I’ll never forget when the principal brought him to my classroom. It was the first day of school and his mother had just enrolled him in our office.
I’m ashamed to say that my first thoughts were, “25. Okay, with 25 kids, I can’t arrange the desks in groups of four like I’d planned. I don’t have a deskplate for him with his name on it. I have to redo my class list for the outside of my door. I’ll need to make another homework binder for him.” It wasn’t his fault. And I really wasn’t annoyed. It kind of comes with the territory on the first day of school that the class list you just received probably already changed by the time you typed it really pretty and got it taped up.
He was precious. Dark, silky hair and big, liquid brown eyes. And he looked scared. Most kids do when they first walk into a new class. But I soon discovered that he had a really big reason for being scared.
Only the day before, he had been standing on the ground in Puerto Rico. He and his mother had boarded a plane and flown to America to join his father, who had been living and working here for months. His aunt explained all of this to me as we stood in the doorway of my classroom. The other kids were quietly working in the “busy packs” I’d made for them to keep them occupied while I took up and put away all of the supplies they’d brought. His name was Billy.
And he didn’t speak a word of English.
I was assured by my principal that one of our ESL teachers would be by later to meet him and help him understand what was going on. I got him settled in an empty desk, gave him a box of crayons, and he got busy coloring – just like every other kid in the room.
I then walked back to my desk, grabbed my phone, and found a translator app. I can read Spanish and I’m pretty good at speaking it if I can read it, but I’m by no means fluent. I looked up the basics:
Do you want water?
Do you need to use the bathroom?
Are you hungry?
We survived the morning, went to lunch, and recess without incident. When we got back into the classroom, I had to laugh as I looked up another phrase on the app:
Please put your shirt back on!
Bless his heart. He was hot from playing outside, so as soon as we came back in, he took off his shirt! The other kids were shocked – or pretended to be.
The ESL teacher and I talked after school that day and she helped me come up with a strategy. While he would spend most of the morning with her, he would be all mine in the afternoons. She told me that every time I spoke to him to Spanish, I should immediately say the same thing in English. So that’s what I did.
Saca tu libro de lectura.
Get out your reading book.
Donde esta el lapiz?
Where’s your pencil?
I know that I didn’t say everything correctly. Using a translator is not the same as using conversational Spanish. But we survived. When I really got stuck, there was a little button I could push and the app would say the phrase for me. Then Billy would smile and say it slowly for me so I could say it back. We taught each other.
Every morning when we talked about our calendar, I would say the date in English and then ask Billy to come and teach us how to say it in Spanish.
Vienticuatro de septiembre
He beamed each time the class repeated what he said. He knew that he was contributing to our routine. Using the calendar, he taught us to count to thirty-one. He taught us to say the names of holidays.
We all fell in love with this precious little boy.
About six weeks into our school year, I said, “Entiendes? Do you understand?“
He smiled and put his little hand over my mouth. Then he spoke very clearly and said, “In English only, please.”
“Are you sure?”
He nodded. “I will tell you when I need Spanish.”
I was amazed. For just six weeks, he had been saturated in the English language while at school. And like a little sponge, he had soaked it all up! The rest of the year was just as amazing. Of course, sometimes there were things that just didn’t translate for him. Try explaining what an armadillo is to a child who just saw a picture of one for the first time!
There was an older little girl at our school who had been in my class for second grade. She was fluent in both English and Spanish. Occasionally, I would call her teacher’s room to speak to Dalia to ask her how to say something that I couldn’t figure out. She was a great translator. Sometimes I just had to give the phone to Billy!
I loved that we all learned from each other. As a teacher, it was a very humbling experience. I had to be willing to let my kids see that I didn’t know everything. And in second grade, the kids think you know everything! I had to let go of that and just let the year happen.
That was three years ago. Billy is now in the fifth grade.
This morning, I was alone in my art & music classroom, getting ready for my first class when our assistant principal came over the intercom to make the morning announcements. She introduced the two students with her – one would sing the school song and the other would lead the school in saying the Pledge of Allegiance (Yes, we still do that at our school. Every single day.).
As I stood at my desk for the Pledge, I heard her introduce the speaker.
It was Billy.
I love our country and I respect our flag immensely. But I couldn’t say the Pledge this morning. I stood there with my hand over my heart and cried big, fat, happy tears as I heard him say the Pledge – clearly. In English.
He’s worked so hard. He’s had a string of wonderful teachers – both in the regular classroom and in ESL.
But this accomplishment was his.
I saw him later in the hall and stopped to tell him how proud I was and that he’d done a great job.
He hugged me tightly and said, “Thank you, Mrs. Pate!”
As he walked away, I softly said, “De nada.”
He turned and smiled. I almost expected him to say, “In English only, please.”
I really love my job.