A few years ago, I was called to translate by a social worker at a primary school. A teacher had complained that one of her students never looked her in the eye when spoken to and was painfully shy. The child never participated in class unless it was obligatory and only under duress. She was frequently absent, particularly on days when she had to make a presentation before the class. However, the student was very bright, with excellent grades and careful, neat work. The social worker wanted me to contact the parents and arrange a meeting to discuss a special education placement.
Some intuition obliged me to wonder about the need for special education. I stepped out of my usually neutral role as interpreter and asked the social worker why it was necessary. The more questions I asked, the more both of us questioned the recommendation. I pointed out to her that when the student didn’t meet the teacher’s eyes, the little girl was simply being respectful according to her culture. She was shy because she came from a country where rote memorization was the rule, and you only got up in class to answer a math problem or repeat what you had memorized. With a sigh, the social worker told me to call the teacher.
The teacher turned out to be a golden teddy bear of a woman full of concern for her pupils. She clearly cared about the little girl and didn’t want her to miss out, but felt that there was something wrong. She just wasn’t sure what it was. The teacher was a woman with many years in the field, and I certainly wasn’t going to invalidate her instincts. We talked and I shared my cultural insights with her as well as what I had found out about the family.
Both parents had grown up during a civil war that prevented them from going to school. They were illiterate in both English and their native language. It was up to the little girl, the only English speaker in the family, to read the mail and talk to the landlord. Mom and dad were in the United States with work visas, which meant they were ineligible for food stamps or other federal programs. The parents worked long hours in a fish packing plant. The family considered this a step up from a hardscrabble life of subsistence farming in the old country.
The teacher and I wondered if some afterschool activity might help the student climb out of her shell. After a brief chat, we found out that she liked math best of all her subjects. The school math club offered expeditions to workplaces that dealt with banking, the stock market and accounting. The club had vacancies and required a signed permission form from the parents. The little girl’s eyes lit up at the mention of the club, and we called her parents. The teacher decided to get the signature personally. I tagged along to interpret.
It was a long climb up to the fifth-floor apartment where a shy mother greeted us at the door. She invited us to sit while she laboriously signed the permission form. The mom told us about her children and her life. She was very pleased to finally meet the teacher she had been unable to see because of her work schedule. She also told us about the children she had lost, and then turned her face away to cry.
After we left, the teacher thanked me and said that the math club was really the best option for her student to increase her confidence, broaden her horizons and help her adapt to American school culture. Sometime later, the teacher told me that the visit had changed her whole perspective on immigrant students. I’m just grateful she took the time to visit one home and change one life.