“But the biggest thing that I learned this past year while I was failing out of school was one thing my fellow classmates said to me: ‘You’re the king of nothing.’ But if the Mayans invented the concept of zero, then nothing is not nothing. If they can make something out of nothing, then my hero is me.”
— Latin History for Morons
The rain is coming down quickly in New York City and when there is rain there is traffic. I am running down long blocks, periodically glancing at my phone to check the time, and stopping only to huff and puff because I’m very close to being late to a show I’ve wanted to see for months.
As I turn the corner, cursing my lungs because they feel like they’re going to collapse in my chest, a wide smile appears on my face as I see the lights and the sign for Latin History for Morons.
I’ve wanted to see John Leguizamo ever since I watched his standup comedy in my drama class in college. While I knew who he was before that, I had never seen his standup. There was this fire in his eyes and electricity in his body that you could see through the TV screen. I desperately wanted to experience that live.
With two weeks left for the show I told myself I would treat myself and go. I was buzzing as I sat down in my seat, the last row all the way in the back of the orchestra, sandwiched between two grown men, as I waited for him to come on.
To be honest I didn’t know exactly what the show was going to be about. I didn’t read reviews beforehand or a synopsis. From the title I knew it was going to be relatable and teach me something but it could have been him sitting in the middle of the stage staring at us for two hours in complete silence. I still would have paid money to see that.
I expected to laugh a lot, which I did, but what I didn’t expect was to find myself crying towards the end.
While the show was funny–there were plenty of times I found myself laughing in unison with the man next to me, clapping our hands like excited seals–it was the underlying story that truly hit home.
The idea for the show came about when his son was being bullied in school. Kids were calling him a beaner and it started to escalate from there.
Leguizamo’s shining moments were when he was trying to speak to his son. As he started retelling his journey about searching for a Latin hero for his son–and really himself too–I found myself in limbo, watching the play and replaying a moment in my life that has haunted me for years.
I was always a very strict student. Anything less than A and I felt like the world was ending.
So here I am an anxious college freshman and I get one of my first papers back and staring at me in a big red circle is the letter ‘D.’
A D? That was a foreign letter to me. The panic immediately set in. I had to count to ten in my head in order to stop myself from crying in front of the entire class. There was no way in hell my studious ass got a D on a paper. This was not math class! If there was one thing I was good at it was writing.
I was so focused on my D I didn’t realize my professor had written something in the right hand corner of the first page.
I got the wind knocked out of me for a second time as I read the words over and over again in my head, “Do you even understand English? You need ESL classes.”
ESL? English as a second language? The only language I know is English.
He said to the class if anyone didn’t understand his notes to come speak to him. With tears forming in my eyes I waited for the class to empty before I went up to this man who was supposed to educate me.
He grabbed my paper from me and started to read his words back to me, loudly, over enunciating each word. He asked me if I could understand the words he was saying. He told me I needed to learn English and just like the rest of the people like me I’m probably not going to graduate college much less make it through an entire semester. He said I should come up with a back-up plan because I was going to fail his class.
I was completely flabbergasted. Me? Fail? I was a grade A student. I wrote a poem in the second grade that made my teacher weep. I wrote stories in the fourth grade they included in a book for the entire school to read. I was runner up in the fifth grade spelling bee. In high school I received a number of awards and graduated with an advanced regents diploma. I was in advanced calculus. I regularly got A’s on my projects and tests. I didn’t fail when it came to school.
I left his classroom that day feeling dejected. I cried over my essay until I couldn’t read the words any more and then got started on the next one because that’s all I could do.
He wasn’t the last educator to say something like that to me. Hell, he wasn’t the first either.
As Leguizamo spoke about his son and his experiences with racism there were tears streaming down my face. I was reminded of the times I was bullied and often felt less than. As he took his final bow and waved to the audience I looked around Studio 54 and noticed there were others who were crying too.
Thank you, John Leguizamo for giving us a voice on stage. Thank you for reminding Latinos we aren’t less than. More importantly thank you to you and your son for reminding me I am my own damn hero.
For the record I turned that D around and was the only one to get an A- in that class when the semester ended. I had to work ten times harder than everyone else and deal with his comments but there was no way in hell I was going to give him the satisfaction of failing me.