Saying Goodbye

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(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. 

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The Anguish of Learning English

The Anguish of Learning English

Lately my husband and I have been sorting through our bins of stuff in an effort to reduce the amount in our storage unit.  This is a COVID-inspired activity that actually produces a positive result. 

While digging around in a bin of my old teaching materials and my kids’ artwork, I found the little book More Anguished English by Richard Lederer.  The book’s subtitle reads: An expose of embarrassing, excruciating, and egregious errors in English.  I bought this book second hand at least twenty-five years ago.  Finding it again brought back a vivid memory of the time I first read it.

It was spring break and I’d rented a house on Chincoteague Island.  I had my two kids and two of their friends with me.  The kids were finishing dinner and I picked up the book.  Soon I was laughing so hard that I couldn’t read it aloud to them. 

Some examples from students’ essays*:

            Rambo was a French poet.

            A great Jewish leader in Scotland was Rabbi Burn.s

            A harp is a nude piano. (This image delights me every time.)

As I reread pages a quarter of a century later, I wasn’t as amused. In fact, I found myself feeling compassion for the beleaguered writers, and slightly irritated that the author and my former self made fun at their expense.  My change of attitude was rooted in the eight years I taught English as a new language (ENL) to children from kindergarten through fifth grade.

English is a difficult, often nonsensical language.  A famous example of its challenges is the variation on /ough/: rough, through, slough(two meanings, two pronunciations), though.  Sometimes English seems to have more exceptions than reliable patterns. 

My experience as an ENL teacher changed the way I read the “bloopers” in More Anguished English.  Some errors were caused by mishearing, such as The big artery on your neck is called the jocular vein.  Other mistakes were misspellings: At night we stayed in a youth hostile. 

Instead of finding humor in the errors, I found that my heart hurt a bit for the authors struggling to communicate in a challenging language.  Whether English is a first language or a new language, learning it isn’t easy.  How many native speakers are confused by there, they’re, and theirWere and where?

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Sure, the errors writers make are often amusing. Even today, some make me laugh.  But my years of teaching second grade and ENL changed me. 

Here are some student definitions to lighten your COVID days:

Migration: A headache that birds get when they fly south for the winter.

Syntax: Is all the money collected at church from sinners.

Foliage: A mother horse having a baby.

And particularly relevant to our pre-election anguish:

Absentee ballot: When you count the ballots and some of them aren’t there.

*All citations from More Anguished English, by Richard Lederer.  Delacorte Press, New York, 1993.

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