*This article appeared in July/July ’17 issue of Owensboro Living Magazine.
Never did I think that I would become friends with somebody who didn’t speak the same language as me. For one thing, I hardly ever came into contact with a foreigner who was my own age, and for another thing, I believed that it would be hard to have conversations and find things in common. However, that is just what I did – with more than one person. Apollo High School has a strong ESL (English as a Second Language) program. There are many students attending who do not speak English. They come from Burma, Thailand, Mexico, Somalia, Guatemala, Honduras, and China, and they speak a plethora of languages, including Spanish, Karen, and Karenni. They are from all over the globe, and they come to Apollo to learn English, and receive an education and a better life.
These kids come to school maybe knowing a few words in English. They are placed in school, an experience that most of them have not had before. All around them are new people who don’t understand them. When given the opportunity to assist students that didn’t have the advantages of a typical high school student, I knew that I had to take it. It was time for me to do something to make a positive difference in another’s life.
I was asked to help in an Intro to Physics class. A friend was also with me, and for the first class we deciphered which language the students spoke – Karenni, a regional dialect of Thailand. Throughout the next 12 weeks, we sat at a table in the library and started to teach them English. I was amazed at how much they could remember in such a short amount of time. We went from parts of the body to colors, and soon we were able to talk about our likes and dislikes. Fortunately, we had a boy that spoke a heavy dose of English and could translate a lot for us. Together, we got the students through their class, and we had a great time doing it. There were inside jokes, laughter, and a party at the end.
Luckily, the fun did not stop there. The next term, I assisted in a math class that was just for kids who were a part of the ESL program. It was so interesting to see a whole group of students that spoke different languages and were from different places come together and make friendships and act just like any other high school student. They loved to play games and talk and listen to music, but they also truly wanted to learn arithmetic. So many of them had never had an education before, and they took the opportunities given to them to enrich their learning. I loved being a part of that learning, as I went from kid to kid to explain the steps they needed to take to solve a problem, looking over their answers and making sure that they understood what they needed to do.
It was difficult leaving them at the end of the term, but I was very thankful that I was able to help those that needed the knowledge that would help them find a place in their new homes. I was ready to aid again and make more friends.
At the beginning of the next year, I helped in a class that was solely for the English Language Learners. The teachers were glad to have another hand, but I was very nervous to teach people who were also hesitant, not only of me, but of speaking another language. Slowly, however, we started to get to know each other as we looked at a clock to tell time and practiced spelling out words over and over again. I was even able to translate for the Spanish-speaking students. They were surprised to find that I could speak any at all, and I had to tell them that I was not as fluent as they thought me (a humorous experience from one extreme to the other). Their teachers and I marveled at how much they were growing and learning, using more English and getting faster at their times tables. I really had fun with them, and I was glad to be their friend.
The past two years have been a collection of fun times and hard work. These students are smart and dedicated to their learning. Time and time again they ask me “What does this mean? What is that in English?” Each amazing in his or her own way, I also learned that they can be just like me. Several of the ESL students like to play soccer, draw or listen to music. They like hot sauce on their chicken sandwiches, they know card tricks, and they enjoy watching movies. Each and every one has something to bring to the table. I got to know many more students, bright and funny kids each with their own personalities, and not simply a blur of kids that spoke a strange language. They have not been afraid to ask for my help when they realized that I was there for them. We spoke about our lives and got to know each other better. They are my friends, and I want to come back and see how they are doing. I have seen the students from my first year grow tremendously in their English-speaking abilities, and we have had conversations with each other; I am excited to see each one grow some more. They will do well in life, finding their places and living in a land that has given them a chance.