.
Standing in front of the blackboard, the teacher notices the chalk is almost finished. The dust is a reminder of the education imparted. Despite all difficulties, the teacher tries to rouse the students up with enthusiasm. Like Cantiflas, the comedian, the teacher takes the forefront and becomes involved in teaching. A “pantomime of sumptuous living” is produced as the teacher explains the verbs in the English language through imaginary actions of buying, eating, and shopping, all surplus actions of privileged living the immigrants possibly do not experience. Therein lies the social truth that is subtly shown by the poet, in a sad manner beneath the humor and the chaos.
At break I pass out cookies.
Augustine, the Guatemalan, asks in Spanish,
They smile and, in return, cry, “Tally-ho.”
As they head for the door.
In the second stanza of ‘Teaching English from an Old Composition Book,’ the poet depicts how the teacher hands out cookies at the break. One student asks the meaning of “tally-ho,” which is a cry for hunters on the finding of prey. The teacher fumbles, not very sure, and then says, “Es como adelante,” which stands for moving forward. The students are happy to have discovered the meaning of a new English expression they did not know before. Besides, the speaker did not know the meaning either.
They continue to learn prepositions, and then finally, the time comes when neither the teacher nor the students can continue any longer. The class comes to an end, and the students prepare to leave. Beneath simple actions lies the pain of learning a language not their own, the difficulties of trying to remember simple words, the desperate need to know to fit in and have an easier life amidst the majority. The students and their teacher still continue to put in the labor with a smile on their faces despite how tiring the class is. “Forward,” “tally-ho,” or “adelante” is the only thing they can do, move ahead, and live despite their struggles.
The poem ends with no spectacular moment or climax. But what it does linger upon the readers’ minds regarding the daily lives of those students and the teacher weaved by the bittersweet language of the poem.
Soto’s ‘Teaching English from an Old Composition Book’ is composed of two stanzas with 23 and 21 lines each. The poem is written in a conversational manner. Being composed in free verse, the poem has no fixed meter or rhyme scheme. The speaker of the poem is a teacher instructing English as a foreign language to a group of Mexican-American immigrants at a night school. The overall poem is written from the teacher’s point of view. The resonating quality of the poem lies in its simplicity, and being a narrative poem, the lines easily flow one after the other.
Soto uses the following literary devices in ‘Teaching English from an Old Composition Book’.
- Enjambment: It occurs throughout the text. The following lines are enjambed, “Chip by which I must explain this Monday/ Night the verbs “to get;” “to wear,” “to cut.””
- Alliteration: It occurs in “Sour from scrubbing,” “Cantiflas, the comic,” “coffee cup,” “my mouth,” etc.
- Allusion: In the line, “By and by I’m Cantiflas, the comic,” there is an allusion to Cantiflas, a popular Mexican comedian.
- Anaphora: This device is used in the following lines, “I pick up a coffee cup and sip./ I click my heels and say, “I wear my shoes.”” Both of these lines begin with “I” for the sake emphasis.
- Irony: Soto injects irony through the line, “I’m not given much, these tired students.” Then the speaker continues to comment on their suffering.
Soto believed that reflecting reality “just as it is” is a vital role of a poet because only then the truth of poetic endeavors can reach readers. Hence, most of Gary Soto’s poems are simple reflections of his times, society, and the community he belongs to, along with their culture, rituals, and neighborhoods. That’s why readers become nostalgic while reading his poems. The element of sadness and hope rings throughout his poetry. His poem ‘Teaching English from an Old Composition Book’ portrays an aspect of immigrant life, a difficult one yet filled with a certain optimism, which makes the poem such a beautiful read.
Gary Soto’s ‘Teaching English from an Old Composition Book’ is about a teacher who instructs some Mexican-American immigrant students in a night school. Through this piece, Soto shows the quality of education they receive and the way they struggle to learn a foreign language.
In this poem, the classroom has five windows, a coffee machine, a blackboard, and a piano with broken strings. The speaker aptly describes the condition of the room through the line, “Nearly gone, the dust of some educational bone.” It is a hint at the funding spent on the education of immigrants.
According to the speaker, some of his students work as roofers. Their knuckles are bandaged. Some of them work as cleaners. They are “sour” from scrubbing dirty toilets and pedestal sinks. In totality, the students are employed in various labor-intensive jobs to earn a living.
While teaching verbs, the teacher depicts the actions of eating, having coffee, wearing shoes, eating chicken, and various other similar tasks mimicked by the teacher as well as the students. In this way, the teacher somehow tries to engage the weary students in the class.
The following list contains a number of poems that similarly tap on the themes present in Gary Soto’s poem ‘Teaching English from an Old Composition Book’.
- ‘Teacher’ by Carol Ann Duffy — This poem is about a teacher whose teaching has the power to infuse life into the mundane and dry figures of the book.
- ‘Hedge School’ by Owen Sheers — This piece portrays the young Sheers ambling home after a day at school, picking blackberries on the way.
- ‘An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum’ by Stephen Spender — In this poem, Spender describes the harsh living conditions of the poor children of a slum.