By Joe Rector

Stepping outside our comfort zones is a scary thing. Little control over many situations is available, and our nerves are frayed in dealing with the simplest tasks. We can learn so much about the rest of the world and, in some cases, learn to empathize with others.

Recently, I substituted for a class in ELL (English Language Learners), better known to some of us as English as a Second Language. FIfteen students arrived in first period, and they made their ways to assigned seats. The first orders of business each day includes observing a moment of silence and saying the pledge of allegiance to the flag. I hushed the students and assumed that they understood what I had said. They stood and placed hands over their hearts, and they dutifully stumbled through recitation of the pledge. The fact that they didn’t understand the words they were reciting was apparent.

I wrote a couple of sentences on the board; students were to correct the mistakes in them. Many finished the work in short order, but some, instead,  reached for cell phones. They typed the sentence into those phones and found the Spanish translation. That is the way they completed the work.

Throughout the class period, students chattered and giggled and laughed. They also conversed in Spanish, a language in which I am not in the least bit proficient. That meant I had no idea what they were saying. An uncomfortable feeling settled over me. Were they commenting about me? Was the laughter the result of an action I’d done? Was the class conspiring to leave the room and me behind? After several uneasy minutes, I instructed the class to converse only in English. I was teasing them but hoped they might at least use some of the language that I did comprehend.

It was then that I realized what everyday life is like for these students. For most of them, English is a language that they speak in broken strands. They pick up on common terms and phrases, but too often they can’t decipher what others are saying. By the end of the day, all these young folks want is to put on their headsets, listen to their music, and forget about a world in which communication is difficult. They are anxious to go home where their families speak a common language and life is more comfortable.

I approached one student who was new to the class. The teacher hadn’t yet created a folder for him, so I retrieved a thick packet of worksheets and handed it to him with instructions to complete the work during class.  He smiled and nodded. I walked back to my desk and watched. The boy flipped one page at a time, and his face was a mixture of confusion, frustration, and a bit of anger. My lack of knowledge of Spanish put me at the same disadvantage that the student faced. Because we could not communicate, he couldn’t tell me that he did not understand, and I was unable to explain instructions or offer any help to him.

The Spanish-speaking population of the US continues to grow. Folks will arrive with little or no ability to speak the language of this country. Not being able to do so will isolate them and condemn them to a struggling existence. What we must do is teach them the language as soon as possible and make it the first and most important objective. Then these new people to our country will find assimilating into the American culture much easier. At the same time, we should understand the struggles that they face and extend both help and understanding. Think of it this way: how comfortable would you be if your family suddenly moved south of the border and tried to start a new life from scratch without speaking the language? It’s not a matter of liking or disliking them. It’s a matter of empathizing with them and the difficult times they face. As good, caring people, we must be willing to offer as much help as possible until they are fully integrated into our country and its culture.