Originally published in September 2014.
Through the Residential College at the University, I was given the opportunity to work with Latino students at the nearby Huron High School this past semester. When Teresa Sanchez- Snell, the Spanish Language Internship Program director, sat down with me, she said I should take on the most challenging role. I would work with high school students, helping them learn material they were struggling with.
The first day I walked in, the relieved Huron High English as a Second Language teacher assigned me to more than 10 Spanish-speaking students who were on the verge of failing their classes. “Thank God you’re here,” said Mrs. Smith, introducing me to her charges as they ate lunch. “These are the worst students in the school,” she told me in a grandmotherly voice, even as the whole class was privy to her criticisms.
Mrs. Smith told me there was a “desperate need” for translators, and to help as many students as I could. I ruffled through the schedules she had given me. There was Oscar, who was failing algebra. There was Natalia, who was failing biology. There was Mario, who was failing history. There was David, who was failing geography. Overwhelmed as I was, I marched over to Oscar’s algebra class. I waited for some time before understanding he had no intention of showing up. So I turned the page to the next schedule and moved on to the next student. It was the routine I would learn over the next many weeks, as I understood, to my grief, that many of these kids simply didn’t go to class.
It was then that I turned the page to Pablo. The first class I had with him was algebra with Mrs. Brown. She was teaching operations with exponents that Friday. As I walked in, an excited kid — whom I presumed to be Pablo — turned around and walked up to me. He pulled up a chair next to me and sat down with notebook and pencil in hand, almost as if showing his new friend off to the class.
I tepidly began to ask him how he was doing, in English, explaining that Mrs. Brown had said he direly needed help. He had an innocent aura about him, an innocent voice, though not devoid of tomfoolery. He was on the shorter side and skinny. He kept his hair simple, though I would find it one Friday dyed pink down the middle for a fun stunt. He answered my questions earnestly. I was reluctant at first to speak Spanish, because I thought it would put Pablo off. I had feared the kids wouldn’t want to expose any incompetency in English in front of their classmates. Yet as I proceeded to ease a couple words of Spanish into our conversation, his eyes lit up.
I smiled. “Por supuesto lo hablo.”
I didn’t want to be imposing, so I then explained to Pablo that he would be my Spanish teacher for the coming months, and I would help him with his schoolwork. It was an alliance that never tired. Pablo became a little brother to me, as much as one can become a little brother over weekly sessions. I found that Pablo, far from shying away from Spanish, preferred his language. Pablo was as dedicated a student as I could find in that classroom, language “barrier” be damned. Teaching him was rewarding not in the least for the Spanish immersion we shared. I was able to teach algebra in total Spanish to a kid who was genuinely curious. One day I would teach him to factor perfect-square trinomials, and another day to classify polynomials. He confided in me that he didn’t understand things until I explained them to him. Once I explained them, things became easy. By the end of our term together, Pablo had progressed so well that Mrs. Schneider called his father and congratulated him.
Still, it would be a bit rich of me to claim to have saved Pablo. As much as I taught him, he taught me more. We in Ann Arbor are always looking to volunteer, but a volunteerism is a slippery slope to elitism. Our yearning to help others takes us to far corners of the world, and sometimes to new Facebook profile pictures. And still sometimes we change in more ways than that. We must train ourselves to become aware of our privilege, painfully aware of it. I could not help but wonder where any of those ESL kids might have been had they been raised the way I had, given such an extravagant education that it would be painful to share it here. I come away feeling guilty for having so much and for daring to think that I am paying my dues, and in no other moment does a life of poverty seem as appealing.
A person’s heart can also become heavy upon realizing that one’s efforts are but a drop in the ocean. I was overwhelmed at Huron. The kids there confided in me about drugs, skipping school and about how their teachers were “racists.” They were far gone, and as much as I sought to help them, they came to associate me with the same teachers they hated. I could not help them all, and by the end, I had decided to take Pablo under my wing and do my best to guide him.
I’m reminded of a favorite poster of mine that hung in the principal’s office of my Montessori school. Underneath a picture of stormy skies and waves of gray crashing upon an endless beach was an anecdote that I remember fondly. A lone little boy was walking along a beach, picking up starfish that had washed ashore and throwing them back into the ocean before they dried up. A man walked up to the boy and told him that his work made no difference. There were thousands of dying starfish, and he would only ever reach a fraction. The boy picked up another starfish and turned to the man as he was throwing it back into the water.
“True,” he said, “but it makes all the difference for this one.”