“I’m smart, Miss. I have so many ideas, thoughts, and opinions, and I can express them all so well in my language. But I just can’t in English.” The student described that feeling of voicelessness as a burning desire in his heart to speak and express himself. He recounted several situations when he couldn’t muster the courage to just say what he wanted. The burning desire to express grows, but it constantly gets blown out by his situation of fear and hopelessness. “It’s a never-ending cycle,” he dejectedly uttered.
He proceeded to describe the trials and tribulations of being an immigrant student who aspires to fight on a level playing field with his peers; however, on far too many occasions, the language barrier evoked fear and didn’t allow him to even set foot on the field. He acknowledged that there were days filled with opportunities to prove to his teachers and peers how much he can contribute and add value to the classroom setting. Those days were also filled with fear and anxiety when attempts to just say a few words were halted because of the language barrier. “Maybe I should return to my home country,” he suggested.
My heart overflowed with pain because no one should feel as if they do not have a voice. No one should have to hold back their words due to fear of being judged or misunderstood. No one should have to keep in their important and valuable thoughts and concerns. My mind flipped through the pages of memories of also not being able to fully speak English when I started my education in America. I remember sitting in mainstreamed classrooms and not understanding what my teachers or peers were saying. I always had questions about tasks and homework assignments and wanted to raise my hand to ask my teachers to slow down, but I never did because I was afraid of rejection. My heart ached because the student was experiencing a similar situation to the one I experienced. I wanted to advise the student, “No, you’re going to be fine. I will be your voice. Use me.” I wanted to take away the fear and anxiety that goes hand-in-hand with transitioning to a new country and culture. But that is not the purpose of my job at 12 Plus.
As Fellows, our mission is to empower our students to reach high for academic success. “No, you’re not going to learn English if you let fear stop you from learning it,” I advised the student. From that day, I pushed him to read everything in English, watch YouTube videos and online streams in English, engage in conversations with his peers, and join the 12 Plus team to college visits. Whenever he came into the Center, my team and I would often encourage him to have conversations with us in English. The ladies of 12 Plus would ask him about his plans for the weekend, and his answers would get more detailed and expressive as the school year progressed. I remember asking him where to find the best pho restaurant in Kensington. “Home cooked pho is the dopest, Miss! ” he exclaimed.
A day approached when he ran into the PLUS Center and said, “Miss, I push the other students to speak, read, and write everything in English. They won’t learn how to talk in English if they don’t do those things.” This reaffirmed the reason why I pushed him to expose himself to English-speaking culture. I believed in his ability to learn and grow, and I expressed to him that I did. Not only was he able to act on the challenges that my team and I set for him, but he also inspired his peers to take on those same challenges. I was so proud that he was able to learn that fear is the single most powerful obstacle to learning.