39. Schooled

By the time I pushed my way through the doors of Citizenship Prep, sweating and pathetically late, Laura was nowhere to be seen.

The other volunteers were scattered around the lobby, so I poached a middle-aged student named Roberto from the guy nearest me and found a spot in the corner.

Right away, I realized that Berto was far too advanced for the class. He had grown up in the States, graduated from high school in New York, and hadn’t even realized that he was not an American citizen until he applied to join the police force several months ago.

The material in the course book is elementary at best, designed as it is for ESL students terrified at the prospect of facing down immigration officials. After running through a couple of the questions in what I hoped was not a patronizing tone toward Berto, who was roughly old enough to be my father, I shut the book and asked him what he wanted to discuss.

He fired back at me with some rapid-fire trivia, and to my embarrassment, I missed three easy questions in a row and tried to chalk it up to my need for coffee.

Berto: Which country is closest to the United States, but separated by a body of water?

Me (having known better, given my rapt attention to the 2008 presidential campaign): the Dominican Republic?

Even Cuba would have been a more respectable guess.

Berto was thrilled to have stumped me. Russia, he exclaimed, as Tina Fey’s SNL skits scrolled through my head. He fired off another, and I answered with easy confidence. Which state in the continental (I think he meant contiguous) United States is the largest?

Me, emphatically: California

His eyes widened at the unexpected victory. This is a major pride point among Texans, one that any native son will bray about to any Midwesterner, Californian, or New Yorker at the slightest opportunity. I should have known this one in my sleep.

Ashamed, I snapped my fingers and gestured for the next question, my outlet for redemption.

Berto: What is the largest population in the United States?

I asked for clarification. Did he mean nationality? He did.

This has been plastered all over the news for the past several years, and a nearly infinite number of analyses have been published on the subject. I wasn’t about to get this wrong.

Mexicans!, I blurted, loudly enough that the surrounding pairs glanced over and smiled.

Berto was triumphant.

Nope, Germans, he informed me.

I wasn’t letting this one go, for the sake of my own ego, and my questioning led to a discussion about the census and immigration in general. We were shooed away shortly thereafter, but I left with a rueful smile, wondering if Berto felt the morning had been a waste of his time.

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