Maria I have Failed
In the back of my 6th grade ELL (English Language Learner) classroom sits Maria of the drawn on eyebrows and too tight pants. Maria who tries to paint her nails blue during science class (until the smell gives her away) and during Silent Reading writes notas de amor to a boy a few rows over. Maria who only shakes her head when prompted to speak English (though she understands what I say) and still doesn’t know how to subtract. A child I cannot reach but whose future, bleak, I see mapped out in front of us if I don’t continue to try.
The students filling the seats of my class this year are all from Mexico. My job title is Bilingual Education Teacher, though I do not teach bilingually at all. My job requirement is to teach students how to speak English within the context of grade-level curriculum. Though I have taught students from Kenya, Togo, Poland, China and the Republic of Georgia, the majority have always been Mexican.
The path that brought me here is paved by words. Languages have threaded into a trail that I’ve followed for much of my life, but that trail has been obstructed by Maria. The divide between Maria and myself seems impenetrable though I can speak her language.
Over the five years that I have been a bilingual teacher, I have managed to teach myself how to speak Spanish. It was a necessary part of my job, though it was not a requirement for me to be hired. I am not fluent; I am functional. I have learned how to meet the demands that this job requires: namely making contact with parents regarding students’ academic successes and failures and communicating with my students when it is imperative that they clearly understand the instructions. People are often surprised to learn that I have had no real instruction in Spanish (save one introductory Spanish class many years ago). However, learning Spanish came naturally after so many years sniffing out languages.
Languages saturated my childhood. My grandmother was versed in English, Dutch, French and Swahili, the product of a South African upbringing. My father, an anthropologist, would curse at us in Jamaican patios. “Raas Clat!” he’d yell when we spilled our milk or stained the carpet. In the third grade I began to teach myself French, so that I could practice with my grandmother (which never proved very fun, as she spent the whole time correcting pronunciation), and elegantly tell my little brother to shut up (ferme la bouche!). My father then bought “Teach your Child French” audio cassettes. My brother and I would sit at the kitchen table and sing songs with Helene, the young French girl on the tapes. At the same time, my father also gave us Sunday writing assignments, such as: write a story containing onomatopoeia. I abhorred the French lessons and writing assignments. I was convinced that no normal family in the United States of America did such bizarre things with their free time, though retrospectively, it did help set the stage for my studies in words.
I continued studying French throughout middle school and high school, into college, the culmination of which was a successful three week journey throughout France whereby I was able to converse easily with the natives. I taught French to eight graders at a private school for a brief stint and was offered a job helping design a Canadian Whirlpool web page (which I opted to turn down).
Despite all this study, French never proved very useful to me. I n college, I wasn’t a French major, I was an English major. No one I knew was actively seeking out people who spoke French. All that foreign language study did was help me when I turned from an English major to an education major. As a secondary English education major, getting my ESL endorsement was an easy step, as I’d already completed all the necessary English and foreign language requirements for the endorsement. By the time I’d completed my degree requirements, the already blowing winds of changed had saturated the area with Mexican families, mostly illegal aliens, and I was hired to teach English as a Second Language before I’d actually even graduated from college, such was the need for certified bilingual teachers.
I floundered in my first year, as most new teachers do. I was lucky that most of my students were close to being exited form the bilingual program and understood me well enough to be my aides in teaching the handful of students whose English skills were weak. One main problem was that I was unable to make contact with parents. In my first year class, only one child’s parent spoke English. I recall my first set of parent-teacher conferences, sitting alone in my classroom with the young mother of one of my students. Though my my Spanish-English dictionary was clutched tightly in my hand I was tongue tied. I smiled and helplessly waited for a translator. I didn’t have a clue how to communicate at all. It wasn’t just that I was unable to speak this woman’s language, but even if I did, I was unsure how to approach her. I had not yet gained the necessary confidence to approach the parents of my students as an equal. Slowly however I began to learn Spanish and my confidence grew.
