Surviving 2nd Language Acquisition . . . and then She Appeared . . .

My formal education was put on full stop for some 18 months upon immigrating to America. The realities of time itself seemed to shift from Argentinean time to USA time. Days and weeks seem to pass in a blurred hyper speed and at times in slow motion. Unforeseen circumstances dictated the tone and tempo of each day.

During the initial months of acclimation, we lived in tenements and followed parental employment from NY, to Boston, to Detroit. Motown – Holcomb street eventually became our new address. Not much difference from the Big Apple or Beantown rentals. The streets and sidewalks were grey – lots of cement compared to green Patagonian landscapes. The smells of farm land were suddenly replaced by metallic odors causing pause to inhale.

Those months of not being formally matriculated did not seem as important as just being with my parents. They took turns with day and night jobs and had to deal with no transportation. The world outside the tenement doors was cold and intimidating. But upon moving to Detroit, it was time to face the inevitable . . . registration at Stevens School. The hope was that the formality of my presence in a school would make a positive difference. But there are no guarantees with assimilation and acclimation – each road and journey is different for each immigrant with their own unique backstories and context. That is, if anyone will listen.

The first school visit was memorable because it was not the beginning of the school year. Secondly, because my Latina mamá and school secretary were about to communicate, and neither spoke the other’s language. It was quite a scene – my mother with a note written in English by an “amiga” and the secretary, who used the “SLS Method” when speaking to non-English speakers.

The secretary spoke slowwwwly, LOUDLY, adding convoluted sign language as if playing charades. As always, I was a paralyzed observer – a captive audience. I was taken to a small room and provided a piece of paper and pencil. Instructions were repeated in the same slooooow, LOUD voice, with an occasional sign – as if speaking slower and louder would result in comprehension. It only added to the trauma.

My mind was blank as I was still dealing with leaving my mother’s side – that safe space she always provided. Now I was alone with a stranger speaking a strange language with authority. The pieces of paper were filled with multiple choice questions and a lined page for a writing sample.

After what seemed to be an eternity, the secretary entered and noticed that I had not moved beyond my name and was crying in silence – the kind of weeping when tears gush down an expressionless face – staring in trauma – tears without knowing their origin.

In retrospect, what I was feeling was degradation, ignominy, humiliation . . . dealing with confusion without answers . . . without solutions . . . without compassion and empathy.

The result was that, like others who had taken such tests, I was placed in Special Education. An experience that I would in time come to view from many perspectives. As far as my parents were concerned, confusion and anxieties persisted, but their son was now in school and regardless of whether the opportunity had worth, that was good enough for now.

Those days in SE are imprinted, especially the children with special needs and their caring parents. SE teachers were always dealing with countless challenges multitasking – pro-actively finding solutions for their children. They were truly SPECIAL.

Some of the SE teachers suspected that we did not belong in the class, but tolerate us. They tried to provide some dignity best they could. They relied on our willingness to comply in silence. We became their silent assistants. We were so proud to take notes to the office with the wooden passport marked HALL PASS in red. Sometimes I would take the long way and peak at the regular classes.

I was proud to clean and file for the teachers. There were always chores to do and we responded as we had been taught to do at home. We made sure that the room was left spotless.

Those early days of American schooling provided countless experiences of what it meant to be oppressed and suppressed. Simple things, like going to a school assembly, a pep rally, holiday concert but always separated. Simple things, like watching from a window recess, wanting to play tag with freedom, be part of that kick ball game – knowing that my Argentine legs could make magic with that soccer ball.

Simple things, like the glaring looks and comments by fellow students as we walked down the hall in slow motion. They did not know, how could they? They did not understand our identity versus theirs. Would they ever try to learn?

There were physical and linguistic walls always separating and rerouting. No one needed to build walls – they were always there. Second language acquisition is not only about learning a language. It’s about being dropped into the middle of a psychological maze without a parachute and desperately trying to find an exit.

