“Mr Mason, this is Jesus.” A NYC Teacher Learns From His English Language Learners and Newly-Immigrated Students.

Glenn Mason is a former CPA who spent over 25 years in a variety of roles in corporate America. He is presently a New York City public high school teacher. This is in his twelfth academic year in his newfound career and his third guest post with New York School Talk. Glenn’s first post is here and his second is here.

“Mr. Mason, this is Jesus,” read the first line of the email.

Panic was starting to set in. What did I do? Why is the Son of God emailing me? Why is He calling me “Mr. Mason”?

Thoughts were swirling through my mind. Should I say a few Hail Mary’s? Wait Glenn, you’re not Catholic. Right, right. What do Baptists do? Perhaps simply read on?

“I’ll be late with my assignment that’s due on Thursday,” the email continued. I immediately email him back, “take your time.”

Relief set in. It wasn’t my Lord and Savior emailing me but my student “Hey-sus,” a fairly common Latin-American name.

I share this actual yet somewhat embellished moment because it tells something about me. This episode took place early on in my teaching career. When I saw the name “Jesus” my mind automatically leapt in a certain direction. I made an assumption through my life lens. I grew up in Amityville on Long Island. The racial/ethnic dynamic growing up for me was Blacks and Whites. My exposure to the immigrant community was limited, to say the least. I had a single school friend who was Filipino,  either an immigrant or a child of immigrants. That’s just pretty much how things were at that moment for me.

I went to college in North Carolina where the Black-White divide was an even more heightened equation. During my career as a corporate accountant I worked with a few colleagues who were immigrants, but my interactions with them were largely tangential. My focus was shaped on learning to successfully navigate the near universal White American world of business that existed for me at that time.

As I entered middle-age things began to change for me. First I entered into a long-term relationship with someone who was the child of immigrants. Through her and her family I received an insight into life that was hitherto fairly unknown to me.

Moreover, it was when I began teaching that a broader outlook was presented for me. While I’ve never been closed-minded nor small-minded, I began to see things from different perspectives. As an educator at a high school in Harlem I’ve taught students from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, Brazil, China, Cambodia, Nigeria, Ghana, Australia, Italy and many other countries. These young women and young men have taught me as well. They’ve given me an education about things large and small.

My students introduced me to Quinceañera. While American girls celebrate their Sweet Sixteenth birthday as a special occasion, in Latin American culture it’s the fifteenth birthday that receives special attention. Many of my female students enthusiastically participate in this celebration. I use this newfound knowledge to help my students understand the difference between the historical concepts of assimilation and cultural diffusion. If young ladies of Latin heritage here in the USA celebrate sweet sixteen, that would be assimilation. They would be absorbing what is already here. If non-Latina American girls were to begin celebrating Quinceañera, that would be cultural diffusion, adopting something that was brought here from outside of our typical culture.

I’ve learned deeper understandings from my students as well. I’ve also learned first and second-hand stories of immense suffering and struggle. Reading about or watching a film about the horrors of life is one thing. But when a child – someone you care about – tells you about their own personal experience, it’s an entirely different matter. I don’t recall the underlying circumstances, but one day I had a student whose family was from Cambodia share with me the story of her parents’ escape from The Killing Fields of that country. With a few tears in the telling, she let me know as well that she was somewhat uncomfortable speaking about what happened. She more or less said that it was part of her heritage for her family to keep this personal hardship to themselves. But telling me about it gave her the confidence to tell the entire school about it in her valedictory address. She wanted to celebrate – with an abundance of joyful tears this time – all that her family had sacrificed in order that she could achieve all that she has, and to become all that she would one day be.

I’ve also learned from a student why her name is so important to her. In my Latin American Studies course the students are tasked with presenting a power point presentation about the Latin American nation of their choice. This young lady chose El Salvador. She shared with the class the story of her aunt – her mother’s sister and her namesake – who was killed fighting for freedom for her people.

A student shared with me his experiences of becoming a refugee from the political and physical violence in Sudan. Students over the years revealed their escape from dire poverty in many other nations, coming here in search of economic opportunity.

I’ve learned as well a bit more about gender identity. My school is 80 percent female and I have one student, “Mike,” who was formerly “Michelle.”  His classmates came to me at some point and said his name was now Mike. I thought, Cool. While in all honesty thirty years ago I might have thought differently, today I’m solidly in the camp where you do you. In further honesty, I still have an issue with using the correct pronouns when speaking about him. I’m constantly apologizing to Mike about this. I guess this dinosaur is still a work in progress.

Indeed, I’ve truly had it confirmed for me by my students how much of a dinosaur I truly am. You see, I speak exactly one language – English. I took French in 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th grades as well as two semesters in college and still cannot speak the language. To make matters worse I spend part of most summers in Paris. Inquiring minds that the kids are, they ask me why this is so. I tell them to think about how some people have trouble with math no matter how hard they try. For me it’s language that presents the challenge. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)

The extreme majority of my students speak two or more languages. Mostly Spanish, but quite a few speak French as well as a few African Languages. I encourage them not to be like me. I encourage them to not only to know how to speak another language but to know how to write in the language as well. This knowledge will serve them well as they enter the workforce in an ever more globalized world.

There are more lighthearted attempts to widen my breadth of knowledge too. My students attempt to teach me about their music and dance. They also think I need to know more about Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. School starts in a few weeks. Many things I don’t get but I look forward to continuing my education.

What do you think?

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