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.

DREAMERS By Lorenzo Atencio

By Lorenzo Atencio

The last bell rings. I get all my books and get ready to leave when our science teacher Mr. Mays announces to the class:
“Okay, one last thing. I have good news. The regional chapter of the Math and Science Association will have this year’s competition in thirty days. If you are interested in entering a science project, stay for a few minutes after class. As always, the winner gets a full scholarship to the state university.”
Seven students remain sitting as the class room empties. I turn to look at them. There are four nerdy looking boys from a different class, and my unshakable nemesis Cheryl Soisbee and her best friend Carol Porter.
When all that remain are sitting, Mr. Mays says, “Please take a parental permission form to be signed by your parents or guardians. Get them back to me on Friday. We will discuss your projects then. If you don’t have any questions, you may leave.”
As we walk out, Cheryl gives me a sideways look and says to her friend, Carol, “I didn’t know that ESL students are allowed to submit a project in the science fair.”
“What’s ESL?” asks Carol.
“English as a Second Language. You never heard?” asks Cheryl. “Oh yeah. I just forgot – the M E X I C A N S” says Carol.
They both look at me with a smug smirk and laugh. I had told myself to ignore them no matter what they do, but I am so tired of their harassment that I snap at them, “What is your problem? What have I ever done to you?”
“You were born.” answers Cheryl without hesitation. “I don’t like that you act like you’re an American. Now you want to be in the science fair. You have to know how to speak English to be in the science fair. You should just go back where you came from.”
“I have as much right to enter the competition as you do.” I say.
Cheryl’s answer is quick and automatic, “Prove it.”
I say, “I’ll show you at the science fair.”
“You’re going to have to speak English there.” Cheryl and Carol laugh again as they turn to leave, then Cheryl adds, “Maybe we should call Immigration.”
I feel like telling her to go ahead and call Immigration, but I hear my father’s voice in my head warning me of the consequences of being deported. I have no memory of Oaxaca, Mexico. When I was 4 years old, my parents brought me and my 2 year old brother, Marcos, to America to follow their own American Dream: a job and an education for their children.
Now I am about to graduate from high school and I desperately want to attend college. I have to figure out how I’m going to get Papa’ and Mama’ to sign the permission form. I’ll discuss it with Marcos on our bus ride home. He’s always a good listener.
Marcos sums it up for me. “Luz, you know how Dad is about being deported. Always telling us to stay under the radar and don’t answer questions. He doesn’t want to go back to Oaxaca.”
“I can understand that. I just want to be an engineer. I have always wanted to be an engineer. My only chance and my only hope of being an engineer is to win the scholarship to the university.
“Just talk to him. He’ll probably say this not a good time to be visible with half the country screaming for deporting all undocumented immigrants.” says Marcos. “But you’ll know what to say.”
“Let’s hope that Mom and Dad say yes.”
Later that night, as Papá reads the newspaper after supper, I sit next to him at the table. When he notices me, I begin, “Papá, I would like to go to college and study to be an engineer. Do you think that will ever happen?”
Mr. Arenado is slow to answer his daughter. “Hija,, it would make me so proud and happy to see you become an engineer. But your mama and I don’t have the money to pay for college.”
“What if I found a way of going to college without it costing you anything?”
“Are you going to rob a bank? Or maybe you will win the lottery?” Dad raises an eyebrow. Mom
asks, “Como?”
I see an opening. “No silly. I can get it by doing extra school work. I can win a full scholarship to
the university.”
“No se. I don’t know. That sounds too easy. What are you not telling me?” asks Papá.
“Well, it’s a competition to see who can make the best science project. I have an idea to make electricity from the sun to turn a small fan. It’s clean energy that’s being looked at by big companies.”
“You just sign this consent form saying that you give me permission to enter the science project competition. It doesn’t cost you anything.”
Papa’ asks “If you win, you will be in the newspapers, right?”
“Well, Papá, being in the newspapers seems to be automatic, but I can say I want my privacy and not allow pictures of me. The school doesn’t know if I have documents and they don’t care.” I argue.” No one will even know that I’m undocumented or from Mexico.”
Papá says, “Hita, when they see you in person, they will see a pretty girl with dark skin color and Mayan features and know that you are from Mexico. There are many people that resent immigrants to the point of hate. Someone will ask questions. This is not the time to be visible.
Papá says even more emphatically, “I sure don’t want to go back to Oaxaca. There is nothing there. No jobs. No food. No way,”
“Papá. Think about it. We’ve been in this country for thirteen years. How many jobs have you had? I think you’ve worked at every restaurant in town. French, Chinese. Italian. Que no?”
“Don’t forget Mexican restaurants,” adds Papá.
Mama’ says, “I feel like there is an angry mob carrying torches looking for us to deport us. I don’t understand what we have done that is so bad. We aren’t suicide bombers or terrorists. We come to work. Ms. Lopez says the immigration laws are being used to steal our wages and homes and to break up our families. They call us ‘illegal’ because it sounds like ‘criminal.’”
“Stop. Stop. Wait a minute. Who is Ms. Lopez?” asks Papá.
“Ms. Lopez is our civics teacher. We discuss the Constitution and immigration issues in her class. I like her.”
“She says they are turning the screws – intentionally putting fear into our lives. Papá, we have to push back. Whenever we are told that we don’t belong in America, we need to boldly say ‘yes we do.’ I want to enter the science fair to show everyone that I have the right to enter that contest. And because I can win.”
“Ms. Lopez thinks deporting 11 million immigrants is either a bluff or the dumbest idea she’s heard. She says they aren’t going to deport 11 million people.
Marcos chimes in, “That would be 11 million Walmart shoppers. What does Walmart say about that?”
I answer emphatically, “Now is exactly the time to be visible – and vocal. We can’t just roll over and play dead. “Papa’, things are changing. There is a revolution coming. Not a revolution like Pancho Villa’s. A revolution of ideas.”
“Si. We’ve earned the right to stay in America. I have pledged my allegiance to America every day in school for twelve years. I believed it when I was told that all men are created equal, and I still do. You’ve been working hard. You both have given your time and labor and the owners have succeeded.“
“That also means we won’t be able to pay the loans at the credit union, or our car payment, or our trailer payments if we are deported. Uncle Sam would be shooting himself in the foot to deport us.” says Papá with a grin.
“Why haven’t they deported us sooner? She says if they were going to deport us they could have easily done it with the technology available today. They just want to scare us to squeeze more out of us.Undocumented workers turn the wheels of our economy by our hard work. Who will turn the wheels if we are kicked out?”
“Maybe there’s an App for that.” murmurs Marcos
Mamá adds, “I wonder if the first lady can fix breakfast? Anyway, I’m ready to buy a truck and load up our possessions and go back to my beautiful state of Oaxaca where my family is, if we have to.”
Papá ends the discussion. “Your mother and I need to talk this over. We’ll give you our answer in the morning.”
That night I dream of a priest wearing a cape of brightly colored feathers, standing in front of the sun. He smiles at me and the brilliance of his smile washes over me and magically transforms me into a hummingbird of green and blue. I harvest energy nectar from the sun and carry it to all things in the universe. And with that task comes the ability to fly in any direction, up or down, forward or backwards, fast or slow, or just hover. It gives me a feeling of power and freedom.
The next morning, I barely feel traces of the power to fly, but I remember the dream clearly. When I describe it to Papa’ he says, “You dreamed of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god who causes the sun to rise. He is the strongest god of the Aztec religion. That is a very good omen.”
Then Papá looks at me and says, “Well, we agree that since we can’t give you college, we will not deprive you of an opportunity to go to college. We are willing to risk deportation because we agree that it’s time to come out and fight.”
Neither Marcos or I say anything until we walk out of the house and down the street. Then, Marcos raises his hand for a high-five. “You did it! I didn’t think you could ever change their minds.” I jump and slap his palm.
“Now I have to focus on my science project.”
As I think about creating electricity from the sun, I am reminded of last night’s dream. I know that Huitzilopoch is with me.
I exclaim to the universe, “I’m feeling like a hummingbird.”

