Teaching ESL by Terry Wilson

Teaching ESL (one teacher’s experience)

When Trump got installed and continued his horrible tirades against immigrants and refugees, then began his daily executive orders designed to keep immigrants out of the country, I, like most sane people, was incensed and disgusted. What could I do about this?

Aside from donating money and attending immigrant rights’ protests and forums, I decided I needed to do the thing I’d been trained for—teach immigrants English. In the late 1980’s when Reagan was president, he was despicable too, except he did one good thing—he created a law that allowed amnesty for millions of people in the US who were undocumented.

It was an incredible time, the late ‘80’s—I’d just finished another year of teaching elementary school in downtown LA, when the word got out that LA Unified School District was looking for teachers for adult students seeking English classes. The answer to the dumb question of “Why don’t ‘those people’ want to learn English” was easily answered—all you had to do was look at the lines of people five blocks long, all waiting patiently to register for classes! Some schools like Evans Adult had classes all around the clock—noon, 2 pm., 4 pm., 6 pm., 8 pm., 10 pm., midnight, 2 am., 4 am., 6 am., 8 am, 10 am. THAT’S how many people wanted to learn English! And that was just at ONE school in ONE city, Los Angeles. The students had simply been waiting till it was safe to come out of the shadows. If La Migra (or ICE) is going to grab you when you try and register for school, you’re not going to do it!

Those years of teaching adults English and Civics were among my most satisfying times as an instructor. I taught Level 1 at four different schools, and after each 8 weeks of class, students could take the test—if they passed it, they’d get their green card. I don’t speak too much Spanish, so we all helped each other. We had parties for every holiday and a few amazing women taught me salsa dancing. I looked forward to every class and in spite of students working 10 and 12 hour shifts, they rarely missed a day. They were largely Spanish-speaking but there was also a tailor from Israel and a magician from Russia who once pulled a pigeon out of a hat and was about to do a trick involving fire but I knew it would set off the ceiling sprinklers so I stopped him, mid-trick! We also sang songs in English like Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” and “Yesterday” by the Beatles.

When I first moved to Santa Fe in the early 1990’s, I taught ESL at UNM Los Alamos—often my students were the spouses of scientists who worked at the Lab. Again, my pupils were varied—this time from China and Russia and Japan, and once more, they were hard working, motivated and generous with each other.

Then for the following 25 years, I instructed young students in English composition and creative writing. Many pupils were immigrants from Mexico and Central America. And in spite of some harrowing stories of how they and their families had gotten to the US, they often were the highest achievers in the class because they were so diligent, motivated, and appreciative of education.

But back to 2017—I signed up with Literacy Volunteers at SFCC on the nights I was not teaching other classes.

I began teaching Rodrigo (not his real name) in March of 2017. I will tell you his story, though I also have instructed other ESL students since then.

Rodrigo entered the United States over 30 years ago. He’d only completed 5th or 6th grade in Mexico, so when he came here, he worked construction and basically learned English just by hearing it. “What an amazing ear for language you have!” I told him this
often. I suppose I could go to a new country by myself and learn a completely new language and culture with no real instruction, but it takes bravery, resilience—and persistence! Rodrigo has made a living here in the US, got married, had children and grandchildren, and now he has his own construction business. He also does carpentry work for a local hotel. On election day in 2016, he had two knee replacements and went back to work with a walker only three days later. He is tough.

Rodrigo took ESL classes to read English better, write English more fluently, and someday soon, become a US citizen. We laughed a lot but we also accomplished much, two nights a week. He wrote a story about how he used to save people from drowning at the beach where he swam in Puerto Angel. I am also a swimmer so that impressed me. And he often had questions for me about words like ‘fight.’ He asked, “Why is spelled that way?”

I explained that the ‘gh’ is silent and words are not always pronounced the way they are spelled. English is a combination of French, German, Latin, and the rules don’t always make sense, especially since there are many exceptions.

Obviously learning a new language—especially English–is hard, and it takes a lot of time—particularly when you are also working two jobs.

Rodrigo sometimes got frustrated but he kept coming to class. One of his goals is to help his brother, Juan, get into the US since he can’t find a job in Mexico. But as we know, now that THE WALL is the Current Occupant of the White House’s main obsession, Juan will have to wait. Plus, becoming an American citizen is not a simple task.

