Pop, crackle, and Omar

OMAR would be 5 in May. He has lived in Kenya, Abu Dhabi, and the United States. He speaks Swahili, Arabic, and English. There is a woodsy area behind where he lives with his mom and dad in a western suburb of Chicago. Omar, Khalid (his three-year-old brother), and I were walking in the woods together. Eager to be a teaching grandma, I pointed out the pine cones. He was very excited and told me they would grow pineapples. Feeling very wise, I explained the word starts like pineapple, but pineapples would grow on the ground as they do in Kenya. It would be too cold here for a pineapple to grow.

We looked at the needles, and he didn't much care that they were pointy and sharp. He was very excited about the pine cones we discovered half buried in the dried grass. We got a box to put them in. He and Khalid ran around singing about the ``pine corns'' and picking their favorite ones to save.

Every so often, I would use the term pine cones, and wondered how important it was to get the word just right when they loved the sound of ``pine corns.'' Flush with the joy of this teachable moment, I tried adding to the information. ``Pine trees grow from the seeds in the pine cones,'' I said, and we found a few seedlings. ``Cute,'' he said, but clearly his joy was for the ``pine corns.'' ``Does Daddy ever build a fire in the fireplace?'' ``No,'' he told me.

``Sometimes, I think people put them on the fire and they make a popping sound.''

When we got to the house, he had slipped a few pine cones in surreptitiously, and no one seemed to mind. Guests were coming, and preparations were being made for dinner. I saw a pan in the fireplace, but no fire, so paid little attention as I saw Omar place the pine cones in the pan, all the while talking to his dad, who was talking to someone else. Soon there was a smoky smell in the room and much commotion as his dad realized Omar was adding his pine cones to the small bit of charcoal glowing in the pan to freshen the air in the house. The flue was not open and the room filled with smoke. Omar was banished to his room for playing with fire.

Here was a little boy devastated. He sat with his head buried in his arms for the longest time. What had happened? I felt somehow responsible, yet said nothing until things calmed down. Later, I told him Mommy and Daddy were concerned about his safety. Much later, I made the connection. I think pine cones to him came to mean popcorn. Hadn't Grandma said they make a popping sound? An endless supply would be in his yard! He looked relieved when I brought up the idea, but he did not comment.

This happening made me realize what a tremendous task it is to try on a new language and hang something new on what you already know. How brave he has to be to try something new again. As I work with children trying to unlock meaning from the printed word, I will do well to remember Omar and the ``pine corns.''

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