Nation of Immigrants: In Which My Grandmother Threatens To Drown Herself

Nation of Immigrants

My paternal grandmother Esther was 13 when she emigrated from the Ukraine. She told her family she would drown herself in the mill pond if she was not sent to the U.S. instead of her sister.
Is this story true? Am I remembering it correctly? Who knows. She went.
She was smuggled across a border checkpoint of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire hidden in a sausage cart. Unkosher meat piled on top of a small Jew.
As far as I can ascertain, she was traveling without any family members, although presumably someone was meeting her.
She got her period on the boat. She thought she was bleeding to death. A kindly mother explained about menstruation. Presumably as a stranger, she did not hit my grandmother across the face. This is the custom among eastern European Jews, as well as some Middle Eastern people. To slap a girl’s face on the occasion of her first menses.
Why? You tell me. Shame? A reprimand? Taboo? No doubt. It isn’t exactly mazal tov, whatever you may say. A woman’s life is full of pain.
America is an upgrade. My mother does not slap my face on the occasion of my menarche, although she feels compelled to remind me—I am not slapping you.
Not getting slapped simply for being a woman. Good.
Why did my grandmother threatted to kill herself? Did she long for freedom? Or was something bad happening to her—a girl child? We’ll never know.
So I am sitting in the Saigon, eating yellow noodles. I’ve seen the owner’s daughter grow from a baby cooing in a back booth to being a middle schooler capable of bussing a table. I’m drinking hot dark tea out of a small white cup that has no handle.