By Ann A. Kennedy
Since I recently retired from full time public school teaching, I have had time to reflect on a career that I fell into—that of a teacher/educator. And all of years of my public school teaching involved adolescent and adult immigrant students who challenged themselves—not to learn survival English, but to earn a high school diploma from a State-accredited school. These students’ determination to improve their lives through education and hard work has been repeated throughout the history of immigration in the U.S. In spite of dealing with the trauma of separating from family members, the reality of learning a new language and adjusting to a new culture, the need to work long hours, and the financial and familial responsibilities, these students have shown grit. They are what some may refer to as Other: They may sound “different”, and they may look “different”, but they are to be encouraged, supported, admired, and congratulated.
I still remember Asma [pseudonym] who arrived from Pakistan—full of enthusiasm but initially lacking the verbal ability to articulate her rationale for starting high school at the age of 20. She proudly showed her transcripts from her small village school outside of Lahore; the transcript showed her excellent skill in embroidery; there was no “academic” coursework listed. I worked with Asma for a number of years after her initial arrival. She took breaks in her education to have three children but always returned, “…to make sure I can help them with their homework ….”—much to the chagrin of her husband, who often complained about her ambition.
I suspect Asma is linguistically “gifted and talented”; she started to pick up spoken English immediately, even to the point of joking and making puns. Because the majority of her classmates spoke Spanish, she soon delighted and endeared them all with her perfectly enunciated comebacks in Spanish.
Asma’s first challenge was learning to read, a complicated skill in any language, but especially in such an opaque language as English. But when it clicked, she took off—reading anything I gave her and finding quiet spots throughout the school where she could, as she said, “make like a video in my head”! Another major challenge was math. When I tried to explain subtraction by giving an example of paying for an item and getting change, she guffawed. “Miss! I don’t buy anything! My husband pays!” Still, after seven years of interrupted US schooling, Asma graduated, having passed her state-mandated exams, including Biology, Algebra I and II, and Geometry. As the speaker at graduation, Asma commented that, “I never thought I’d ever give a speech—and my first speech is in English!”
Asma is only one example, but she exemplifies the joy that I have experienced as a teacher. Some friends have never understood why I have preferred to teach “Other”; after all, with an advanced degree, shouldn’t I have taught IB or AP? At one point, I was having lunch with a friend, when our majorly-tattooed, waiter with a shaven head approached us and greeted me. I spoke to him privately, and when I returned to the table, my friend reacted with a sneer, “Who was THAT?”
“THAT was one of the most hard-working, most polite people I have ever known. He asked if I could recommend some books to read. He has read all of the ones I gave him a few months ago.” My not-so-gentle implication was: Please-never judge a book by its cover. Get to know people...and your attitude changes!
Since retiring from full-time teaching, I have continued to ensure that I am inspired by Others. I work weekly with high school Dreamers to help them apply to colleges and to find scholarships. Their families want this generation to enjoy a higher standard of life, just as my immigrant grandparents had hoped for me.
In addition, as a participant in a university service corps, I travel to underserved communities, both here in the US and abroad to teach visual arts, beginning coding with robots, or assist with teacher training. At times, there is a language barrier, but the exhilaration of learning (and teaching) is universal.
Yes, I am lucky. As I look back, somehow I have magically found the right path for me. When your work is not work at all, you are blessed. I cannot count how many individuals I have taught throughout the years. However, I have had a multitude of lessons from those individuals, and I am continuously grateful to each of them. I am not done yet.
Dr. Ann A. Kennedy is a two-time Fulbrighter to Thailand in 2011 under Fulbright-Hays Seminars Abroad Program and in 2015 under Fulbright Specialist to Ubon Ratchathani University. She had just retired from Arlington High School where non-native English speakers starts weaving their American dreams. Currently, Ann is still attached with Georgetown University and enjoying her volunteer at Dreamers helping, immigrant kids to apply for colleges and scholarships. As a life-time educator and a teacher, Ann’s commitment and positive thinking has guided a number of self-searching students to reach their unexpected potentials. The story of Asma is just an example of all.