Originally published a year ago, this story from my classroom has been on my mind of late. It still resonates because I, as an English teacher, will always represent for students Reading–its joys but also its traumas. And there are times that I forget and take personally a student’s resistance to me, to the class. The apology, sometimes, is MY best offer at peace to find a path to reframe reading for some, to listen to the ghosts of reading past.
“What is your favorite restaurant?” I ask as we begin Thursday’s English class.
“What? No, Chipotle.”
“Does Starbucks count?”
“And in which stores do you buy your clothes?” I ask.
“What about your favorite holiday? Which is it?” I persist.
“My birthday. It should be a holiday.”
“Yes, I wish we could have a parade to celebrate every life. I am asking these questions because I want us to think about the culture of our lives here in suburban Chicago — the places we eat and shop, the holidays we celebrate with friends, the games we play, the language we use to have this conversation. This culture is our comfort zone; it’s what we know.
“Now, what would have to happen in your life, in our country, for you and your family to move to another country — to migrate to a very different culture and abandon your comfort zone? Imagine all the people who are pushed or pulled to suburban Chicago from a place with all different restaurants, stores, holidays — and a different language. For some people fleeing from war, they are immersed in our culture with no support or guidance in how to navigate our ways, and this can cause stress — acculturative stress. They need to find ways to assimilate or fit into our language, our restaurants, our stores, our holidays. What does stress feel like? What does stress do to you?” I ask.
“My heart races.”
“I get a twitch in my chin.”
“I get irritated with everyone.”
” I shut down.”
I listen carefully and note all the eighth grade heads nodding and a few heads down tolerating my questions. I continue, “I tend to shut down when I feel too stressed, but eventually, when I realize the stress is not going to disappear, I try to find solutions,” I say. “I’ve been immersed in another culture a few times. Once, I went to Israel and stayed with a family who spoke Arabic. They not only spoke a very different language, but they had different beliefs about how women should behave and dress. I observed carefully and did my best to fit in — doing what I saw the women do. But I was stressed. And over winter break, I am going to Iceland with my husband. I am already feeling some of stress about the language, food, and even bathroom differences, and I am just going to visit,” I say trying to offer examples of acculturative stress and assimilation, two terms we are using in our exploration of immigration literature.
“No regreses,” Juan mumbles, eyes down.
“Ojala,” Jose mumbles to Juan, eyes glancing at Juan.
“Juan and Jose,” I say in a strained whisper. “Please go into the hallway.”
As Juan and Jose (pseudonyms) quickly stand and depart, I continue but can feel my heart racing and my voice beginning to quiver, “So, I’m looking for some warm boots for my trip as a way of assuaging my stress. Now, today, I have a video I want to show you to illustrate immersion or what it might feel like to be immersed into a new language– it is a short film. Please write down on the sticky note — immersion, assimilation, and acculturative stress. Then, after the film, write down an example of each based on the film’s main character.”
We talk a little bit about the meaning of each word. I write the definitions on the board and begin the short film. All this time, I am thinking about Juan and Jose and what I am going to say in the hallway.
I turn off the lights, take a deep breath, and go into the hallway to “talk” to Juan and Jose. Only I don’t really talk. I empty my hurt onto the stained carpeting hoping they might see how their words broke me in that moment. I want them to see me.
“Please, apologize to me. Please,” I begin with a quiver in my voice.
“I’m sorry,” Juan says, looking me in the eye now. Jose is turned away from me kicking at the wall softly, avoiding my hurt.
“You said you don’t want me to come back from my trip. I feel so hurt that after all this time together, you can say this. I try so hard to be a good teacher for you. The film, the books, the groups, the extra help.”
I am not looking for an answer. What could he say? He has a teacher standing in front of him who has all the power, and he has never seen me this way. He must be stunned, but I proceed to empty all my hurt onto that stained carpet– perhaps pain that had been repressed- whispers of self-doubt, murmurs of failure. The tears are coming, and I can’t stand in the hallway another second without losing it, so I return to the classroom, which is dark because of the film, so no one can see my flushed cheeks and red eyes. I guess I respond to stress by crying and not really problem solving like I said earlier.
