English as a Second Language pitfalls abound


I fell off the journaling and drawing wagon. First, I ran out of paper in my journal. Second, I ran out of drive. Third, I’ve been very busy. Add that all up and you get nada.

This week some kid drama finally got the writerly juices flowing. We have one group of kids formed by two distinct factions. Some kids come from an extended family group where they are loved and generally accompanied to all classes by an adult. Other kids are free roamers that live nearby. These free range kids are less well supervised and rougher around the edges but they have their own cohesiveness. They look after each other. All of the kids are kids and prone to testing limits. All of them are mixtures of devils and angels. They are each unique individuals.

My neighbor April and I consult regularly on the topics I teach and the group dynamics. April knows all the children and is fully fluent in the language and the culture.  She’s a mother and wife. I could not succeed without April guarding my back and propping me up. She’s never in class but always knows what’s happening. It’s nice that she’s neutral. Kind of like the school principal.

This week a spat between factions may or may not have happened. One member of one group texted me to complain about treatment by the other group. According to the texter faces were made and bad names were tossed around. This all happened in a bit of a melee when my attention was in one place and the kids had swarmed around the yard. Vikki (my usual enforcer) was absent this day. The kids were pushing the limits. Sawdust was thrown. There was yelling. There was running. Mostly everyone was smiling. I stopped the sawdust throwing when I wouldn’t let them in the bathroom to clean up. They complained of being itchy and I said, not my problem. You want to roll in the dirt you’ve got to like being dirty. Anyway, that all passed. The kids were only mildly chagrined. We ate cake and fruit and everyone went home.

The next say I got the text saying the more well off group had started the fight and that they were teasing the other kids because they never brought food to share. Now the texter is a known manipulator. She conned me into taking her cousin to the beach and then tried to develop a successful cover story for the cousin when they returned. The cover was blown. Perhaps the suntan, sand, and dampness were giveaways? Ten year old kids can be quite inventive but hiding widespread evidence is hard. Everyone (but me) got in deep doodoo over that one. Despite this I was concerned with the underlying element of truth that was obvious. The ‘richer’ kids were lording their slightly better circumstances over the poorer kids. I had seen it myself in the condescension in class.  One group always has pencils and paper. They leave home with supplies because someone is taking care of them. The other group I provide with pencils and paper. Nobody reminds them to bring their supplies. Having grown up under this type of kid on kid oppression it made my stomach churn.

Rather than dig deeply into the he said/she said I assured the complainant that I heard her and told her not to worry. I told her the food wasn’t important or her responsibility. Meanwhile I forwarded the texts to April to confirm that I had read them correctly. Burt and I discussed the situation. We agreed to set some actual rules of behavior and debated the food issue. Burt was for banning food from the kids and I was ambivalent. We also agree only one activity at a time. Chaos had ensue when some kids did origami, some threw sawdust, others went sightseeing on the roof. Everyone would do whatever the activity was together. No more wandering off to amuse themselves.

April and I met up and we were in agreement. One group was lording over the other but we could handle it by teaching and insisting on respect and tolerance. No name calling, no faces, blah, blah, blah, the whole you don’t have to like each other but you have to respect each other speech. Meanwhile April would help the other kids gather together some fruit to bring so they could participate in the very important cultural ritual of sharing food. That issue was quickly put aside when I mentioned that I was teaching ‘I am…’ and I said the kids said. Soy morena, and I said I am latina, and the kids said we are not latinas and I was in the linguistic racial quagmire of identity politics. What was the right thing to do? In that instant it was nice that my pupils are children. They quickly dropped the subject of skin color. So I asked white April and her brown friend. What is the English translation of I am brown. The guy said to use brown. It’s how Mexicans describe themselves. So that’s decided, I think, and head off to teach the next class.

Boom. Yo soy gorda. First sentence of the day at the next class. I am fat. The girl saying this is indeed overweight. The word fat in English has become so laden with political and social implications that I was again, stunned. How to traverse the nuanced world of body image? Even in Mexico, where a zaftig figure is appreciated, there is a point where a person is simply fat. But where is that point? Where is it on a 11 year old girl? A girl that is noticeably less fat than the year before? In the moment I decided to simply translate and be nonchalant. After all, there’s nothing wrong with being overweight. It’s a state of being for most of the US and Mexico. So we moved on. Then I got what’s the difference between being big and being fat? Ahhh…euphemisms for obesity are in the works here too, I thought. I failed to adequately explain this and obfuscated. Feigning a loss of language is helpful in many circumstances. Meanwhile we will continue to encourage an active lifestyle and healthy snacks.

There. What do you think?

Yamileth y Beto




9 thoughts on “English as a Second Language pitfalls abound”

  1. This micro society reflects all the troubles of our society, skin color, being fat, the riches the poor people, not easy to deal with all of that, you do a great job Susan, i really admire what you and Burt are doing ( maybe I should have drawn you on the Art Journal Lab as my Hero ;), sure you are an inspiring person).

  2. I remember you talking about this. Geez! You try to do a good thing, yet drama always finds it’s way in. You have a bigger heart and more patience than me. They are so lucky to have y’all !

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