I taught them English, they taught me friendship
"The Cubans are coming," said Mr. Smith. "We are opening a new ESL class, which will meet twice a week. How would you like to teach it?" It was a Monday morning phone call from the principal of Inglewood (Calif.) Adult School. The year was 1962. I had recently received my Adult Education Teaching Credential, which included English as a Second Language as one of the subjects I was qualified to teach, but had not yet taught. I was eager to start work. Were outlines and study plans ready for this group of new would-be citizens? I asked. He hesitated and then said, "Uh, not exactly."
Fidel Castro's revolutionaries had won. The United States had severed diplomatic ties with Cuba. A trickle of refugees, which had begun several years before in Florida, had become a flood in Florida and California. The little city of Inglewood had cheap housing and an excellent Adult Education system, which was opening ESL classes as fast as it could. I told the principal that I'd take the class and would attend the faculty meeting on Saturday.
At the meeting I received the usual folders of materials given out at the start of each school year, and pep talks from administrators. There were questions from the teachers but no answers as to how to teach the incoming Cubans. They were "good folks," we were told, and "very literate in Spanish." The school was awaiting further information from Sacramento. I left in a daze.
I was still in a daze when class began. I stood by the door, greeting students as they arrived. They were middle-aged men and women, good-looking, neatly dressed, and chattering with one another in Spanish. I had studied Spanish all through my school years, and could understand most of what they said. Many were nervous about beginning to learn our language. I tried to put them at ease. Over the weekend I had reviewed the methods used in a class I had taken prior to a trip to Italy. It entailed learning vocabulary by telling simple stories about everyday occurrences. I decided to try it.
I stood at the head of the class and put a large picture of a teacher standing in front of a class up on an easel. Pointing to things in the picture, I began to build a simple story, occasionally translating a word from English into Spanish, then back into English. I wrote new words on the blackboard. The students wrote furiously in their notebooks. They seemed to enjoy this way of learning.
During the break, my students gathered eagerly around the catering truck, sharing impressions of their new school, new teacher, and new lives. I stood to one side, conversing with a few who knew some English. They were polite and charming. It was almost as if they were welcoming me into their group.
For the next week, I spent extra time at home cutting pictures from magazines to illustrate categories and making charts of things to be bought at markets (fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy products), and things to be bought in stores (pots, pans, dishes, mops, pails). I worked out short stories about going to the bank, applying for a job, and renting an apartment. With these tools I built lesson plans and made little pathways of words for these new sojourners to follow in a strange land.
My students were intelligent, eager, respectful, and full of fun. It wasn't long before Señora Martinez suggested that we have a little celebración for the coming together of this lovely clase. My students were wildly enthusiastic. I thought this might be a fine learning opportunity, so I offered to bring various things for a party for the next meeting.
They protested. in Spanish, "Oh, no, Señora, we will bring everything."
They arrived on the scheduled evening carrying coolers, trays, and huge grocery bags. Shoving two class tables together they set up a buffet, complete down to a tablecloth and floral centerpiece, "from my daughter's wedding, Señora, of yesterday," said one woman. And food!
There were luscious salads: tiny shrimp with baby peas, celery, onions, and white asparagus; potato salads garnished with peppers in five brilliant colors; an enormous pineapple filled with chunks of tropical fruit, decorated with sprays of magenta bougainvillaea. Luisa Gomez brought olives, which she had harvested from trees at her rental house and then cured and preserved with spices in the old way that she had learned in Cuba. There were soft bread rolls, dusted with flour, cakes and pastries, and lots of bottled sodas and carafes of hot, dark coffee.
"Eat, Señora, eat," said my students, as I stood wordless, filled with love for these indomitable people. Alfredo handed me a plate, which Anita took from me and began to fill with food.
"Es una fiesta para una nueva amistad, Señora Profesora," said Anita, and because she was one of those who already knew some English, she translated, "It is a party of new friendship."
Then, haltingly she added, "Oh, that we may all be together to celebrate at the end of the year!"
To which I added, "Amen." I retrieved my plate and sat down to eat amid the laughter of my new friends.