I Believe in The Squirrel

Yon - San Francisco, California
Entered on October 9, 2008

I believe in The Squirrel.

When I was first introduced to The Squirrel in first grade, I hated it because I could not call it what it was. Later, getting to know The Squirrel helped me to learn self-determination.

My family emigrated from South Korea to Sacramento, California in the late 1970s, a time when Sacramento was limited in diversity. I remember walking into my class and realizing I had nothing in common with my classmates. I was a foreigner in every sense of the word. I did not look or speak like my classmates. I somehow managed to survive the morning without having to speak. In the afternoon, I was delighted to work something I knew: the universal subject of mathematics. My enthusiasm to complete the assignment resulted in a slip up when I wrote down the wrong answer.

I was faced with the problem of asking for an eraser. Panicked, I caught the attention of a fellow student to ask for an eraser by making erasing motions with my hands. She looked at me as if I were from Mars and continued with her assignment. Determined, I asked another student using the same miming method. He gave me a puzzled look, shrugged and continued with his work. At that moment, I knew I had to learn English very quickly if I were to survive first grade and beyond.

A few days of being mute in class had gone before my teacher took mercy on me and enlisted the help of a patient and kind ESL tutor. In the afternoons, my tutor and I would review flashcards. With an expert flick of her wrist, she would flash black and white images of animals. And soon I was saying “lion”, “tiger”, “bird”, with ease. I began to gain momentum and confidence with each flash card. That is until one day, my tutor flicked a picture of “The Squirrel.”

My tutor demonstrated the pronunciation of squirrel but my Korean tongue would not cooperate. I unsuccessfully said “squrrrrr” each time. After many attempts of making gurgling sounds, my tutor told me it was ok to move on. But I was not ok. I wanted to perfect my pronunciation. I felt a rush of determination and refused to let The Squirrel be a barrier for me in mastering the English language. After several weeks of diligent practice on my own, I was able to successfully pronounce squirrel. My efforts had paid off and I felt a great sense of accomplishment.

I will not forget The Squirrel and the impact it had on my life. Now when I am faced with challenges, I try to remember my first weeks in first grade. I was frightened and worried but eventually, learned how to cope, adapt and communicate. Taking myself back to that time helps me to remember how self-determination helped overcome obstacles. I take a deep breath and say “squirrel” in my head to give me the confidence to move forward.