On my first day of teaching fourteen years ago, I welcomed 35 students to a first period high school Spanish I class. I cried by the time lunch happened. I could not believe that the state of California had entrusted the care of 160 students to me, and that each student would bring a different set of skills, experiences, attitudes, and abilities. It was an overwhelming feeling of responsibility. And not only did I need to teach all these teenagers how to communicate through listening, speaking, reading, and writing in a new language, but one of my students had never learned to read or write, and physically struggled with speech. She was a 14 year old girl with cognitive and gross motor skills impairments. As a county special ed day student, she was to be integrated into two mainstream classes on the school campus. This was her mainstream class, along with art. She was also a Spanish speaker from a monolingual Mexican Spanish speaking family who understood everything I said in Spanish – much more than in English. But she was in my beginning Spanish class. How or what was I going to teach her?
The shock of the first morning of teaching combined with the overwhelming worry and obligation I felt toward being able to include a Spanish speaking girl with high special education needs into a freshman Spanish class threw me into a silent reverie of absolute panic. The next day I came back to school without quitting and I figured out how to make it work.
I launched myself into the life of a teacher. I worked from dawn to dusk, then again at home at night, then again on the weekends. My special student was in my most boisterous and “difficult” to manage class. There were six chatty freshmen cheerleaders who never stopped talking, a precious nerdy boy who could not pronounce a word in Spanish, a class clown who kept everyone in stitches by making fart jokes and drawing ridiculous comics and sending them around the classroom. I struggled to maintain calm, productive excitement and composure. Thankfully, the special needs student had been assigned a one to one aide, and by luck of the draw, the aide spoke Spanish. While in class, I had the girl and her aide practice reading the letters and numbers, repeat simple vocabulary words with the class, and participate in short conversation practices with her beginning Spanish classmates. During my prep period, I brought my student short little books in Spanish for her aide to read to her and for her to sound out the words.
In the Spring semester, I had acclimated to the intense teaching schedule and was better able to manage my students. The freshmen cheerleaders had taken an interest in their special classmate, and had started asking her questions about her life, her family, her likes and dislikes. The class watched a movie made in the late 80’s called “Sweet 15” about a Mexican American girl’s coming of age who finds out that her father is an undocumented immigrant. We read a little article in basic Spanish about quinceañeras in the textbook. We looked at pictures of quinceañeras and discussed in English the concept of coming of age in different families and cultures. And then our special student told us that she was turning 15. The next week, my 6 chatty freshmen cheerleaders decided to throw our special student a quinceañera class party. They decided to throw her Colombian aide a party too because they had found out that Colombians don’t celebrate the tradition in the same way as Mexicans. On their own, the girls bought two quinceañera crowns, special party favors, and made a cake. Someone’s mom made tamales. The cheerleaders met me early the day of the party at Safeway to fill up 30 + pink and purple balloons with Helium.
We celebrated our special student’s coming of age with our own made-up quinceañera. That weekend she celebrated her actual quince with her family and church. At that time, the aide shared with me that our girl had made a tremendous leap. She was reading Spanish words on her own. She was reading for the first time in her life. She was reading in Spanish, she was reading slowly, she was reading for her aide, and she was reading for me. We devised a presentation project for her to share with the class. The aide would help her put pictures of her official quinceañera party on the computer. The aide would help type up descriptions of each picture. And our girl would practice reading it. A few weeks later, she was ready. She sat in her wheelchair at the front of the class. I borrowed a projector and connected it to my computer. Our girl read the entire presention of her quinceañera to the class. The aide cried. I cried. Some of the cheerleaders cried. This was a monumental accomplishment for a 14 year old who had never been able to read.
I tell this story because it is about so many things that I love about teaching in our integrated public school system in which a student might learn to read in an unconventional way, a Spanish speaker may learn from English speakers and vice versa, and a group of cliquish and loud Asian, white and African American girls enamored with the idea of popularity may make a friend from an unexpected and completely different walk of life.
A girl with “severe” cognitive and physical disabilities learned how to read with the help of an entire community.
My student, María, learned how to read 14 years ago for the first time at the age of 14 years old. She had never mastered the art of reading prior to this because her teachers’ attempts had been in English. Her cognitive development had not allowed her to develop English fully as a second language. English vocabulary and archaic spelling rules impeded her development in this area. Perhaps she had needed more time for her slow cognitive development to reach the stage of reading. And maybe she needed the right combination of time and circumstances and people to reach this developmental milestone.
I hope that this story that can serve as some message of hope in the promise of integration and inclusion. If California (or our country) does not see fit to fully fund education, we may seek to pit the needs of one community over the needs of another. We may see the needs of special ed students, English language learners, GATE students, dual immersion students, privileged students, undocumented students, music students, students of color, and poor students as competing with our own children for diminishing resources. When we allow ourselves to imagine that a hierarchy exists, we do damage to ourselves. We are destroying conditions in which all students can learn and thrive. We are destroying our shared body of wisdom and experience. We cannot let ourselves divide.
I will share a poem that many of us share with our students to help us form classroom communities of responsibility and empathy toward one another.
Tú eres mi otro yo
You are my other me.
Si te hago daño a ti
If I do harm to you,
Me hago daño a mí mismo
I do harm to myself;
Si te amo y respeto
If I love and respect you,
Me amo y respeto yo
I love and respect myself.
– From Luis Valdez’s “Pensamiento Serpentino”