For several years, I was a teacher of the English language. In the private language schools of California, I taught young people from all over the world, namely Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Brazil, with a few Europeans tossed in from time-to-time. The most remarkable students came from Turkey and I once had a group from Libya, all young men who were preparing for engineering school. The oddest story of all was the time I had a young man from Canada who grew up in Montreal and didn’t speak English. But that story is the subject of its own blog post.
My first experience teaching was right here in Atlanta about 16 years ago. I’d been hired, at $18 an hour, sight-unseen, with no credentials and no teaching experience, to lead a class on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 7-10 pm, at the Dekalb Tech building on Buford Highway. Back then, they offered an extensive, free, ESL curriculum to any immigrant who walked through the door. All classes were open enrollment and had way too many students, but it was something, at least. Open-enrollment meant that the students came and went like mad, making it hard to build from one class to the next, but it happened anyway.
It was an honor for me to teach the immigrants, as I felt a kinship in the shared, historical, American experience of assimilation, even though my ancestors had assimilated a few generations ago. A core group of students came to every class, every week, and worked hard. There they were, hopefuls ages 16-25 mostly, showing up for class after a hard day of manual labor: painting, cleaning, tree removal, auto mechanics, restaurant workers, landscapers, household movers.
For the most part, they were beaming smiles and open hearts, full of life and aspiration, all of which shone through the fatigue of the weight of their mundane workday.
When that 9-month course ended, I went to California, where, a few years later, I would become a certified TESOL teacher, employed in the private language schools populated by the rich kids from around the world. Although I did enjoy teaching them (mostly about life), I always knew that knowing English wasn’t crucial to those kids. They would return to their respective countries, to all of the same creature comforts they’d enjoyed their whole lives. They were going to live decent lives, with or without English.
Over those 10 years living in Southern California, I returned to Atlanta at least twice a year to visit my best friend. On one occasion, due to a life glitch, I ended up staying for three months. In the New Peachtree area of Atlanta/Chamblee was a tiny industrial strip where a young Mexican woman had opened a small language school. Because I was going to be in Atlanta for awhile, I took a job teaching there in the evening.
This was around 10 years ago, during the housing crash that decimated a lot of people financially, nationwide. Opportunities for young Mexican men were drying up, right along with the rest of the economy. Whereas before they could work as much as they wanted and were in high demand, now their opportunities were limited. Part-time work only and a lot of sitting around was what they had – not an easy situation for a driven and enterprising young man.
In our final class on a Thursday evening, we talked about these changes and the boys told me about how it wasn’t so easy anymore. If they weren’t married, they lived with groups of other young men in the apartment complexes in and around Buford Highway. The married couples had it somewhat easier with their families to sustain them emotionally. But for these young men, sitting around, wasting time, losing money, wasting what money they had going out, living the unfruitful communal life wasn’t exactly what they’d risked their lives coming here for.
“You have to consider now if it’s worth it to stay in this country anymore for part-time work,” I told them.
“You’re here, without your family, your friends, your language, your food, your people. I would hope that you feel welcome but I’m not so sure that you do. Things are not the same. Is it worth it to you anymore to stay here?”
Silence ensued. They looked around at each other, then they looked at me with what I would swear was gratitude for telling them the truth – a truth that they hadn’t wanted to face.
All during our conversation, one of the boys, Manuel, was playing with a 200-peso note that he’d folded, origami-style, into the shape of a heart.
“That’s really pretty, Manuel,” I said.
When class ended that night, with heavy hearts, we convened in the lobby to say our goodbyes, which included warm hugs all around.
When it came time to say adios to Manuel, he looked me in the eyes and handed me that 200-peso note.
“Don’t forget us, teacher,” he said.