I read the sheet of paper in front of me. On three separate lines, it explained the differences between verbs, adjectives, and nouns. Further down, lines to help me practice writing examples of those parts of speech waited. I examined the kids around me: other Latino students and a bunch of Asian ones. We waited quietly while the teacher, a black woman with gravity-defying hair, called out our names. She stumbled over a student’s name.
“Please call me Daisy,” a student up front said.
“That’s not what it says here.”
“I go by Daisy.”
The teacher continued down the list.
That same day, my English teacher handed an essay back to me.
“This was excellent,” she said before continuing. “You should consider my pre-AP class.”
I was thirteen and had just moved to Houston from a two-year stint in Rhode Island. My advisory teacher, a petite woman from Barbados, handed me my schedule, but it didn’t look how my schedules in Rhode Island had. It featured many more abbreviations and acronyms. I guessed ENG stood for English, but did the T next to it mean Tuesday or Thursday? Also, what the hell was a block schedule? I had lived in Texas for ten years, but the two I’d spent in New England had turned me into a foreigner. I figured out when and where to be in my classes, but a mystery remained: why was I learning about verbs and nouns in one class, things I’d learned as a younger child, and writing in-class essays in the other?
It was a question that nagged at the edges of my brain, but I wasn’t used to questioning authority. My school gave me these classes, so here I was. I thought it was the same for everyone, until I got to my history class the following Thursday. He scrunched his forehead as he peered down at my schedule, which I’d left out on my desk.
“Does that say ESL?”
He scrunching intensified. “I don’t think you need to be in those classes.”
He told me to talk to my counselor, a laid-back Latvian-American woman with an unfortunate bald spot at very top of her head. She was the one who finally told me what ESL stood for: English as a Second Language. These are classes typically reserved for students whose first (or second or third) language is something other than English. The nouns and verbs suddenly made more sense.
Somehow, someone had thought it would be a good idea to throw me into ESL classes despite my unabashed monolingualism. That is, not only is English my first language, it is my only language. I’m still not entirely sure how it happened. Why had I, a fourth generation American, been steered toward these ESL classes? What could have possibly compelled my counselor to put me in classes not designed for me?
I don’t have any answers to these questions. For a long time, I told this story in a self-deprecating manner, emphasizing my lack of knowledge of what ESL meant. My first week in those classes, I played around with what the letters might mean: English Super Level, Extra Special Learner, etc. I just made things up. Now that I’m a little older, I wonder if, perhaps, my surname and my skin color had anything to do with the placement. I identify as Mexican American, and I “look” Latino. That is, I have stereotypical features often associated with people with a Hispanic or Latino background: black hair, dark brown eyes, chestnut skin, and I’m pretty diminutive.
In all likelihood, the mixup was probably some kind of oversight by an underpaid administrator. However, I wonder sometimes about what would’ve happened if my history teacher hadn’t looked at my schedule. I hadn’t told anyone at that point, and I’m not sure if thirteen-year-old me would have. Would I have been held back? Never been encouraged to pursue English and writing as passions? I’m not sure. For what it’s worth, I now have a BA and MA in English. Would I have bothered to pursue these degrees if continually presented with less challenging material in middle school? I like to think so. I love reading so intensely, I can’t imagine not majoring in English or writing, and I certainly can’t imagine my life without books.
In retrospect, my biggest problem was trusting the school to know what they were doing. Then and now, we have too many students and too few teachers and administrators to handle all of concerns and issues that inevitably arise. As an adult, I don’t find it surprising at all that something like this happened and it took so long to be fixed. No one should be surprised that an overwhelmed administration combined with a little institutional racism would produce a result like mine. In the end, though, I wonder how many other English-speaking kids were placed in ESL classes. I also wonder how many of them fixed their schedules.
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