In order to learn Spanish, I applied what I knew from French. I realized that if I could think of a verb in French (perdre-to lose) it was very likely to resemble the Spanish equivalent (perdir -to lose). Though at first I stumbled, the students were quick to help. They enjoyed teaching me their language as I was teaching them mine. Slowly the conjugations and pronunciations became to surface more naturally. Now I am able to hold parent teacher conferences without a translator and write notes home when the need be. I am still too unsure of my abilities to talk on the phone however, as I have learned that visual contact and body language makes up tenfold for what one does not understand. As I’ve learned Spanish, I have also became more deeply immersed in the Mexican immigrant culture.
In every class I’ve had, the students’ language abilities have run the gamut from barely needing bilingual services to knowing not a single word of English. Before I could communicate in Spanish I was missing out on making connections with those students who were lower on the language scale. As my communication abilities have increased, so has my knowledge of the lives and culture of my students.
I’ve learned that most of the children I teach were very poor. A few did not even have running water when they left Mexico, (though they are far from the norm). Their parents range in age, though most married young. It is not surprising to find students who have 10 or more brothers and sisters. Many of my students’ parents cannot read or write in Spanish and so my kids serve as translators and letter writers for their parents. Quite often the students have had little or inconsistent schooling in Mexico as well and are also often unable to read or write Spanish. I have learned that many don’t see the dentist in Mexico and so often the kids are embarrassed about their teeth. I have heard the stories of crossing the border: amoral “coyotes” (people involved in the transport of illegal aliens), being lost in the desert, or trapped underneath a hot car seat for hours at a time. I have students who haven’t seen their parents for years and those who don’t see their parents now as the parents work up to 16 hours a day to make ends meet. I have been invited to first communions and quincineras. I have learned to make tortillas and tamales and to dance cumbia. None of this has prepared me for Maria.
Maria’s mother is young and cannot read or write in Spanish. She works in a local factory and has no extra time to take any English classes. Her first husband, Maria’s father, is an alcoholic back in Mexico. Maria, her mother and sister live with Maria’s step father, a thin man several years younger than Maria’s mother. The step father can read and write Spanish, but has told me that he didn’t go far enough in school to be much help to Maria on her schoolwork. Maria’s parents have told me that they believe that school is important. They want a “better life” for Maria. However I notice that they don’t seem to understand how to set goals and limitations around school. Maria is apathetic about school. When I ask her what she wants for her life, she simply shrugs her shoulders. To Maria, school and learning English are not an important part of the future. I asked Maria if she wants to learn English and she says no. “No importa.” It doesn’t matter.
Though all my students parents tell me they came here for their children to have an education and a better life, I find that the background is not there to follow through on this. Many of my kids still go on to quit school, marry young and have the same quality of factory and kitchen jobs that their parents have. And sadly, the culture that many of students hail from is a male oriented culture where girls are still primed to believe that what is ultimately important in the end is your man, not your brain.
No amount of language study prepared me for this barrier. A barrier personified in Maria. At thirteen, the life she envisions for herself revolves around a husband and babies. Being pretty is more important to Maria than learning because that is what she believes will provide her with success and happiness. This is a limit of culture, not language, and my white, middle class upbringing cannot flex or fold to fit within these walls. Maria reminds me that I will always be an outsider to her culture in this way. I cannot stop trying to show Maria the value of self reliance and the power of knowledge. I cannot help but believe that Maria’s lack of learning English will ultimately be detrimental to her future. I realize I may need to reconcile that my goals for Maria do not match her goals for herself, but a teacher, as a woman, I can’t be satisfied releasing an uneducated and willingly submissive woman into society - not when there is so much at her fingetips if she would only reach out. So though Marisa obstructs my trail, she has taught me a lesson. No amount of language study will ever completely indoctrinate me into her culture, but I can take what I know and adapt it to the classroom so that for each Maria I encounter I might be less inclined to fail and a little closer to paving her own trail of language. One that ends in success. (trite ending)