Photo: GaudiLab/Shutterstock

Classroom Experiences: ESL and the American Dream

by Anne Hoffman Dec 14, 2010
Part of Matador’s Classroom Experiences series.

“It’s difficult, mami,” says Jackie, a Dominican mother of two.

We’re on break from my English class and I’m running around the church hallways when I see Jackie and her friend Asuncion.

Jackie’s telling me all about her life and obligations. She’s a full-time employee and a single mother to two twin boys, which, she assures me, is “double trouble.” She is tired and has a hard time focusing on class. Always worrying about others, Jackie tells me that now she needs to take care of herself. She needs to learn English and the time is now. Yet despite her busy life, when I first met her I noticed that Jackie was impeccable. She wears elaborate jewelry and sunglasses pushed back on her head. I nicknamed her Jackie O.

She is there, telling me about her life, her struggle, and I say, “I know, mami.” My co-teacher laughs.

After working all day, sometimes at two jobs, my students come to a church to learn English for two hours, four nights a week. They are making an incredible sacrifice. Learning English takes the place of time with their families, which is precious and scant, and even more often, sleep.

I spend all day immersed in this. Outside is the hustle and bustle of an exclusive Washington neighborhood, where policy wonks guzzle coffee and talk rapid-fire on their blackberries. Inside, in the church on the hill, are my students. They come from other countries, mostly in Central America, but also from as far away as Russia and Thailand and Sao Tome and Principe. They are eagerly set apart from this Washington rhythm; they have different expectations, norms, even jokes. Sometimes I feel like I’m part of both stories – the American dreams and expectations, and the immigrant perspective.

I walk down the stairs to the first floor, and I see Enrique in the hallway. He was one of my first students, and we always greet one another warmly. I ask him how things are, and he tells me about the restaurant where he works. At one point we start talking about rude customers and he asks, “Why are Americans so cold?”

“I don’t know,” I say.

“But you’re an American!” he answers.

“Right, but I don’t always understand even though it’s my own culture. Besides, there are millions of ‘Americans.’ It’s complicated,” I say.

He looks puzzled and we talk about something else: the school he wants to build in El Salvador where he will teach dance.

The truth is, I do understand, at least partly. I love the United States; I love the sense of personal freedom and endless possibility. I also see it as one of the loneliest societies I’ve ever inhabited. At least in Washington, people seem scared to let others in, and at the same time, to be alone. I think about this all the time, yet it’s too hard to explain in my third langauge.

Spanglish is an important piece in my own identity puzzle. It’s a third language, with the logic of English and the cadence of Spanish; we use it to define our difference, our liminality.

I leave Enrique and walk into the office where I see Meghan, the office assistant. She has a pile of assessments on her desk.

“How’s it going?” I ask.

“Hmm, muchacha. Pretty rough, la verdad,” she answers.

“Oh yeah?” I say.

Meghann is from Puerto Rico, but she studied here. We speak pure Spanglish. She’s a natural but sometimes I feel a little ashamed. Yet Meghann pushes. She answers me in Spanish when I ask her something in English, and vice versa.

Spanglish is an important piece in my own identity puzzle. It’s a third language, with the logic of English and the cadence of Spanish; we use it to define our difference, our liminality.

I leave Meghann and her stack and see another student, an older lady from Bolivia.

“¡Hola!” she says with a big smile.

“Hey, Leticia! How are you?” I respond.

We kiss on the cheek and Leticia pats my shoulder like a protective mother. She always uses the formal, usted form with me, and she tells me how she prays every night that she may one day understand her English teachers.

I love the way she sees the world; Leticia believes that there is so much we cannot control, that its best to go with what is and accept reality. I think about how different this is than some of my American peers. All of the focus is on the individual. Destiny? The universe? Mere superstitions.

I go back up to the classroom after break. The students are settling in, although some of the men are hanging out near the vending machines in a display of quiet resistance.

We’re going to have a debate about the “American Dream, “I say. I write “Is it attainable?” on the board. The class is deeply divided. The half that supports the notion that success is possible with hard work sit to my left, while the more skeptical students are on my right.

We get to the opening statement and an older Dominican woman, a con, says, “In this country it’s not enough to work hard. You have to work smart.” Her side cheers and she expounds, “You can work 60 hours a week washing dishes but you’re never going to make enough money to buy a house.”

The pros are clearly ruffled. A Bolivian student responds, “If you don’t believe in the American dream, why did you ever come to this country in the first place?”

I remember my position of authority and remind the students that this debate is academic, it’s a way to improve English and therefore not personal.

A young man from El Salvador says, “I’m working two jobs here and because of that, I can send money home and my little brother can study at university. That was my dream, and I’m accomplishing it.”

Others talk about life in their countries, how working constantly is not considered healthy or normal there.

At the end I declare the debate a tie, but I let the students know that I’m biased. I don’t believe that hard work necessarily brings economic (or spiritual) success. Ultimately, like the man from El Salvador, I think that we have to define our own dreams and achieve them on a micro-level.

The students leave and I feel a little worried that the topic was a bit too heated. On their way out, the older Dominican woman and the Bolivian student are conversing happily.

“We talked a lot today!” one says.

I smile, pick up my things, turn out the lights, go down the big staircase, and get into my car.

On the drive home I think about the school. I think about Jackie, who needs a vacation. I think about my own desire to get out and travel again. The experience, my car on the road, me in my head, the music on the radio, flows nicely. The Washington traffic has finally settled down.

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