[Editor’s note: Ms. Flecha is a third-year teacher in an elementary school in Queens. She blogs at My Life Untranslated.]
One of my newcomer Bangladeshi students, “Alia,” recently published a biography of her grandmother during our writer’s workshop. She is a beginner ELL, so she started the story with pictures — she sketched out exquisitely detailed pictures of her grandmother in her village, wearing traditional clothing and carrying fruit on her head. She added key timeline-related details and then asked me what the word is for a job where women carry food around on their heads. I asked if she meant in a restaurant, and she said, “No, no restaurant in her village.” I suggested food vendor, but she preferred waitress. Really, we don’t have a word for such a job — another interesting chasm between languages, cultures, and experiences. Slowly, I felt I was being invited into her life.
To prepare them for the unit I had read them picture books such as The Librarian of Basra, A True Story From Iraq, and Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa, both by Jeanette Winter, as well as books about Ruby Bridges and Rosa Parks. With these books, I taught them how to focus in on their subject’s most important moment as the heart of the story. In retrospect, the powerful nature of these people’s lives in particular had probably helped some of my students to see the importance of retelling the often heartbreaking struggles their person had experienced. Some had chosen to describe when their father or mother had hiked across the border into the US, through thickets of thorns and desert. Alia, however, told me her grandmother was still in Bangladesh, so I asked her to sketch some more so I could help her choose the most important moment.
Although it wasn’t hard to figure out, it really took my breath away.
Alia told me her grandmother, at age 8, had to get a job because she didn’t have the $3 it cost to go to school, since her parents had just died. So she got a job cleaning the home of the Rajah, or king, as she translated it, for one penny a day. “And my grandmother did hard job and she come house and she hand pain every time and she can’t sleep.” She also would pick fruit and carry it through the village to sell.
I noticed her pause in the middle of her sketching and writing. She came over and asked me how to say/write in English what she had just drawn. To be clear, she mimed the action. The picture was of a whip.
The tree Alia’s grandmother used for the fruit she sold belonged to the Rajah and one day he saw her, and tied her to a tree for stealing the fruit. As king, he owned all the trees. She tried to explain she wasn’t stealing, but he demanded she move to a different village. When she refused, he whipped her. “My grandmother say never I am change village and king did whipped my grandmother and she skin, face everything pain and now she say I change village. My grandmother blood of skin.” Then he sent boys to trash her home. She was just eight years old.
When I read this (and I’ve been reading it a lot — to friends, colleagues and others), I don’t find myself focusing on the errors in English grammar and syntax. I hear her voice. I hear the way she speaks and tells her story, and the rhythm of her accent and personality. I don’t want to correct it.
It’s moments like this — where I get to see my students write pieces that are not simply genuine, but meaningful stories that otherwise wouldn’t get told; stories that are locked inside them, and give us a glimpse into all the experiences that have brought them to this country and to this point in their lives that gives me hope and confidence in them. It’s in these stories of personal strength, where I — and maybe they — become more aware of the uniqueness and profoundness of their lives. Today she brought me a photo of her grandmother at age 8 and photos of her village, and I felt like she was really proud to share this with me, and I am glad this experience helped her feel that way.