(This piece of writing comes from 2007, during my days of teaching English as a New Language (ENL–once called ESL). Working with these children and their families was my delight and good fortune.)
On the second-to-last day of school, I give my English Language Learners (ELLs) in first grade a farewell party. We have mini-muffins and fresh strawberries. For Anton, I bring a peach pie.
“I never taste pie,” he said a few weeks ago when the word came up in our lesson. “What pie?”
We told him it was made with fruit and a crust. He didn’t forget about the pie. When I told the first graders we’d be having a last day party Anton perked up.
“You bling pie for we eat?” he asked me. Along with ESL classes, Anton is getting help from the speech teacher for his articulation.
“OK, but I probably won’t bake it myself,” I said. At the end of the school year, I am weary, as well as inundated with paperwork. I know for sure that homemade pie is not going to fit into my schedule.
On Thursday, Pie Party Day, I give the students some free time to play games or draw. Our daily classes are usually crammed with lessons; there’s so much to learn about speaking, listening, reading and writing in English. On this day, I kick back and have relaxed conversations with my kids.
I call them “my kids.” You would probably call them my students. Most of them I’ve known for two years, and one has been with me for three years. In any child, the change from a frightened five-year-old entering kindergarten to a cocky seven-year-old heading into second grade is astounding. But my kids—my kids—make enormous changes. To me, this metamorphosis is as miraculous as whatever goes on inside a chrysalis. Only I get to see it happen in a way that regular classroom teachers don’t, because my job is truly special.
I’m a teacher of English as a Second Language (ESL) and my skinny classroom that was once a storage closet is a safe haven for many bewildered, anxious children, children like my Leticia. Three years ago, when she trustingly took my hand and walked with me to our ESL classroom, Leticia was tiny, even for a kindergartener. She spoke no English at all and had not attended preschool. She spent her first five years in the constant company of her mother and loving relatives, none of whom spoke English. I remember being struck by the great courage of this small person. How very brave to spend hours every day in a place where no one speaks your language, where there is not one familiar face.
Today Leticia is a leggy, confident first grader who reads well and converses fluently in English. Many songs and language games later, here she is, able to move back and forth between two languages. How many adult Americans can do that?
As we eat our muffins and pie, I ask what everyone is doing for the summer. Anton speaks first. “I go to Uklaine.” He bounces with happiness and his straight, blond bowl cut hair bounces with him. “I go see my glandma and glandpa.”
Alberto of the bright, mischievous chipmunk eyes tells us he is going to Mexico. “I’m going to my uncle house in Puebla. He take care of my dog.”
Kenny, whose glasses are always slightly askew, is going to visit his Filipino cousins in California as soon as school lets out. “We’re going to eat crab at the beach! I love crab!”
I can’t believe I won’t see my kids again in September. They will be new second graders, learning the layout of a new school. I’m worried about them. How will they manage the tougher curriculum? Will their new teachers help them with unfamiliar vocabulary and explain science concepts?
In our ESL classroom, we have a photo album full of pictures of our school year. There’s Noodle Day when we ate with chopsticks while practicing restaurant vocabulary and ordering from a menu. There’s Rice Day when we researched and wrote a book about rice. There are pictures of the kindergarteners dressing for the weather in my family’s oversized raincoats and snow boots. There’s Rani, with her birthday crown; showing her gap-tooth smile. She’ll have her grown-up teeth by September.
On the last day of school, it is tradition for all the teachers to gather on the grassy bank by the bus parking lot. We wave goodbye to the students as they leave for the summer. In my seventeen years of teaching second grade, I always felt a sense of relief as the buses honked and pulled out on to the road. During the ten months of school, I usually enjoyed my students, but I wasn’t sad to say goodbye until I started teaching ESL. This year I am already missing my kids. This year I see those beautiful children’s faces pressed against the school bus windows and my eyes fill with tears.