Both of my parents are lawyers. I grew up in a household full of words, debate, conversation, books, and writing. As a native English speaker growing up in the United States, I never questioned the ease with which I learned how to communicate.
Then, one day in the fourth grade, I got off the bus from school and walked into my house, my nose buried in a book.
“Grace, I need to speak with you,” my mom implored with a serious look in her eyes. She proceeded to inform me that we were moving to a city with a strange name: Amsterdam. Tears welled in my eyes.
“Is that in Texas?” I asked.
Two months later, we arrived at the Portland airport with 23 suitcases. After a 10-hour flight, I stepped off the plane into what felt like another world. To a girl used to the safety of the Northwestern suburbs, the noisy deviance of the neighborhood surrounding our Amsterdam townhouse — the “coffee shops” that didn’t smell like coffee, the rowdy crowds of “voetbal” fans — proved both terrifying and intriguing.
I was lucky. I attended an international school with instruction in English. Yet, while I felt academically secure, I was constantly on guard outside of the classroom. I took Dutch in school and practiced diligently at home, but I was far from fluent. Every time I left the house, I felt as if I’d been plunged into a strange, dangerous world. When people stopped me in the park while I was walking my dog, I would freeze, praying the conversation would not progress beyond the basics of “your dog is cute” and “thank you.” When I went to the grocery store, I struggled to ask the clerk where to find different foods. While I played soccer on the streets with our Dutch neighbors, I was left out of their inside jokes. I existed in my own world, on the borders of the comfort of my American culture and the uncertainty of the different culture and language surrounding me.
Two years later, my family returned to Portland and I attempted to resume my life where it had left off. That same year, I met Rajae. I was sitting in my seventh-grade science class studying physics when the teacher said that she had a special announcement: A new student, Rajae, would be joining us. She had moved to Portland from Morocco just two days earlier and didn’t speak any English. Arabic was her native tongue.
When she entered the room, I was immediately drawn to her. Although I knew her experience was vastly different than my own of moving to Amsterdam, I could relate to her status as the “other” — particularly her lack of the language skills necessary to communicate with those around her. I didn’t speak Arabic, but we shared an unspoken language of kindness, struggle, and change. I walked Rajae to her classes. I ate lunch with her. I gave her compliments. I smiled.
Upon arrival at our school, Rajae was placed in an English as a Second Language (ESL) program. Each week, she met with a curmudgeonly old lady who yelled at her for her lack of comprehension, and who did very little to actually help her learn the language. One day, I found Rajae crying after an ESL session. “No speak English,” she kept repeating, over and over.
I did everything I could to help Rajae. I had a friend who was fluent in Arabic, so I asked him to translate our conversations. It worked OK at first, but ultimately his accent and hers were so different that the two had a difficult time understanding one another. In science class, I gave her all of my notes and drew pictures to help her understand the concepts I couldn’t explain in words. My science teacher noticed I was helping her and asked me to take my tests with her as well — a somewhat ridiculous request given that Rajae could not understand the basic instructions, let alone questions on the test. Still, we went together to the library. I answered all the questions, and then I sat with Rajae while she copied everything I had written onto her paper. We both earned 100 percent. The teacher never said anything.
Rajae’s experience in school is hardly an isolated incident. There are more than 10 million English Language Learners (ELLs) in American public schools, and a National Education Association policy brief predicts that by 2025 one out of every four public-school students will be an ELL. I’ve also since learned that ELLs are often pushed to look to others for correct answers instead of trying themselves, just as Rajae had done with me.
The first time I went to Rajae’s house, my perspective shifted dramatically. She lived just off a busy highway, in a gray, desolate apartment complex. A set of slimy stairs took me to her door. Her father worked at the Shell gas station down the street. Her mother, who had been a teacher in Morocco, didn’t speak English and couldn’t work in the United States. As such, she was confined to the house, doing what she could to keep her family comfortable using the meager income they had. As I sat in their makeshift living room, I noticed the dearth of pictures or decoration on the walls, the haphazard array of furniture, the lack of a kitchen table.
I worked with Rajae, her older sister, and her mom for hours. Although my seventh-grade teaching abilities proved unimpressive, we puzzled our way through English picture books, articles, and websites. Before I left, Rajae’s mother insisted on feeding me. She made what she saw as the epitome of the American meal: pizza.
What struck me as I walked home after my session with Rajae’s family was the difference between my experience moving to the Netherlands and Rajae’s family’s experience in America. In Amsterdam, I had the chance to study in English as well as the resources to learn Dutch, which gave me an opportunity to connect to local people and institutions. Dutch society was organized to welcome expats and immigrants. American society creates barriers to assimilation, including a scarcity of language instruction and a low quality of instruction where it does exist. Rajae’s family lacked the financial resources to overcome this shortcoming.
Rajae, who had immigrated halfway through the school year, improved but still struggled with English by the end of the year, floundering in a strange, largely inhospitable world. The next year, I moved again and attended a different school for eighth grade. But I kept in touch with Rajae. Her language skills gradually improved and today she speaks English almost fluently. She plans to go to nursing school after she graduates this year.
Although I was happy to do it, and the friendship I forged with Rajae was incredibly meaningful, it should not have been my responsibility to be virtually the sole person helping her learn English. As a seventh-grader, it should not have been my responsibility to help her with science tests or provide her family with assistance. While all of us should make it our responsibility to be welcoming, open, accommodating, and understanding to those who move to our schools, the schools themselves need to have an infrastructure in place to provide the full range of services necessary to their students’ assimilation. Research shows that school-based language enrichment programs can make a huge difference in students’ transition to American society.
I know the feeling of being confused, isolated, and shut out because you lack the language skills to understand fully what is going on in the world around you and to communicate your needs, thoughts, and desires. It is for this reason that I urge action. I ask that people educate themselves about the current state of ESL programs. We should all acknowledge the programmatic inadequacies and invest in making changes in order to ensure that as more people for whom English is not a first language come to the United States, they are protected and supported. After all, we are a nation of immigrants.
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