It always rains the first day of school, Mister…

Another school year begins in the Rio Grande Valley. As expected, it rains. The freshman in my class look as if my room were the last refuge from a deluge just outside my door. They are young, malleable, innocent and idealistic (though they would indignantly deny it). This will not always be so.

Working with freshman English students, and specifically with ESL (English as a Second Language) students, gives one intimate insight into the ways in which politics, immigration, and language acquisition all converge on the shoulders of students too young to make sense of the word “adolescence.” How many of these students will disappear as the borders tighten and the border wall begins changing from a symbol to a concrete structure? How can a school encourage pride both in a Spanish-speaking heritage and in an American dream they’ve only seen in our oh-so-pervasive media?

Immigrant students, be they legal, illegal, or refugees, inevitably struggle with the sense of identity I am tinkering with on this first day of school. Mexican students wish to please their parents by doing better than they, but these teens also worry about becoming “pochos” who are no longer Mexican. In the Rio Grande Valley, specifically, it is all too easy for newcomers to speak broken Spanish, fractured English, mish-mashed Spanglish – at what point do students no longer feel the necessity to develop a proper language of official discourse?

All these things flow through my mind as I take attendance on the first day of my sophomore year of teaching. There is a primal desire for language here, something which might go uncharted by state tests and NCLB legislations but is evident in these students’ giddiness for the first days of a new school year. Given the right tools and a learning environment which respects other cultures through the particulars of English language, these students could move out of the Valley, could succeed in New York, in Chicago, in Houston, in Minneapolis. Given only some vocabulary without direction, though, they will be stuck in the netherland which is the border towns along the Rio Grande, a “ghetto” both distended and remote.

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