November 12, 2018
I got an email from one of the teachers with the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) program conducted at a nearby parish, seeking a substitute for last Monday’s two-hour Intermediate II-level class. I taught in the Arlington Diocese Catholic Charities ESOL for three years after I quit working. I stepped away from it a year ago, but stayed on the substitute list.
I didn’t have anything pressing Monday, so I said I’d take the class. The teacher sent me her lesson plan. She then added a jarring note: only one student had attended recent classes.
I got to the classroom, at the parish school. I leaned against the door frame, waiting, and chatted with the woman who teaches the Beginner course in the next classroom, as her five or six students trickled in. I looked at my watch, 7:10.
At 7:20 Maria showed up, apologizing. She rides a local bus, which was stuck in heavy traffic today, as it is every day. I introduced myself—the substitute. She smiled, adding that she’s been the only student for a couple of weeks.
I gave her some textbook exercises, practice forming the future tense in simple sentences. She answered them all correctly. I added a few on the whiteboard. She got them all right, too. Grammar isn’t why she’s here. The next exercise is more practical: open-ended questions to prompt conversation. She mentioned her two daughters, both with college degrees, who are urging her to buy a laptop. Her pronunciation is passable, but with an accent she’ll never lose. Like the accents of my Appalachian-South relatives.
Maria isn’t a typical ESOL student. Most are new to this country, most are young and struggling. Her English comprehension reflects her 30 years in the U.S., allowing for life in a Hispanic community that defaults to Spanish out of familiarity or cultural loyalty.
One student—seems to undermine the argument of advocates of a compassionate immigration policy that Hispanic people are working hard to equip themselves for life in the U.S. But in the final weeks of my classes, attendance typically dropped from 15 to 20 students to between five to 10, sometimes fewer. This class went the same way.
Why the gap between the theory and the real? Because life intrudes. In my three years of teaching I guess I saw a couple of hundred immigrant adults resolutely sign up for English classes. For the first few weeks they show up with their new textbooks, dictionaries, and pencils. They thank me for the free notepads I hand out.
Then things happen. Some students have young kids who get sick. Many work long hours at exhausting low-level jobs, often far from home. They drive old cars that break down. Like the rest of us, they battle rush-hour gridlock. For some, the sense of being an outsider in a sometimes cruelly prejudiced work culture is a soul-wrenching grind. That over-the-horizon goal—a better job, the confidence that comes with language skills—can seem unreachable. And some fall away from class, maybe only for a semester; others retreat into nearly closed communities of those from their native place who for many reasons never assimilate. Some are deported.
ESOL doesn’t ask students about immigration status. Some are illegal, a challenge for the Catholic Charities lawyers. Others struggle alone to comply with the opaque procedures for obtaining a green card.
Many persevere. They finish their courses, move to better jobs and greater personal and community stature. And who are the immigrants? Unless your ancestors lived in tepees and huts on the plains and in the forests of North America, you’re descended from them. Your name may be Gates or Jobs or Bezos or Trump, but you came from immigrants. Those border arrest and detention statistics that alarm some of us also should prompt one contrarian thought: millions came from Ireland, Italy, Germany, Poland, China, elsewhere. They became us—you and me.
ESOL doesn’t rationalize illegal border crossing or take sides in the grim politics of immigration. But while the feds threaten to deploy 15,000 Army personnel to face 4,000 hungry women and children hoping to seek legal asylum, ESOL and similar programs nationwide offer a solution to this human crisis—language and communication skills, the foundation of education, employment, and, ultimately, pride in being American.