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Learning the language

By Michael Beadle

When Lori McLeod first started teaching English as a Second Language at Tuscola High School in Haywood County, she had two students. They didn’t constitute enough to make a class, so she would pull them out of classes for tutoring.

Now, the ESL program has grown to include 12 students in two classes.

“And there’s more on the way next year,” McLeod says.

Strictly speaking, ESL involves any student who does not speak English well enough to be considered proficient — that could include Russian- or Korean-speaking students — but most of McLeod’s students are from Spanish-speaking countries, primarily Mexico.

For students who come to the United States in elementary or middle school, there’s time to learn the language before graduation, but the pace gets quicker when a student enters high school with no English skills and still has to pass the state and federal tests in order to graduate.

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“Here, it’s either life or death,” McLeod says. “These kids either learn English and pass these tests or they don’t get a diploma.”

Despite the mandates from No Child Left Behind, McLeod adds that you can’t put a deadline on language proficiency. Some students learn English in two to three years while others may take seven years. Students in the upper grades have to learn both the social language of their peers and the academic language of their teachers, and for educators who get a daily dose of teen angst, it’s easy to assume when students don’t pick up the language quickly, they’re simply lazy.

McLeod works with classroom teachers to make sure her students keep up with assignments or get alternative assignments because of their language skills. She uses workbooks, classroom discussions, art activities, computer programs, games and assorted lessons that incorporate different learning styles so students feel comfortable working their way into the English language.

She recently gathered her second-period ESL students to discuss concerns and issues they had as Latino students in a mostly white high school.

“It’s a big change of life here,” says Anna Quintero , who recalls being overwhelmed by having to learn a new language when she came to the U.S. three years ago. “It was very frustrating for me.”

She laughs calling to mind those first English words and phrases — “Hey,” “Sorry,” “Excuse me” and “Can I go to the bathroom?”

A socialite by nature, Ana misses the cool parties in her Mexican hometown, and some of her classmates nod in agreement. Even as teenagers, they speak of their childhood in Mexico as the good ol’ days.

Ana came to the U.S. about 3 years ago with her mother and father and four sisters. One sister still lives in Mexico, and she calls her about every week.

While the debate over immigration often centers around adults, children — who make up nearly a sixth of the illegal immigrant population — often get lost in the discussion. As parents move families into the U.S., it shouldn’t be assumed that Latino children always want to come find a better life.

Fernando Gamez, a senior who has been one of McLeod’s students for several years, still has mixed feelings about remaining in the U.S. At first, he was certain he wanted to go back to Mexico after graduation. Now he’s not so sure. He’d like to become an architect, maybe find work in the construction industry.

Immigration pulls some families apart with some coming to the United States and some remaining in Mexico. When asked if they had been separated from a parent for more than a year, everyone in McLeod’s class raised his or her hand. That’s especially hard for a culture that traditionally celebrates its close family ties.

For McLeod’s newest student, the memories of coming to America are still too painful to discuss. Gabriela Aquilar, who came into the United States in April, had to walk through a desert for seven straight days with her two brothers and mother. Explaining the grueling experience through a fellow student translator, Gabriela begins to cry.

Too often these desert trips into the U.S. prove fatal as immigrants run out of food and water or lose track of their “coyote” or smuggling guide.

In many cases, immigration begins with the father of a family who comes to find work in the U.S. Then the rest of the family follows months or even years later. Gabriela’s father had left seven years earlier to find work in the U.S. Now that she’s in Haywood County, she wants to go back to Mexico to be with her friends and family.

Once families come into the United States, there’s no guarantee of stability. McLeod has had to work with students whose parents move around finding work or housing, and that means changes of schools for the children. Victor Gamez, a freshman at Tuscola, has been in six schools over the past eight years since moving from Mexico to Haywood County.

But Victor would hardly be what one might call “maladjusted.” He speaks English as well as most American teenagers his age, and he’s eager to share an outgoing, friendly personality.

Ditto for Anahi Martinez, also a freshman from Mexico. Anahi has been in the U.S. for five years. Though she admits to being shy when she first came to the U.S., she now has a cool confidence when she speaks English. There’s even a hint of a Southern accent in her speech. When asked if she felt caught between being Latino and being American, she said she’d just as soon be a regular person and talk to everybody. It’s not where she’s from or where she’s not from that matters, she says. Anahi says she wants to be a school counselor.

Not all of McLeod’s Latino students are from Mexico.

Miguel Vera, who hails from Ecuador, wants people to know there’s a distinction between Latino people. So many think that because you have a Latin face you are Mexican, he says.

As the Latino youth blend into the culture of the United States, foods and festivals from south of the border have become more popular — take for example, Cinco de Mayo.

Mother’s Day in Mexico comes before the American version, so it’s a curious notion to see which day Latino-American children choose to celebrate — perhaps it’s symbolic of which culture they feel closer to.

Victor said his family will celebrate the day on Sunday since everybody has to work during the week. Coral Raya, a junior at Tuscola and also one of McLeod’s students, intended to celebrate Mother’s Day according to the Mexican calendar since her mother was leaving to visit Mexico. Anna, meanwhile, said she’d celebrate according to the United States date since she didn’t have a present yet.

Different stories of coming to America. Different reasons to stay. Different stories of struggling and finding success in an increasingly multi-ethnic United States.

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