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Learning Their Language

By Jm Paterson, SPSBE '04 (MS)

Photo Illustration
by Sandy Young
I think at one point they had simply begun to make fun of me. I heard words amidst their chatter that sounded vaguely familiar and suggested English equivalents: Bonehead. Idiot. Old fart.

Hector, José, and Henry were slumped around a table in my office, crackling through the hard candy I keep in a bowl. With my gray head tipped back so I could see through my half-glasses (an image I was acutely aware made me appear particularly old fartish), I was searching for classes to rejuvenate their ailing schedules at Wheaton High School in suburban Washington D.C., where I had begun a job as a school counselor only a month before.

While I was thinking about what they were saying in Spanish, intermittently I was also thinking this: What the hell am I doing here?

I'd always thought I'd like to work with kids, a change from the isolation and uncertainty of freelance writing. I even thought I might be good at it, especially when I recalled the rousing applause I once received at a season's-end party for my daughter and a group of fifth grade girls I'd coached in basketball. Maybe I had a calling, I thought as parents congratulated me on the way to our cars. But Hector, José, and Henry, with their big clothes and unflappable slickness, were a few steps removed from those green-shirted, soda-stirred girls.

I was hired late in the summer that year as half-time counselor for 150 students who speak English as a second language. I was suspicious when the school invited me in for an interview, and stunned when they offered me the job. Although I held a master's degree in school counseling from Johns Hopkins, all my training had been at middle schools. I didn't speak a lick of Spanish (which 90 percent of these students spoke nearly all the time). And this was a pretty needy population, many having just arrived in this country and living in wildly uncertain and makeshift situations.

But I took the job, thinking the principal hiring me must know something. "You'll love it," he said. "It will be challenging," he added with a grin, "but you'll love it."

As a former newspaper/magazine editor, political press man/speech writer, and owner of a marketing communications business, I'd had a few bad months. But this first month at Wheaton was as stressful, confusing, and overwhelming as any I'd known.

Initially it was schedule changes — with as many as 10 kids at a time sitting in my office or lined up outside. Staff-requested changes piled up on my desk, mingling with requests from students. There was a startling array of classes, which were often full, and a baffling system of course requirements and coding. Each change caused a domino effect that often tumbled through all eight periods.

That work continued to consume my life for nearly three months. Day and night I stared at student schedules, occasionally reassuring the kid sitting next to me that we'd resolve it somehow in a minute, often speaking in a sort of pigeon Spanish that sounded like someone in a bad situation comedy trying to get laughs by adding vowels to words. My 20-hour week often reached 50, and my frustration level often reached critical mass, but the kids were, to a fault, appreciative and kind, and that was usually reward enough.

There was sweet, sad-eyed Rosa, who sat timidly in my office and in a history class she couldn't understand a word of. And the weed-thin Asian student whose name I could never recall (he began rolling his eyes as I fumbled to find his schedule in the computer and asked his name over and over), whom I inadvertently placed in a weight-lifting class. And the senior who breezed by my office occasionally to tell me I must fix his schedule, his manner suggesting it could wait. It did.

As the year wore on and schedules sorted out, I broadened my role. I taught classroom sessions on careers, personal hygiene, and work habits. I counseled kids facing battles with parents, pimples, and personal anxiety so searing they were considering life's worth. I faced long, stuffy meetings and enormous stacks of paperwork.

A mentor of mine once told me that the cafeteria was the best place to learn about kids and make yourself available to them. It was the best advice I ever got. At least twice a week I hung out there, moving from table to table, hearing their concerns, warning them about attendance or interim reports I'd seen, and observing them in their element for better or worse. I was still the butt of jokes, but I began to think I was also becoming a source of information and support.

My 20-hour week often reached 50, and my frustration level often reached critical mass, but the kids were, to a fault, appreciative and kind, and that was reward enough. I felt like a counselor — not necessarily a textbook practitioner but a person who liked kids, was fascinated by what made them tick, and could help — and I started to like the job. Bit by bit I saw results, sometimes from even the smallest gestures: a kid who got accepted into a special program where he can learn a trade (gave him a tour and handed him an application); a kid who brought in his report card to show that he had nudged up a grade (gave him a challenge); or the kid who was skipping classes and depressed and now smiles most of the time (gave his name to an upperclassman who'd faced a similar problem of missing his mom back in his home country). I began to walk the halls, recognizing faces and understanding stories. Kids even came to see me voluntarily — and without a crumpled schedule in their hands.

My experience with Hector, José, and Henry in those early days was telling. That morning, as they came to realize I was trying my best to get them what they needed, they joined in, handing me course descriptions and lists of openings, helping me recall the complex class codes and their student IDs, and repeating my exclamations about full classes and unworkable options. After we'd finished, they translated for other students and helped keep them in line even into their lunch hour. As they left, they each smiled, shook my hand, and thanked me. Ever since, they have greeted me warmly in the halls.

At the end of the school year, some good kids did some bad things, seemingly determined to wreck their lives. These were students I never would have expected it from, and it rattled me, shaking my faith in them.

An important legal proceeding involving those students fell on the same day as graduation. My principal, well aware of my own turmoil over the matter, urged me to skip the meeting and attend the ceremony instead. He was right — the same way he had been right when he told me I'd eventually love this job. As I sat up on the stage looking out at the kids and their glowing parents, this year started to make sense to me. Because behind those proud smiles were stories — of kids screwing up time and again simply because they didn't know how not to; of kids whose real-world worries made teen advice columns seem even sillier than they are; of kids who had nothing but parents who literally worked day and night so their children wouldn't have to; and most importantly, of kids who overcame all of that.

It took real courage, but the kids were here. They had made it. Their success made me understand what my job, what education, and frankly, what our country (on its best days) is about.

I was proud of them. And in an unexpected way, I was also proud of myself. I had made it, too, bumbling alongside them, learning from them what they needed from me, and — from time to time — even lending a hand.

Jim Paterson is a freelance writer based in Olney, Maryland. He continues his work as a part-time counselor at Wheaton High School.

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