To add to the desperation, Spanish and English are like oil and water – they don’t mix. One deals with consistent sounds that can be relied upon without significant variables, while the other presents constant exceptions and surprises to sounds and rules.

I remember the first time that I saw the words “to, too, and two.” The teacher put them on the board and pronounced each. ¡¿Qué?! What did she say? No, no, no, how could they all sound like ‘¿tú?’

My language side of the brain quickly addressed the linguistic logic required. The ’T’ sound followed by selecting my trusted a, e, i, o, and u’ . . . and voila! – “Tú”. It means “you” in Spanish – easy, right?

I was not even close. “¡Diós mio!” – “tú” had been transformed (to) “to, too, and two” and like a tsunami, along came other mysterious hydroglyphics that dared to be pronounced and spelled like, – threw, through – new, knew – mail, male – bass, base – plain, plane – genes, jeans – dear, deer – dye, diewrite, rite . . . RIGHT?!

The deluge was relentless – homonyms, homophones, homographs, heteronyms – does anyone have a cognate handy? But the actual phonetical sounds were not the only barrier. The coordination of tongue, mouth, teeth, lips, nose, palate and throat would require serious re-education and practice. That delicious Spanish sound of the double “rr” was silenced – so was the “ñ” – and by the way – why not introduce a question and exclamation with some warning?  ¡¿Why wait to figure out that a question is a question?!

My babbling turned into an annoying accent for others to tolerate. In turn, they used the SLS Method . . . “What . . . did . . . you . . . say?” – “Would . . . you . . . please. . . repeat . . . that!” … again, and again and again. The third and fourth repetition became embarrassing. I felt sorry for those who were victims to my lack of articulation. It was not their fault but mine. Everything was my fault!

Trying to speak English was like learning to walk again with weights strapped to those boots. You know, those boots that we were always being reminded to pull up by their straps! Oh yes! Cultural idioms were also ever lurking about raining down like cats and dogs.

Each day attending school was singularly imprinted; from dreading to get up each morning, eating breakfast with tummy already churning and then walking to school – holding on tight, so tight to mamá’s trusted hand leading the way – to and from school.

Regardless of weather – she would be there waiting with “abrazos y besos” (hugs and kisses). These were always precious safe moments from what was waiting between those piercing electronic school bells. Each day I was entering a cell and at the end of the day escaping.

The message from my parents was always crystal clear – “We provide the sacrifices, the substance, the roof, the courage, the love. You go to school.” So I trusted and did.

It took a few years to realize the life-altering gifts they provided – day in – day out. Especially the selfless sacrifices, the courage, the love. God did they love me!

Even though both were not formally educated, they were relentless regarding the value and importance of an education. For them it was simple – “Schools are Temples of learning and Teachers are Holy.”

It was after a few months in SE that suddenly, a woman appeared in our SE class. She had a long conversation with the SE teacher and I noticed the principal had come along. I realized that by the way they glanced our way, they were talking about us – the second language kids who dressed differently, spoke more than one language and brought smelly lunches to school.

The SE teacher came over and introduced me to a lady called Mrs. Beals. All three were smiling and therefore I knew that I was not in trouble for not doing anything wrong. Yes, unwarranted fear and guilt was a constant phobia.

Mrs. Beals introduced herself to me and wanted to know my name while the SE teacher and principal watched. She repeated my name slowly “Jorge”. She got it right the first time! Yes!, It was a soft “j” and soft “g”.

What a relief to not have to respond to “corky” “goge” or “José”. She repeated “Jorge” and asked me if she was pronouncing it right? This was the first time someone asked me about my name. I nodded with emphasis . . .  ¡SÍ! ¡SÍ!

Mrs. Beals sat down and explained that she wanted to see me before and after school. She smiled throughout. She put my hands between hers and asked if I understood. At the end of that day, she appeared at the door of the SE class, entered, took my hand and we walked to the entrance of the school where my mother was waiting. That walk was special. My hand in hers was soothing and trusting.

