At the age of 2, I left the United States to live in my parents’ native country, Guatemala. I completed my first two years of schooling there. I have warm and happy memories of loving preschool and kindergarten.
The small classroom was painted a sunny yellow with white curtains, and the alphabet was displayed in bright bold colors above the chalkboard. The hallways were always loud with kids running and laughing. I was a good student and was often granted ribbons. And I often proudly held the country’s plain baby blue and white flag at our school assemblies, an honor reserved for the top students.
In November of 1987, I entered the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) school system as a first-grader in Maywood, California. I remember walking up the steps to the main office with my dad on a bright and breezy day. I remember my mind wandering while I worried about making friends and if my teacher would be nice.
My dad spoke to a lady about enrolling me in school, and I remember crying my little heart out when we turned around and walked back out the same door and down the steps. My 6-year-old self was crushed that I’d be unable to start school that same day.
What I didn’t know then was that I had not been assigned an ESL (English as a Second Language) classroom. I’d start my school year late in an English-only classroom, with a teacher who did not speak Spanish.
I became an official student a few days later. One of the first assignments was to write the numbers 1 through 100, on a long blank lined page. I quickly jotted down numbers 1 through 100 with excitement only to be slapped with a queasy feeling when I looked up and realized that everyone else was still sitting at their desks quietly working.
I thought I had understood and now here I was, completely lost. I uneasily sat for a few minutes trying to figure out what I should do. I finally got up the courage and walked up to the teacher with paper in hand. Without saying a word, I handed it to her, expecting her to have to give me a new sheet because I’d messed up.
Instead, she looked up from the paper and gave a puzzled look. I half understood that she wanted me to go back and continue until I ran out of space on the paper. As I fit the last number I had space for, I looked up again and realized that every other student was still busy working.
The room felt eerily quiet and lonely. I got up and hesitantly handed my paper to my teacher a second time. I thought I’d surely done something wrong this time. To my surprise, she gave me a big smile and said I could go back and lay my head down a few minutes until everyone was done.
My Saving Grace
Those memories of sitting at my desk and trying my hardest to understand the lessons are foggy.
What I do remember was the kindness my teacher and other classmates expressed towards me. My teacher would ask other students to quickly translate the assignments, and I would do my best not to hold them back. At the end of the day, I would shyly double-check with classmates to make sure I understood the homework worksheets.
I wholeheartedly believe that my saving grace was that I had been a good student before, and I had unknowingly shown my teacher I was capable. By the time I hit second grade, I had a small understanding of the English language but I was still uncomfortable speaking it. I was a quiet and shy student. So I kept to myself.
During reading time, we’d be separated into groups based on our reading levels. There must have been about six groups, and I was at the lowest reading level. I would longingly glance at the advanced reading group and wish more than anything to be part of it. They were, after all, the smart kids, and we all knew it.
My 7-year-old self was determined to jump groups as quickly as possible. I remember some of my friends in the reading group with me and wondered if they too felt the same way. I wondered if they were struggling with the same thoughts.
Same as Everyone Else
By the time I was in third grade, I was speaking and writing in English along with most of my peers and had been labeled “gifted” by LAUSD.
I felt more included and was set to focus on learning at the same level as everyone else. I did well throughout my schooling, getting mostly A’s and B’s. I was even part of clubs and student body groups.
One day, during senior year of high school, I was standing by my hallway locker grabbing books to take home at the end of the day. I noticed a girl who I had gone to elementary school with stop at a friend’s locker near me.
When I heard her speak in Spanish with her friend, I remembered that she had been an ESL student back then, so I stood around longer than necessary and overheard her talking about her current ESL classes and hoping to make it to graduation.
In my naiveté, I had always thought ESL classes were transitional until students caught up and acquired enough English fluency. I thought I had suffered those first few years in LAUSD by not being in those ESL classes and being deprived of extra attention when I most needed it.
What I didn’t realize was that I could have easily been one of the many students forever stuck in the ESL program. Students who aren’t given proper instruction, supplies, necessary resources or adequate teachers to help them reach their potential.
I wondered what would have become of me if I had been placed in an ESL classroom on that sunny morning in 1987.
Could that girl have been me? Talking about trying to pass my ESL classes and longing to simply graduate at a minimum? My heart beat faster, and I broke into a cold sweat at the dreaded thought.
It turns out as a gifted student, I had been the one granted special attention.
I recalled the special field trips and the segregation between us and the rest of the student body. We were the golden youth, constantly told we were bright and brilliant, and been held to the highest standards.
According to the history of bilingual education in California, this student’s story is not unique. By the ’90s, bilingual education had been around for 30 or so years in California and yet, “fewer than 7 percent of limited-English students were becoming fluent each year.”
Now I’m a Mom
When my daughter started kindergarten, I recall a question on one of the application forms. The question asked, “Which language did your child learn when he/she first began to talk?”
The question made me stop and reminisce. Could this simple question affect a student and follow them in the system for the next 13 years?
Even though my daughter had technically learned to speak Spanish first, I wrote in “English.” I don’t want a label to keep her from any opportunity in life.