On Being Inspired

Reach For The Stars
Reach For The Stars

I’ve written recently about the issues of immigration here and the attitudes of far too many residents in Prince William County.  The attitude can be summed up in the statement “There’re against it.”  At least, they’re against Hispanic immigrants who have the temerity to actually expect to be treated as human beings in exchange for doing a large portion of the manual labor around these parts.

Last night, I was privileged to be among a large group of Hispanic people who respected me, just having a good time celebrating their achievements.

This past January I started volunteering to teach English as Second Language (ESL) through the Hogar Hispano program, run by the Catholic Charities program.  Our particular program teaches English to adult students.  The semester started in late January and finished last night.  Even though I normally feel very comfortable in front of a classroom, teaching ESL proved far more challenging than I expected.

For one, during the course of this semester I changed jobs twice, with all the stress and strain that changing jobs involves (hint; it’s not particularly pleasant).  Changing jobs was distracting and prevented me from getting any kind of routine.  The one thing I like about how the Hogar Hispano program is run here, is that a volunteer instructor is only asked to teach one night each week, even though there are two classes per week.  I ended up with Monday nights as it didn’t seem to make a difference either way with my work schedule.

I also quickly learned that teaching English to people, who can’t actually already speak English, when I can’t speak their native language, is rather difficult.  For one, the students don’t understand my jokes (probably good), instructions to open their books to a certain page, or definitions of words they ask me to explain.  I was fortunate in that I was assigned to an “Intermediate-Level” class, so they had some limited English skills already.

The program provides “Teacher Training,” which for me was an hour and a half’s worth the week before the first class.  Not enough.

To add to my general teaching stress, Winnie ended up in my class for the last several sessions.  We actually first heard about the program as an option for Winnie to take English classes again, and I then I heard the program needed volunteer teachers.  Winnie was originally assigned to the advanced class, but near the end of the semester convinced herself that she was in a class too advanced for her.  So she ended up as one of my students.

So, for the past three months, as I’ve jumped around new jobs and new work locations, I’ve been attempting to teach ESL to my wife and a room full of other people who mostly only speak Spanish.  I guess I did a passable job of it, overall.  The students seemed to respect me and were very gracious in thanking me at the end of each evening’s class.

Last night was our “graduation” night.  We had a potluck dinner party (I spent a bit of time during the semester explaining the concept of “Pot Luck”), and then the program organizers handed out certificates.

It follows that Hispanic people way outnumbered non-Hispanics during our dinner.  Several of the instructors are also Hispanics who happen to be fluent in English.  So, I spent most of the evening sampling foods I’d never tasted before and just enjoying watching other people party in Spanish.  Some of the adult students brought their children, making it an even more enjoyable celebration.

Certificates were handed out to all the students.  The all of us instructors were invited up to the front of the room, given our own certificates of thanks and a round of applause from our students.

Watching the crowd, I couldn’t help thinking about what it really meant to our students.  Here, these people are all working hard all day with manual labor jobs making little money.  Some have families with them, some are on their own with families back in their home country they’re supporting.  They all know the hostility from way too many locals, know that just one mistake could get them sent to jail en-route to being deported back to their home country (whether they’re here with or without a visa).

Yet, somehow, they find time and energy to come to an evening class and study a second language as adults, as their way of adapting to a different culture.  For all their hard work at low wages, all the hardships I know they’ve had to deal with living and working here, I saw no bitterness anywhere.  Last night they were a bunch of people partying and having a good time, enjoying a small accomplishment.

For all the thanks my students offered me last night, I couldn’t help but feel I owned them thanks.  Watching them, I felt inspired.

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