Mrs. Beals smiled at my mother who had that look of constant apprehension. No mamá, I was not in trouble for not doing anything wrong. Mrs. Beals introduced herself. She asked for my mother’s name and pronounced it correctly – “Irma Rosa”. She said, “What a beautiful name.” And repeated it. She took her time to explain, asked me to translate best I could. Mrs. Beals wanted my mother to bring me early to school so that she could work with me and help me learn English.

It’s amazing how two women who did not know each other’s language were communicating through a third language. Mrs. Beals took my mother’s hand and thanked her – both of their soft eyes met and understood. That walk back home was a little different this time – I may have been skipping.

Who was this Mrs. Beals . . . this white woman with greying hair who always seem to have a gentle smile providing comfort. Why did she care? She was not Latina. She did not speak Spanish but wanted to pronounce our names property and with respect. She sought us out. She made a point of meeting my mother and made her feel safe and welcomed. She was relentless in her advocacy. Who was she? Was she human? More than I would ever realize.

What I remember most about Mrs. Beals is the look in her eyes, where I could always see my reflection. The minutes she spent with me were always mine. She was there to guide, nudge and show the way with patience, dedication, authenticity and profound love for her honorable profession.

Now I pause to realize that Mrs. Beals saw each child the same way. In time, I became aware that she gave so much – loved each of us so much.

Each lesson with Mrs. Beals was a little different. Sometimes we practices sounds heard in nature. Sometimes she would introduce a song that rhymed and we would sing together. She provided many tongue twisters. Once we danced together to the Hokey Pokey and we shook it all about. Phonetics and vocabulary seemed for her to be more important than grammar or spelling.

She would pause at times and emphasize, “I want you to sound fluent and I will teach you how, and I want you to learn English better than those who teach it to you.” And so I trusted and believed.

She showed me pieces of art, photos, drawings and shared stories about each one. Sometimes we focused on interrogatives and how to ask questions. I remember her sharing that who, what, how, when, where, how many, how much were important but that “why” was the big question. I now know why.

Simple books were slowly introduced as I began to deal with sentences without pausing at each word. But each book had a lesson about “each of us.” She would let me take the books home to share with my parents. She constantly urged – “Trust yourself!” She made learning fun, interesting and relevant. I looked forward to each morning.

It was through Mrs. Beal’s intervention that I eventually transitioned into a regular class. Some teachers fought my entrance, but Mrs. Beals persisted and simply asked, “Just give Jorge a chance and by the way . . . this is how you pronounce his name.” . . . and so they did.

Content and textbook language

The transition was emotionally arduous. So during our tutoring sessions, she taught me how to memorize, how to use 3×5 cards, take notes and construct a question. She knew that I would struggle. But she counted on her belief that we had built enough language skills and resiliency for me to survive.

The problem was that I was beginning to speak without an accent and therefore, teachers did not know of my unreadiness to tackle textbook language. Each content area had its own vocabulary and concepts that teachers were expecting to have been learned the prior year. So the challenge was learning old and new information at the same time. Getting Ds and Cs, at times repeating a course, staying after school often was part of the process. Slowly, at a turtles pace, the Cs turned to Bs. The improvement was always a surprise to me, but never to my parents.

The ultimate challenge for teachers dealing with 2nd language acquirers is understanding that a lack of language skills by an immigrant does not mean that they are not intelligent. You would think that most teachers could figure that out without going to a workshop.

Mrs. Beals followed my academic journey through Middle, High School and college. We wrote to each other and celebrated her retirement along with my degrees. One day I received a letter that she had passed. She has always been present in every class that I have ever attended as a student or taught as an educator.

Immigrant children don’t lose their intelligence because they can’t speak a second language. Eventually, bilingualism becomes a prized sought after social and cultural talent and commodity. “To, too and two is also tú. Rite, write, right?”

Mrs. Beals made true what my parents believed – that schools are “Temples of Learning” and that some teachers are truly “Holy” and that “the past does not dictate the future.”

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