Juan’s words were not really for me; they were for the people sitting around him; they were his way of, yet again, rejecting all that is reading, but I did hear him, and he did hurt me with his words. I over-reacted. I am feeling that guilt rising, and I am trying to keep my tears from Juan and Jose because my reaction is not their burden to carry, so I blot my spilling heart with my cardigan pulling it closed like protective skin and leave a puddle of hurt (and guilt) to soak into the carpet as I return to the classroom. I don’t bring Juan and Jose with me, and I am not sure why. I need a minute to compose myself.
I watch final scenes of Immersion, with the other twenty-five eighth grade students who are half way through their immigration books: A Step from Heaven, Of Beetles and Angels, Inside Out and Back Again, A Journey of the Sparrows, Lupita Manana, Shadow of the Dragon, La Linea, Girl in Translation, Behind the Mountains, and Outcasts United.
I try to pull myself together as I watch the film. Moises, the main character, is about to take a state test in math, only he can’t read any of the word problems because he has just arrived in California from Mexico and doesn’t speak or read English. The school has just moved from a bilingual program to an immersion program for their English Language Learners. Moises uses his dictionary to write a note to his teacher asking for the test in Spanish. His math teacher recognizes Moises’s math skills and asks her principal for the test Spanish, but he refuses.Moises continues to study his math, carries his dictionary everywhere he goes, and tries to join in with his peers in a game of kickball, only to find out the rules change daily. Another student notices Moises’ frustration and suggests Moises skip the test by asking to go to the bathroom and then sneaking out to go get some ice cream. (You can watch the film to see what Moises chooses.)
As soon as the film is over, I have regained some composure and know what I have to do. I ask the students to make notes about the film as I bring my laptop into the hallway for Juan and Jose. I want them to see the film. I actually chose this film because of Juan, knowing how much he prefers listening to reading. They are sitting on the carpet now, after ten minutes of being in the hallway.
“This is the film I wanted to share with you today. I hope you like it,” I say as I set the laptop on the carpet between them. They are sitting right where I stood moments before, in my puddle. I don’t make eye contact but I muster a smile.
I know in my fractured heart (ojala) that their comment to me was not personal. This is what I say to myself all the time, and this is what I say to teachers who share similar stories with me. I am a symbol of reading and English class, and for them, English class is not a place they belong; it is a foreign country with a language and culture all its own. And they don’t want any part of it. Their resentment toward me is a form of acculturative stress.
The ice cream boy in the short film learned to cope with his acculturative stress by avoiding, sneaking out, finding alternatives like ice cream (who wouldn’t prefer ice cream to a state test). Juan and Jose, well, they resisted with negative comments that day, but generally, their acculturative stress manifests as avoidance, anxious laughter, and class disruption (which impacts others, too).
As English teachers, we embody all that is English, but the connotation of that word, that symbol, depends on each student’s past experiences with reading and English class. For some students, we represent peace, discovery, and joy, but for so many more of our students, we represent a country that has rejected them at some point in life. We represent a place into which they were immersed without support, made to feel dumb or slow. We represent that person who put a number or letter on their ability and then asked them to sit still with a book with muddled symbols. We represent that dreaded logging of reading time, red marks on their papers, big zeros or “F’s” scrawled next to their names. We represent an impossible or unappealing way of being in school and beyond.
As I watched that film, I knew what was happening with Juan and Jose. I knew how I fit into it all, and I cried because of it. I like to think my classroom is a safe space, that I offer support and encouragement to every “visitor” hoping they will eventually feel our classroom to be like a home of sorts. But despite my efforts, there are students who still feel like unwelcome guests in the world of reading I create. That is personal. That hurts. I hurt.
