One spring break my husband and I took my three kids on a mission trip. We chose an organization in the Yucatán Peninsula that worked with children. My kids knew a little Spanish but they planned to depend on me since I studied it in college; 23 years later and I was finally going to use my degree.
During our trip we spent hours one day in Sucopo fitting adults with reading glasses. While my husband and I helped with the fittings, my son joined the neighborhood basketball game and my girls painted faces and fingernails. After all this, the time came to distribute some gifts to the local children. We had brought pencils, erasers and combs to hand out.
I reviewed the vocabulary with Moises, the man in charge. He reminded me that I would be mobbed and it was up to me to keep order. I was ready. I used my best Spanish and asked the children (as though the objects weren’t self-explanatory): “Would you like a pencil?”…“Would you like a comb?” The children were delighted and grateful.
As I offered the gifts, I noticed the girls giggling and recoiling as they tried not to touch the combs while reaching for the pencils. As I watched them, I was moved by how writing and education were so much more important to these girls than appearances. American girls could learn a lot from this group.
Was that it — less interest in grooming? Or was it the fact that thin plastic combs are terrible? My mind raced now. Maybe I should have splurged for hairbrushes. I was trying to make my dollars go as far as I could, to give the most number of items, reach the most kids — you can buy a handful of combs for the price of one hairbrush. I felt embarrassed as I realized I had been selfish. My kids don’t use combs. Why did I think these girls, simply because they have so little, would want cheap, hair-ripping combs? I could have spent a few more dollars. I hoped I hadn’t insulted them.
As I thought through all this, I noticed the boys had a mischievous look about them. They laughed and pushed each other. One boy pointed to his friend and said in Spanish, “he would like a comb,” then they’d laugh and playfully hit each other some more. Some of them stood back and watched. They called for another boy who was off playing nearby. It was clear he was a leader. The kids had all eyes and ears on him. He said to me in clear Spanish, “Yes, I would like a comb, please.” They all laughed as he selected one.
Something was wrong…they were laughing at me, but I wasn’t being funny; I was trying to be nice. I was confused. Before when we handed out things they would swarm us; it was almost intimidating, though they meant no harm. Whatever we had was gone in seconds. But now…I still had a handful of combs.
I asked Moises why the kids didn’t want them. In the course of our conversation, through my less-than-polished Spanish, we discovered the problem. In my defense it was just a letter “I.” But one letter can make a big difference…instead of saying comb, or “peine,” in Spanish, I had been offering the kids a “pene.” A penis.
I returned to the group determined to get it right and disprove any developing theories that I was some sort of gringa pervert. When offered as “peines,” the combs were gone in seconds.
— Sarah Press Dickerson
Sarah Press Dickerson disappointed her family many years ago by not becoming a doctor of any type. She instead followed her heart and has enjoyed an illustrious career as a stay-at-home mom of three for the past 18 years. Sarah is a humor essayist who lives with her husband and children in Charlottesville, Virginia.