From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

In My Classroom

It is possible to become discouraged about the injustice we see everywhere. But God did not promise us that the world would be humane and just. He gives us the gift of life and allows us to choose the way we will use our limited time on Earth. It is an awesome opportunity.

César Chávez

Sobbing silently to myself, I gripped my older sister’s hand as tightly as I could as she rushed me down the long corridor of Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School in Indio, California. It was the late 1950s, and at five years of age I was about to enter the frightening dimension of a new world: first grade. Since my birth date was in November, and because my older siblings had taught me my numbers and the English alphabet—so I could read a few simple words—I was able to skip kindergarten.

Depositing me inside the first-grade room, my sister, Elodia, quickly disappeared, scurrying on to her sixth-grade classroom. Scared and missing the warmth of my sister’s hand, I nevertheless obeyed the teacher’s instructions to sit at my assigned desk. The cold, wooden seat offered little comfort as I now imagined Mama’s brown, soft face and longed for her familiar arms and soothing voice. “No tengas miedo, Angelita.” I could almost hear her whisper. Soundless tears dried on my sticky cheeks as I waited for the next turn of events. The look on many of the other kids’ faces mirrored my own distress.

The teacher’s voice addressed her roomful of dazed children—all shades of white, brown and black. It didn’t take long before I realized that the sounds emanating from her mouth were from that “other” world. It was not the Spanish that filled the home where I grew up with nine siblings. A few of Mrs. Miller’s words sounded a little familiar—like the English my older brothers and sisters often spoke at home. But panic set in as the storm of English hitting my ears became a rain of darts, and I felt like such an unwelcome foreigner. With sweaty palms and racing heart, I sat there frozen . . . and needing to go to the bathroom.

Mrs. Miller’s smile and blond doughnut hair appeared friendly, but her vague speech was vinegar to my ears. I could not just bolt out the door, like my feet were trying to make me do, so I scanned the room for a calming spot to gaze upon. I noticed a colorful bulletin board displaying a farm scene: large red barn, cutouts of farm animals and a dungareed farmer on a green tractor who seemed to gaze down on me. Since I was from a family of migrant workers who picked seasonal crops, the farm scene offered an odd sense of familiarity, reaching out across the cultural barrier I was experiencing. Somehow, I managed to read the caption on the bulletin wall: Life on the Farm. I felt grateful for my summer instruction, when Elodia had insisted on teaching me my ABCs. The vivid colors of the construction-paper cutouts on the bulletin board calmed me. I grew accustomed to the four walls of the room where I was to spend countless hours away from home, but it would come to feel more like a sentence than a privilege.

In that long productive school year and ones that followed, I gradually became an excellent student. I’m not sure how long it took or even how it happened, but I acquired English in a forced way—we were punished with a slap to the hand whenever we spoke Spanish in the classroom or school grounds. I have a vivid memory of two Mexican boys in my classroom returning from the principal’s office, sobbing loudly as they slid back into their seats. Corporal punishment was a regular practice at that time, and paddling was administered for continuously breaking the “no-Spanish” rule. Forbidden to speak my home language, I understood the message: Spanish was not acceptable, and neither was I if I chose to speak it.

A newfound feeling of shame toward Spanish and my Mexican culture made me eager to blend in with my Anglo peers. In an effort to be accepted by the dominant society, I complied with school rules. Then, determined to speak English only, I eventually forgot how to speak Spanish altogether as the school years progressed. By the time I graduated from high school, I could no longer hold a clear conversation with either of my Spanish-speaking parents. My older brothers and sisters became translators for my three younger sisters (who were also losing their ability to speak Spanish) and me. I acquired a mixed sense of pride and shame for being able to speak English without the accent that many of my Mexican-American friends so shamefully and helplessly possessed. Back then, an accent was erroneously linked to a sign of low intelligence. It was an age when “English-only I.Q. tests” were regularly administered to students for placement and tracking. Those who failed to pass the tests were permanently labeled “retarded” in their cumulative file. When the word got around of their test failure, these children were cruelly teased by their peers. I was terrified of ever being labeled mentally retarded. I felt great pride in speaking like an “American-born citizen” and sounding “smart” to my teachers, but ashamed for turning my back on my own people—and on a part of myself I would later find I could never deny.

It was not until many years later, as a college student at San Jose State University, that I came to the realization that being bilingual and bicultural could be valuable assets. I applied for a minor in Mexican-American Graduate Studies, a newly established college program of study, in an effort to acquire knowledge and understanding of my ethnic roots. I took Spanish courses to relearn my mother tongue, and delved into the study of Hispanic history and culture, trying to make up for lost time.

I became an elementary bilingual teacher, teaching in the lower grades for fourteen years. During my career, I lost count of how often I recognized the confused look on the faces of my non-English-speaking students as they entered my classroom for the first time. Their dazed faces reminded me of my own traumatic first day of school. Unlike my fearful initial school days, my students always had the comfort of being able to hear and speak both Spanish and English in their classroom. And they were never shamed into denying or abandoning their home language or rich heritage, something that made their transition into the English-speaking world quite different.

Alas, the shame I had acquired over too many earlier years would not be easily erased. It took a long time for me to obtain a new sense of pride toward my ancestry and ethnicity, a pride that gradually replaced the hollow that had accompanied me far too long.

Today, when I stand in my classroom, I am relieved and happy that my students have a learning environment in which they will never have to lose the sense of ethnic pride and wholeness that they bring with them on that first day of school.

Anjela Villarreal Ratliff

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