I remember how miserable I felt some days, how self-conscious, how excluded. I was mortally embarrassed that I didn’t shave my legs, didn’t wear deodorant, brought my soccer gear to school in a plastic grocery bag. That I got stuck walking down the bus aisle with my violin case. That I hated the way jeans felt and wore sweat pants and animal T-shirts. That I wasn’t a Christian. That I was terrified if any boy liked me. That kids in my music class made fun of my song when we had to bring one in to share. That I hadn’t gotten my period. That I didn’t know how to dance. That I hated dances. That I didn’t have anyone to dress up with for twin day. Even, heaven forbid, that I was smart.
How did I ever survive those traumatic years? And the thing is, I know I had a whole lot going for me that a lot of middle schoolers can’t count on. A supportive family. Enough money. A safe neighborhood. A quiet place to study. No serious peer pressure to try drugs or alcohol or sex. An elementary education that prepared me well for the academic expectations of middle school. Teachers who perceived me as someone who would succeed.
I can’t imagine having any or all of those advantages taken away from me. I can’t imagine trying to make it through those years in a language I barely understood, in a foreign culture, in a school full of strangers...yet that’s what the kids I work with are doing every day. Sometimes I just have to step back and admire their courage, their strength, the pure grit that gets them through. And then it’s back to the grindstone of trying to help them understand what’s going on in class.
My official title is "ELA-S Para," or "English Language Acquisition—Spanish Paraprofessional." Essentially, it means I go around to different classes with students who need extra support in English. In this school, that would actually be most of the kids, but I’m only working with the ones who have the most minimal language proficiency. I don’t have a fixed schedule yet, but I’ve been shadowing the two other ELA paras and learning the ropes. I sit with my kids, I clarify directions, I answer questions. I check to see how much they’ve understood and explain whatever they haven’t in simpler English or in Spanish, depending on their current level of English. I translate vocabulary. I reteach concepts that were missed. I do simultaneous English-Spanish interpretations of various class lectures, including one yesterday on Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift. How do you say plate tectonics in Spanish? Pangaea? Fossil? Mesosaurus? Crust, mantle, inner and outer core? Lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere? Needless to say, my Spanish has been getting a good workout.
And there’s so much more drama apart from the academic aspects of the day. A girl gets in a fight, falls, and cracks her head open on the corner of a desk. A boy is strangled in the bathroom during the Halloween social. Kids fall out of their chairs, stand on their desks, tear up their books, yell out, talk back, smack each other around. And they politely raise their hands, give each other compliments, beam from ear to ear when they answer a question correctly. Like the school social worker told me yesterday, I might get frustrated with this job, and I might get a little crazy, but I will never get bored. And that’s the way I like it.
*In case you were wondering, we just chatted in the lunchroom. I didn’t seek her out of my own accord. Yet.