This is an e-mail that I wrote in January of last year. I thought I’d put it up here for those who didn’t receive it the first time around.
I have several students who don’t speak a word of English, and I have even more who only know a couple of phrases. So when an office aide brought a new student to me at the beginning of 3rd period on Tuesday and said, “This is Judith. She doesn’t speak English.” I wasn’t very surprised. Over the past 4 months I’ve gotten used to having my eloquently crafted sentences packed with life-changing implications simply bounce off of a couple dozen blank stares without so much as a nod or an “uh-huh”. Sometimes there is even drool. I’d take the old saying of, “In one ear and out the other” because at least in that case it’s apparently going through the brain for a nanosecond.
But I love having ESL kids because, for the most part, whenever I talk to them we’re both really trying to find a way to communicate. Eyes are squinting for some understanding and we’re literally bending our ears. So when Judith looked as if I’d just spoken Martian to her when I said, “Bienvenidos a la clase de arte, Judith! Me llamo Mr. Rhea” I knew something was up. I should’ve known right away that she wasn’t Hispanic based upon her complexion, but she did have black hair and some of my students from Mexico have very light skin so I thought there was a chance. Aw, who am I kidding? The reason I spoke Spanish to her was because that’s the only other language I can say hello in! The fact that greeting her in Spanish would do as much good as greeting her in Texan (“How y’all doin’?) didn’t really cross my mind.
Time for Plan B. Plan B is a highly-technical, heavily-researched method of determining a students native language in a classroom setting. It looks like this:
“No English?” They shake their head.
“No Spanish?” Another shake.
“What then?” The teacher then puts their arms out in the universal sign for, “Huh?” If there’s no response here, pointing at your mouth and going, “Bah bah bah” will usually work. Fortunately for me, Judith responded to “What then?”. Unfortunately, she said, “Francais.”
After showing Judith to her seat and getting the rest of the class started on the assignment, I went back over to her to try to make some sort of connection. I can’t imagine the sort of culture shock that must take place in moving from France to Texas. From Jacques Chirac to W. Why don’t we start forcing her to walk on her hands from now on while we’re at it?!
Obviously, using the petty invention of language wasn’t getting us anywhere. But finally, after a series of overexaggerations and marginally decipherable illustrations, I was finally able to get her to tell me that the city she lived in before moving to Carrollton was none other than Paris, France. “Bingo!” thought my brain. I had the connection I was looking for! We’re both from Paris! I thought she’d get a real kick out of this little bit of trivia, now all I needed was a way to show her. Enter: maps.yahoo.com. With a few clicks and a modification or two, I had the map that I was sure would make Judith chuckle at the very least. I walked back over to her table feeling like Charlie with a Golden Wonka Ticket.
Before showing her the map, I pointed at her and said, “Paris?”
I put the map of Texas on the table and pointed at Paris and then myself. Smiling I said, “Me too. I am from Paris, too.” It didn’t seem to be working, she just stared at the map, confused. I repeated, pointing at myself and at Paris on the map, but she continued to look down at the sheet of paper – a foreign landscape without a roadside wine café or a Mo-ped dealership to get her bearings. Finally, she looked back up at me. Her expression was priceless. I’m prepared to redefine the word humiliation as, “the feeling you have when a thirteen year-old looks at you with an expression that says, ‘You idiot. You think that Paris is in Texas?!’”