© Copyright 2019 by Anne Organista
He walked in with an easy gait, bowed his head slightly and took a seat at the back of the room. As he fished out his book and pencil from a worn-out, navy backpack, my eyes trailed down to his forearms and the band aid stuck on his left elbow, the blue jeans torn at the knees, and the dirty sneakers that perhaps had seen too many bad days.
I asked for his name and he answered in a low voice, 'Daniel'. Frequently, students are reluctant to speak in class, especially on their first day, and my new student was no different. 'I'm from Guatemala,' he spoke, almost in a whisper, as one student asked him for his home country. Not wanting to put him on the spot on his first day, I welcomed him to the class and continued the lesson.
Throughout the session, Daniel remained quiet, answering only when called. His interaction with the other students however was not lost on me. I noticed that he seemed to have greater facility for the English language compared to his classmates. Several times, I caught him explaining the exercise to Jorge, the student seated next to him. He finished the exercises faster than the rest and in one speaking activity, I found him teaching his partner the target language they were tasked to practice. Checking his work, I called his attention to a few errors though it was, by far, nearly the best I had seen that day.
Soon, our two hours of class time was up and as students said their goodbyes and left, he approached me, speaking in the same low voice, 'Thank you teacher'. I smiled and asked how he found the class. 'Good. I see you tomorrow, teacher!'
The days following that first session, Daniel came out of his shell, gained his confidence and became more at ease. He spoke more often too, laughed at the funny mistakes his classmates made, and continued to coach Jorge, now his permanent seatmate in class. One time, I saw him looking intently at the board while the others were writing on their notebook. I asked him if anything was wrong and shyly, he pointed to a word on the board and asked me to pronounce it. He turned one ear closer, mouthing the word as I said it.
'Sit,' he repeated. 'That's right,' I said, smiling. But a deep frown still lined his face, and he continued.
'Teacher, you say earlier, take your seat. Is the same?' he asked, pointing to the word on the board. I broke into a huge smile as I recognized his confusion.
'Oh! That's pronounced as s-e-a-t! It's spelled this way.' I wrote the two words on the board and showed him how each was pronounced.
'Not the same?' he asked.
By this time, the other students had finished writing and volunteered to differentiate the two words in question. Jorge, his seatmate stood up, went up to the board and pointed at the words I had written.
'Daniel, look!' Jorge pointed to 's-i-t' and motioned the act of sitting down. Then he pointed to 's-e-a-t' and drew his attention to a chair. 'Understand?'
All eyes turned to Daniel as he broke into a wide grin and did a high-five with Jorge. My whole class applauded as I beamed at the two men, noting the kinship that had developed between them. But it was Daniel's next words that rocked my heart.
'Good job, Jorge! I don't know this. Thank you.'
The words 'good job' was one of the many words of affirmation my students had picked up in class. I may have said them on various occasions without much pause but apparently, the words flattered them and had become a constant source of motivation. And when Daniel said it to Jorge, I realized he didn't only mean to flatter his friend. He wanted to encourage him too, for something his friend had managed to do well.
I came to know more about Jorge and Daniel during our early morning conversations before class. In these brief interactions, Daniel told me his dream of studying Culinary Arts. He had started out as a dishwasher at an Italian restaurant but his promotion to performing simple cooking duties within a couple of months and his manager’s praise of his work instilled in him the possibility of doing and possibly, becoming more. Jorge, on the other hand, dreamed of a better job so as to help his family back home in Ecuador and see that his children have better lives than what he had.
Thanks to Daniel and our short interactions before class, Jorge's little stunt that day made me see him in a different light. From day one, I had considered him to be the kind of student I dreaded to have. A slow learner, he masked his difficulty in English with arrogance and penchant for argument. He constantly disrupted the class with questions that were explained a couple of seconds prior. He questioned the rules of the English language and questioned even more why there were exceptions. If there was anyone who tested my patience, Jorge was high on that list.
His questions on the rules of grammar and on why English phrases meant the way they did were never-ending. His repetitive mistakes on pronunciation and spelling as well as his constant interruptions to ask a question regarding a previous lesson were equally frustrating. His assignments, though always accomplished, were never free of the same simple grammar mistakes he repeated throughout the course. After weeks and months of the same behavior, I became disheartened and wondered if I was doing things right. But just when my patience had run thin, he strode in to class one morning, without a jacket, drenched to the bone. He had cycled under the pouring rain and holding out his helmet, joked that the only dry part in his body was his hair. As he took his seat, a classmate scolded him for not wearing a jacket and to everyone’s amazement, he replied, “Yes, I’m as… I’m as wet as… a fish in the river”. My jaws dropped. Too dumbfounded to speak, the class broke into a thundering applause as Jorge looked at me and asked, “Correct, teacher?” I nodded and smiled back at him as he tried to explain in his halting English, that a review of our previous lesson took his mind off the cold rain on his way to class.
On another occasion, he walked in like a zombie, saying he had just come off from work. Though his hours were normally from seven till midnight, he explained that he was asked to work till seven that morning for a special event. I told him he could have gone home and slept but without hesitation, he said he couldn’t afford to miss class because it was important.
Instances like these; days when I thought classes were going nowhere or that students were not learning quickly enough or that my energy was running low; that students’ persistence and commitment to their goals reined me in. I learned to hold back and wait, that inasmuch as teaching was my role, the results were not mine to demand or to expect. For the first time, I realized that my students were not learning the basics of math or reading. Neither were they being prepared for a career in business, medicine or law. They were rather at a crossroad where to continue the same way they had once travelled no longer existed. Forced by undesirable circumstances in their home countries, their only way was to break through the barriers that could turn their lives around. English was one such barrier and I was the bridge that could help bring them to the other side.
Many times, people ask me why I teach. My answers have changed over the years but one thing that has remained is the fact that teaching gives me the chance to let others become who they wish to be. This little realization has humbled me over the years; a constant reminder that the value of teaching does not rest in my well-prepared lesson plans, engaging activities, or even in the excellent marks my students achieve. The value of teaching is allowing students to make meaning of their new experiences and witnessing the transfer of that meaning to new and better opportunities. It is the development of these new competencies that finally enables a student to do more and to become more; one that has both purpose and significance.