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A Little Nurturing Goes a Long Way

[Mr. Eureka is the pseudonym of a fourth-year teacher in an elementary school in the Bronx.]

Fanta was almost seven years old when she walked into our school’s lobby, clinging to her mother’s arm. Her mother, an imposing woman dressed in a flowery African robe with a yellow turban carefully carved over her head walked past our front desk inquiring about where the enrollment activities were taking place. Our security officer pointed her fingers toward the two long tables that were put together to hold the stacks of materials, pens, pencils, and other supplies needed for the registration of new students.

Her steps were secure but slow. It was as if she was counting the tiles that ornate our attendance room. I was brought in to assist in Fanta’s enrollment as a second grade student since both Fanta and her mother could not speak a word of English. As they sat quietly waiting for their turn to speak to a staff member, Fanta played with her fingers with her eyes glued to the large clock hanging a few feet away above the door of Room 109. She certainly did not want to be there.

When Fanta’s name was called, a long silence followed; then came a burst of panicked looks from our two foreign guests. I introduced myself and let them know that I was here to help them get through registration. Fanta’s mother responded to my offer for help with a large smile and a sense of relief. When Fanta was taken away for a short test, I took a minute to reassure Mrs. Konoke that her daughter was in good hands. Fanta was briefly interviewed by a curriculum specialist and demonstrated that she was literate in her native tongue.

Her admission to the second grade bilingual class became official as soon as her mother signed the last document. I congratulated her and went back to my daily routine. A few days later, Fanta was beginning to sound her first words in English with her ESL teacher.

“Things were going very well, until…,” her teacher said. Fanta had broken down in tears and no one seemed to know why. It was a Wednesday afternoon just before the Christmas break, the atmosphere was quite festive and feverish. I was paged through the school intercom to go to Room 221. My services were urgently requested. I had no idea what I was going to find in this classroom until I got there.

I quickly climbed the two floors to Room 221. When I crossed the classroom’s threshold, I found Fanta with red eyes and tears running down her cheeks. As second graders, her classmates were very perplexed, wondering why she was so upset. Her classmates were also beginning to get upset thinking that their teacher had somehow done her wrong.

As soon as Fanta saw me, her tears began to recede to give way to an inquisitive and reproaching look, which I interpreted as: Where were you when I needed you? Fanta was frustrated during her math lesson and became very upset when she was unable to explain a simple addition problem. She knew how to add but was unable to explain how she got the right answer. She was unable to do so because she had not yet mastered the vocabulary she needed to present a coherent explanation in English.

I spoke a few reassuring words to her to take her mind away from the source of her frustration. I ventured then to tell her that “Once I felt exactly the same way, when I began to learn English,” and added: “I remember one day that I got locked into the sounds which surrounded me and could not escape from them. I was terrified. I wanted to say something but the words were unavailable.” I explained to her that this does happen to people learning a new language and encouraged her not to fall into despair. I told her, “Soon, you will be able to freely talk to your classmates. The day will come when you will be able to hold a conversation with your classmates in the park nearby.”

I ended my little confession by letting her know that I would be available to speak to her whenever she felt overwhelmed by what goes on in her classroom. Her tears dried as we continued to talk. Upon reflection, I believed that she only needed someone to reassure her that everything is going to be all right. In the following weeks, I approached Fanta in the dining hall and exchanged a few words with her. I inquired about her mother and the family before engaging her in a conversation about how she is doing in her classroom.

Fanta began to make friends with three African American girls. Her speech began to improve as she molded her pronunciation through her exchanges with her friends little by little. She made so much progress in English that every teacher around the school became aware of her new prowess. What she needed was to meet someone who believed in her and was able to reassure her that “everything is gonna be all right.”