Learning English at an Inner-City School
Excerpt from On the Move
In August 1990, my mother and I moved from Switzerland to the United States of America. My mother started her new job as a tenure-track assistant professor of sociology at Louisiana State University (LSU). My father stayed behind in Switzerland to take care of closing his failing restaurant business; he rejoined us six months later and went back to school to work towards his MBA degree at LSU. We rented a house in the suburb of Baton Rouge, the capital of the state of Louisiana.
Even though we lived in a tranquil suburban neighborhood, my mother enrolled me in first grade at Jackson Elementary School [a pseudonym], located right in the middle of the downtown Baton Rouge ghetto. Why? Because it had a low-cost extended daycare program that lasted from 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM every day. My father was not around, and my mother was starting a challenging new job which required her to put in a high number of hours. The 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM schedule of a regular school (such as the one in our neighborhood) would not be sufficient since she could not possibly go to work that late or leave work that early to come home to look after me. She could not afford private after-school care, so sending me to Jackson was the most practical option.
The school officials were proud of their extended daycare program, telling my mother that it was the ideal choice for a working mother such as herself. She later learned that the locals used the term working mother as a euphemism to describe young, poor, often unwed single mothers living in the inner-city. These women had to work long hours every day (sometimes at multiple jobs) to support their children, thus creating the demand for after-school child care programs.
Every weekday morning, my mother drove me to school in her second-hand Subaru that she bought for $3,000, a huge sum of money for us at that time. We always listened to All Things Considered, a talk show on National Public Radio (NPR) filled with classical music and the deep-voiced commentator discussing social and political issues far beyond my comprehension. During my first few weeks in America, I could not understand a word that man was saying, and that made me even more nervous as we drove towards school. It was like a daunting prologue to my next ten hours. If I could not even understand what Mr. Walter Morris or Alexander Stuart (or whatever stoic model-citizen-white-guy-name the NPR commentator's parents gave him) was saying during my ride to school, then how could I possibly hope to comprehend what my furiously compassionate black first grade teacher was spouting out in the classroom in her strong Southern-accented English?
What is somewhat ironic but unsurprising is that I do not remember anything about ever being in the classroom during that entire year. I don't remember what the teacher taught us, who was in my class, or what kind of desks we sat in. All I remember is that I was by far the best student in the classroom. My teacher must have been shocked that, even though I did not know a word of English when I first started school, within a few months I could read and write better than anybody else in my class. I was a quick and voracious learner; my love of acquiring knowledge had developed naturally from a young age. I was able to read and write Chinese fairly fluently at a child's level by age three; I loved reading all of the street signs and shop names out loud whenever my grandmother took me walking around Guangzhou. At age three, I started learning math, both from preschool and from my step-grandfather, and became proficient at doing arithmetic that kids in America would not learn until third or fourth grade.
So why don't I recall any specific experiences within the classroom throughout that entire year? I think it's because that was the most normal part of my school day. Those six hours every day were well-controlled and productive, and I had so many new things to learn. I learned most of my English by listening to the teacher talk and tell us stories, and by watching her write on the board. It was the only time when everyone sat in their own seats with an authority figure present who could keep everything under control. Even the most bad-ass of playground bullies had to simply sit in their seats and struggle through reading children's literature passages out loud. When I focused on my work during class time, the terrible butterflies in my stomach finally went away. I was in my element inside the classroom because there I knew that I had an advantage over all the other kids. However, even though I gained self-confidence in terms of my academic abilities, I still remained quiet and humble. I never regarded my precociously-acquired knowledge as a mark of pride because scholastic intelligence didn't matter at all outside the classroom.
In stark contrast to my relatively calm classroom experience, the times I spent at Jackson Elementary during recess, lunch, and before and after school in the extended daycare program were beyond chaotic and overwhelming. The kids I had encountered in Switzerland a year earlier all came from middle-class families in a country known for social tranquility. I was not afraid of them because their docile environment gave them little impetus for aggressive behavior beyond good-natured roughhousing. However, most of the kids I encountered here had grown up on the turbulent, crime-ridden streets of the Baton Rouge ghetto. Many boys looked intimidating to me and flaunted macho tough-guy attitudes, ready to challenge authority or fight to defend their personal honor or ego.
When I started first grade, learning English became a top priority since nobody else knew French or Chinese. I employed the same tactics of learning through silent observation that had worked for me in Switzerland just a year earlier, naturally becoming more adept at it since it was my second attempt. During those first few weeks, I was very cautious when kids approached me to ask me questions since I could barely understand what they were saying. Some may have been malicious, some may have been making fun of me, some may have been curious, and some may have really wanted to be my friend, but I was always curt with my responses. I could say yes and no, just like how I could say oui and non while I was in Switzerland. Once again, I had absolutely no idea what the other kids were asking me at first, but judging from the tones of their voices, I knew that they were being inquisitive, so I alternated my answers between yes and no. As my sense of the English language became more refined, I could better understand people's questions, and my replies became more accurate and realistic. I soon started moving up to phrases and then sentences.
Within three months, I could understand pretty much everything that kids around me were saying, and I could speak a good deal of it myself without any sort of foreign-sounding accent (as a consequence, I completely lost my ability to understand or speak French due to lack of practice). I sounded like everybody else around me in school because I had learned to mimic their speech patterns, which meant that I talked exactly like a black kid from Louisiana. I spoke with a thick Southern accent mixed with black slang. One time when I tried to order food at McDonald's, I articulated my request quite eloquently in my Southern black accent, and the black guy who manned the cash register enthusiastically told me, "Kid, you speak GOOD English!" My parents love telling that story to their friends. My unique accent faded the following year when I enrolled in a suburban school, which consisted mostly of white kids. But throughout my first year in America, whenever I moved my lips, it sounded like there was a Southern black kid standing behind me speaking the words that came out of my mouth.
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Last modified: 2007-12-01