It was wrong to banish Juan and Jose from my classroom for those 30 minutes, but I don’t think it was wrong to show them my hurt. The classroom door was essentially an immigration wall that I built that day, and I have to apologize for, in that moment, embodying all that I criticize about the system.
While I may represent “reading” or embody a system that has failed them, I am not, in fact, that system. I am a human being capable of pain, a person who feels. Their words hurt me. I think they needed to see that the way their stress manifested that day had implications beyond them, but the way I handled it essentially reinforced their beliefs that I am the system. And I was asking questions about restaurants and stores some don’t have the means to patron, and I was talking about traveling to Israel and Iceland, places some don’t know and many can never go as long as they are undocumented.
Clearly, I have work to do in helping them see not only my humanity but that of their classmates with whom they share that space 40 minutes a day for 175 days. Clearly, I have work to do in helping them see their place at the metaphorical table. I will begin with an apology to each of them.
The night I have a date with my husband, Dan. We like to walk down to the local Italian restaurant for some half priced appetizers on Thursdays. Lately, our date nights sound a lot like conversations you might have with a travel agent as we prepare for two weeks in Europe over Christmas and New Years. It is usually fun to imagine all the possibilities, but as the trip gets closer, we are both feeling the stress of the uncertainty of traveling to new places.
“I have an update about Iceland,” Dan, says as we get started on the bread basket.
“I do, too,” I jump in cutting him off a bit. “Apparently, some students don’t want me to come back from Iceland,” I say, starting to cry again. I know I will carry Juan and Jose’s sentiments around with me for some time.
“What?” he asks, and I proceed to tell him the story.
Ripping off a piece of bread, I confess, “About half, maybe more, of my students hate reading. I don’t think they hate me, but I am reading to them.”
“I never knew that. Really? Half? You talk about a few students each year who worry you, but half?” he doesn’t believe me, which is strange because he hated school, especially reading.
“Yes, maybe more. Sometimes, like today, I feel like I am paying for what school, testing has done to them. But the truth is that they are paying for it. Reading stresses them out. It is one more thing to do. It is sitting still when they want to wiggle around. It is being a student, being a thinker, being a grown up when they are not ready to grow up. And for some, it is not wanting to fail, so it is safer not to try,” I explain.
Dan responds with silence and a side of compassion. I put down the bread and try to hold back tears. I know I just have to do what I can to re-story the narrative of rejection into a narrative of belonging.
Of course, I will return from Iceland and plan to bring a souvenir for Juan and Jose. The souvenir will be symbolic of an apology never made by the system that made them hate reading. It will be symbolic of the apology I asked for from two young boys who don’t know the roots of their resistance. It will be my apology to them for banishing them from our class for 30 minutes on that cold December day. There are a number of apologies that have to happen here, but, more importantly, we have to find ways to heal and move forward.
The next day, students had their immigration book group discussions. I joined Jose’s group and read with them to clarify the ending of La Linea. Jose helped explain a few Spanish phrases to me. He translated the phrase “canas,” and I showed him my gray hair. Unfortunately, Juan was not able to stay with his group for long and was “banished” again. I called him at home this weekend, a story for another blog post.
I know words hurt and have the power to peel back your protective layers to expose your heart and even old wounds of failure and insecurity. I think it is okay to show that to your students. It humanizes us. It humanizes our work. Let some of that pain spill onto the already stained carpeting in your school. It will blend in. And then look for ways to repair your heart and theirs.If you want to hear some of the immigration book group discussions, check out these recordings:
Discussions of Of Beetles and Angels, The Journey of the Sparrows.
Discussions of Shadow of the Dragon, A Step from Heaven.
Discussions of Of Beetles and Angels, Inside Out and Back Again
Discussions of La Linea and Tangled Threads
Discussions of Girl in Translation, Uprising, and Song of a Buffalo Boy
Discussions of Lupita Manana and Behind the Mountains