To become a US citizen, you have to be skilled enough in English to take a written test and an oral test besides. All your papers have to be in order, of course, and you have to know the answers to 100 questions about the US system of government and history. A few of the questions are easy, like, “How many stars are on the flag?” But many are challenging, for example, “What year was the Constitution written?” And “Who wrote the Federalist papers?” And “What territory did the US buy from France in 1803?” I have two questions: Do TRUMP VOTERS know the answers to these questions? And, could Trump pass the Citizenship test?

Rodrigo gets discouraged at times with these queries. One of my personal favorites is, “In the US, what is the rule of law?” Part of the answer to that is, “No one is above the rule of law.” Rodrigo’s response to that was, “Why I have to learn ‘Rule of Law’ when Trump do not follow rule of law?”

What can I say? I agree with him but tell him he should probably not ask the Citizenship Examiner that question if he wants to pass the test.

11 thoughts on “Teaching ESL by Terry Wilson

  1. Another great essay from Terry Wilson. And very timely, considering the despicable treatment of refugees and immigrants by Trump. It paints a picture of diligent hard working people who are a definite asset to our society, just as many of our ancestors were when they came to this country. Well written. Full of interesting details. Thanks Terry.

  2. Terry’s writing is so very evocative. The story of Rodrigo is touching and so relevant to today.
    I always enjoy reading Terry’s point of view, always excellent!

  3. Terry, your work is always riveting and provocative. Your stories pop off the page. This essay is extraordinary and I bet you could write hundreds more just like it. The 100 questions they need to know could not be answered by the Trumpeter. He can hardly read.

  4. Wow, thanks to everyone for your wonderful and touching comments! I really appreciate you reading my writing. And I loved creating a piece about my experiences teaching ESL to immigrants–I have met such unforgettable people! I hope to keep working with them for a long time. And if we ever get a decent president again, we will all reflect on this time of Trump as one of the worst America has ever gone through! But GOOD will triumph!

  5. As a fellow ESL teacher–I got trained when Trump was elected–I feel this is such an important topic. Thank you Terry for letting me share it with the blog readers!

  6. As usual, Terry’s honest and evocative writing stops us in our tracks to “see” the realities of immigrants yearning not only for a better life for themselves and their children but also to become fundamental parts of the ongoing construction and striving toward building a more perfect union. Through her voice and her experience with her students, we see Rodrigo’s honest experiences and questions thrown in sharp relief against the short-sighted xenophobia driving the current pResident and his followers toward a shrinking vision of our union, fearing instead of welcoming the “huddled masses yearning to break free.”

  7. Thank you, Miriam for your feedback! I’m so grateful to be able to share this story with your readers! To me, it’s one of the most important issues of this insane time we are living in, the treatment of migrants who, as Susan Williamson said above, (thanks so much, Susan!) are just “yearning to break free” and live their lives as we all have a right to. Just because many of us (though not all) in the United States are allowed to exercise some choice in our lives, we have that choice by an accident of birth, not because we are more deserving than the migrants who try to escape gangs and violence in the countries they were born in. We in the US are lucky, (though not all of us) and we should be helping those who are less fortunate.

  8. Thanks so much, Wilhelmina! I appreciate your comment–and I’m glad you teach ESL too! There are so many of us–Literacy Volunteers here in Santa Fe said that after Trump got installed, the number of ESL teachers multiplied like crazy! We all are an antidote to the corruption that Trump has brought. At least I hope we are.

  9. Hey, I’ve recently started working as an ESL teacher and I stumbled on this post looking to read about other peoples ESL teaching experiences. Really inspiring that you helped Rodrigo with his English, I am sure he will never forget you. They considered bringing in some kind of citizen exam in Australia too, and one of the arguments was that most Aussie born, Australians wouldn’t know the answer. Grab someone off the street and ask them who are first prime minister was or the date of federation and you have a fair chance they wouldn’t know – doesn’t mean they aren’t kind people who make great contributions to society.
    I think one of the suggested questions for our citizen test was about cricket for fucks sake.

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