Everything is Awesome and Hard

So the last couple of weeks have pretty much been loco. 

My exhusband has been in the Dominican Republic for three weeks. This is awesome and also really hard. It’s awesome because I get to have my daughter 24/7. And its hard because I get to have my daughter 24/7. 

And when I say 24/7, I REALLY MEAN 24/7. Because she even goes to my school now.  

(I know you really want to make fun of me for holding my second grader, but occasionally it happens. Especially when it’s been a long day and she jumps on me.)

She’s not “in my class” but she’s in the same building. This is also really awesome and really hard. It’s awesome because I love seeing her so happy here and I can spy on her and send spies to spy on her. It’s hard because I’m trying to do reports after school and concentrate on writing eloquent emails and I hear my child singing in the background about “whip me nene or watch my nene” or whatever that song is that all the children are singing nowadays.

And I’ve been SO excited to see my students. And I’m over the moon that I have 40 NEW KINDERGARTENERS in my English as a Second Language Program. I love seeing these bright eyed babies walking into school with their brand new backpacks, ready to conquer what lies in front of them. They are SO brave; because this is SCHOOL. And some of them don’t even know what school is or what their teacher is saying or when they will get to eat lunch or play outside. But they just do the next thing and figure things out and hug their teachers and grow up so quickly in that first week. It’s do or die for these kindergarteners. And they always just DO because they quickly learn to be brave.

I love observing my students who are new to the country take in all the bright colors in their classrooms and school supplies and computers and calculators. It’s culture shock in its richest form–with the word, rich, being a double entendre in this situation. Everything about this country and this new classroom may feel expensive but also complex in the new textures and sights and sounds. 

I have been teaching ESL for fifteen years now. There are so many anecdotes I could tell you about my students. Some of the stories are really funny. Some of them are really sad. Others are both funny and sad. But I will tell you those stories another day. Because today, I only want to say one thing. And that is that I continue to be amazed at my students’ bravery and coping skills.

I mean, can you imagine suddenly having to attend school in a foreign country, not understanding the language spoken around you? Can you imagine how hard that lovely brain of yours would be working for 7-8 hours straight, trying to understand what’s going on? Can you imagine not knowing what time you are going to eat or why you are suddenly singing a song in a language you don’t know or why the other kids who DO know your language, but have been here longer than you, just seem to “get it?”

Can you imagine? 

They are so brave. Their little brains work hard and even if their parents don’t know how to help them with their homework, they figure it out and grow up quickly. They learn how to speak, listen, and then read and write in this new language. They develop this gift of bilingualism–a gift that I pray will not be taken for granted. 

So tonight, I am up past my bedtime, because I can’t stop thinking about them and their smiling faces and how they inspire me to be brave everyday. 

There are times I just want to lie in bed and play Candy Crush or Candy Soda Crush or Words with Friends or read People magazine. But when I think of my school babies–I suddenly remember that I am here to fulfill a greater purpose than to score 20,000 points in Candy Crush. 

I am here to do good and to be brave and to connect with people. And now I must go and do that. That’s my legacy.

I am thankful. And you should be, too. Because we are here to do great things. 

“Yo hablo español.”

When I was 23 years old and living in Fayetteville, Arkansas, I rented an apartment in an older home. The landlord of this apartment was a retiree in his 70’s named Ray.

I had NUMEROUS issues with this apartment, but loved the hardwood floors and tall windows, so I was willing to overlook the poor insulation and the fact that animals like opossums would crawl into the basement and somehow get into my ceilings and then punch holes in the ceiling with their claws. One night, I called Ray to let him know that an opossum had made an appearance again, and asked if he could come over RIGHT AWAY because I COULD SEE THIS OPOSSUM’S CLAWED HAND POKING THROUGH MY CEILING FAN.

Ray was a soft-spoken calm man. “Don’t worry, I’ll be right over with my ladder,” he said.

When he arrived, he began to get to work at patching the ceiling with silver duct tape, which he assured me was not a permanent fix. While he was doing that, my home phone rang, and I answered.

It was my mother-in-law, and my then-husband was not at home. I began to talk to her about how she was doing, when I noticed that Ray abruptly turned around, and almost lost his footing on the ladder.

“What are you doing?? And.. What is that?” he stammered.

I didn’t understand what he was talking about and was worried about his mental sanity.

“What are those words that you’re saying?” he asked.

“Um, those words are Spanish…I’m speaking Spanish. Like I’m speaking another language, Ray.”

“Oh. Wow. That’s wild,” he said.

My ex-husband was from the Dominican Republic and his mother did not speak English, so I was speaking with her in Spanish. I speak Spanish nearly everyday on my job as well, with some of my students and my students’ parents. So it didn’t feel strange or weird to me at all that I was speaking Spanish.

I realized in that moment that bilingualism sometimes shocks people.

And I’m not sure I understand why. Or maybe I do, but I just don’t want to think about the “why” behind it. Most of my students are bilingual. When they speak English, nobody is walking around saying to them, “OH MY GOSH! YOU SPEAK ENGLISH!” So it seems that people are shocked by bilingualism when it’s a non-Hispanic American speaking a foreign language.

This summer I was teaching summer school to general education students. Some of my English Language Learners were there, but most of the students were not dual language students. One of my non-Spanish speaking students forgot to take his Adderall that morning, so his mom brought it into him. I’ll call this student, Josh. I was walking Josh down to see his mom. I introduced myself to his mom as her son’s summer school teacher, but then I saw one of my Spanish speaking parents standing behind her, waiting to talk to me as well. I greeted her in Spanish and told her that I would chat with her about her question when I was done talking with Josh’s mother.

Josh’s mother overheard me speaking in Spanish and said, “Girl, you got some mad skills!” I thanked her for the compliment, but I also realized how unusual it was for her to see a non-Hispanic teacher speaking a foreign language.

It’s even weird for my students.
Last year, my sixth grade students asked me, “Are you white?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Are you Mexican?” they asked.
“No. I just studied Spanish and learned it.”
“But are you Hispanic?”
“That’s weird.”

Bilingualism is “weird” in our culture because there are so few native English speakers who have chosen to learn a foreign language OR have been given the opportunity to learn a foreign language. Honestly, I would not be nearly as good of a Spanish speaker if I hadn’t attended Goshen College. At Goshen, going abroad for a semester is required in order to graduate. If you can’t go for whatever reason, then you have to take a semester’s worth of courses in “international education” at home. That’s because Goshen College has valued bilingualism and having a world perspective.

Although I received a great education from Goshen College, this is not an advertisement for Goshen College, and I’m not saying everyone should go there and blah blah blah. What I am saying is that I hope someday, mainly for my students, that it’s not such a weird phenomenon to see a native English speaker speaking a foreign language. And that my students can begin to see their bilingualism/biculturalism as a gift.

I definitely have felt the blessing that comes with being able to communicate with two cultures. I would love for a massive amount of people to experience that blessing as well.