How Bilingualism Helped My Students Get Along

My Experience Using Communication to Heal Wounds in South Central L.A.

It happened before I could blink. Terry’s stout, thick little hands quickly grabbed his classmate’s head and instantly slammed it on the desk with a thud. Terry was a very large 5-year-old — much stronger than his years — and he marched on like nothing occurred.

“Terry! Stop! What are you doing?! Why would you do that to Jose?” I rushed in between my two students, confronting Terry and comforting the other startled little boy.

“I don’t like him,” was Terry’s screamed reply. “He Mexican,” he proclaimed with a loud stomp of his foot. Even though Terry’s dark skin and Jose’s tanned complexion were only a few shades apart, these distinctive pigments created a deep social chasm between the two classmates.

The thugs of South Central Los Angeles choose to divide their hate by skin color. The myriad of black, white, and Latino gangs fill bus stops with bullet holes. I stared in utter disbelief and shock at my own student’s harsh words. I had naively believed that kindergarten was a safe haven.

That fateful day, in my bilingual kindergarten classroom, I began to comprehend some of the issues fueling the racial gang wars in Los Angeles and could see that I had the opportunity to help heal these learned prejudices with the power of communication.

Here in Santa Barbara, we are often divided by the languages that we speak. There are large communities of people in this town who cannot speak with each other for lack of a common language. This wall of communication can be larger and more impactful than the physical one that Trump plans to build on the Mexican border. Walls within a group of people cause division and misunderstanding. It’s time to start connecting with each other.

Santa Barbara is very different from South Central in many ways, yet both places struggle with allowing diverse languages to coexist. In this terra-cotta-clad paradise, the judgment is whispered underneath the quiet skies without police helicopters hovering close to the ground or murmured inside quaint houses without bulletproof windows.

When you learn a new language, you embrace a new culture and form bonds of unity. Language without cultural context makes the words only lifeless letters and random sounds. It’s the story of the people behind the linguistics that give the phrases their meaning.

Terry and Jose struggled throughout the year to learn in Spanish and English at the bilingual charter school. They stuttered over new words and danced to new rhythms. Terry even began to reach out for help from his Spanish-speaking classmates, saying, “Hey! How you do dat?”

With an illuminated grin, Terry proudly put his arm around Jose as they sang a Spanish song at the end-of-the-year school performance. These are two people who will never forget the connection that they made with someone whom they previously despised. This is the hope that we have for our future generations. The hope that through the gift of communication, we can become the bridges that make us all stronger as one.

Selina Boquet teaches Spanish and English in S.B. See eliteeducators.org.

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