“Hello, my name is Diane,” I always started. My ESL (English as a Second Language) class was basic beginner, which meant that we started with a handshake and worked from there. Each teacher was given incredible flexibility (read: no training) in creating lesson plans and tailoring everything to the needs of the students. My class learned the days of the week by singing the “Happy Days” theme song (“Sunday, Monday, happy days…”). We acted out Elvis Presley love songs for Valentine’s Day. We played games, made New Year’s Resolutions, celebrated birthdays and talked about children, families and jobs. We were a community. They teased me for being young and for getting chalk dust all over my face. I teased them for deliberately fudging their ages when asked how old they are.
Once, we were discussing the word “middle”—middle class, middle-aged, middle child—and they insisted that they were all “young,” except for the retired couple, who claimed they were “middle aged.”
“Middle-aged!” I exclaimed. “If you are middle-aged, then what am I?”
The class considered this for a moment and then decided: “A baby.”
Then we discussed the rich/poor dichotomy, to which they all said they were “middle class.” I had initially suggested that Bill Gates was rich, but they told me that no, I was rich. And I realized that I couldn’t argue with that. I am. But then one of the other students spread his arms out and said,
“We are rich. We have homes, jobs, families. We are here. We learn English.”
I was so happy with his statement that for once I didn’t correct his grammar.
Teaching ESL gave me a new perspective on (dis)advantage and the promise of America. Imagine working at Wal-mart when you are trained and educated as a medical doctor in your home country. Imagine being a maid when you taught high school math in Brazil. Imagine being intimidated at your child’s parent-teacher conference because you can’t understand what the teacher is saying. Many times the children of my students would speak English very well and they be embarrassed of their parents, who must rely on them for everything. This is what good ESL programs do: offer a safe, love-filled environment in which people can get the skills they need to navigate jobs, school, doctor’s offices, and even the grocery store.
In Summer 2006, I interned in Washington, D.C. during the debate on immigration reform. Part of my Senate intern duties included answering the phones, which involved some of the most hateful, xenophobic comments I have ever heard. All I could say was, “The Senator appreciates your call,” but what I wanted to say was,
“You need to talk to the people at my church! They know what it’s like to help the people you complain about, the ones you ignore and stereotype. The people there remember that Jesus’ first few years were spent as a refugee in Egypt. Surely Mary and Joseph didn’t know the language or have any family connections!”
Mostly, I wanted to say, “Come. Come with me to ESL and listen to the hopes and dreams of these immigrants. Come and help to make those dreams come true.”
When my students found out that their ESL books were theirs to keep, they excitedly responded,
“Really? I can keep this? Now I can study every day!”
I wish I were that excited about studying.
This year we are still hoping and praying for immigration reform, allowing more people to participate in what is sometimes known as “the American Dream.” I ask for you to pray with me — and to pray about how you can work individually to make this Dream a reality.