04/09/06 — Reading, writing without borders

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Reading, writing without borders

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on April 9, 2006 2:03 AM

Victoria looked up from her notebook, admittedly confused and irritated.

"My husband works in the garage and people paycheck him," she said.

Her teacher, Gaspar Gonzalez, placed his hands on her shoulder and corrected her mistake, smiling.

"No," he said. "A paycheck is a thing, el papel (a paper). Try again."

Victoria looked down at her lesson and read for a moment before her next attempt.

"My husband works in the garage and gets the paycheck," she said.

Gonzalez smiled and gave a soft clap.

"Yes," he said. "That's it."

Many Hispanics, including Victoria, view learning English as an urgent need -- a high priority, for their children's sake.

So, Victoria and nearly a dozen other young Hispanic mothers began learning how to read, write and speak a new language just a few months ago at Brogden Primary School -- under the instruction of Gaspar Gonzalez, chairman of the Wayne County Democratic Party.

"My children know more than I do," Isodora said. "I don't want them to think I'm stupid."

Isodora's husband recently walked out on her, leaving her responsible for providing for their four children. She said she felt learning English would help her get by.

"(English) is necessary to communicate with a dentist, doctor or teacher," she said in Spanish. "My children go to school and learn English, and no child should know more than their mother."

For Isodora and the other women in Gonzalez's class, learning English is a way to improve the quality of their lives in the United States -- helping them get involved in the lives of their children, increasing communication between themselves and neighbors and fitting into the American culture.

"Community is communidad," Gonzalez explained. "Is a school part of the community?"

The students answered one by one, each listing a handful of reasons why a school is part of a community.

Gonzalez said he teaches both the fundamentals of the English language and the way of life here in the U.S, and that these questions are important to his students' growth as members of the Wayne County community.

"These women all want to be here," he said. "Now they need to know about the United States and the laws and the language."

So, Gonzalez, along with his friend, Willie Cartagena, sacrifices his time to educate members of the Hispanic community -- helping them assimilate into the American lifestyle. The two men don't receive federal funding to run the classes or receive a salary for what they do -- it just "feels right."

So, they transform Brogden's cafeteria into a classroom each week-- complete with lesson books, notepads, pens and a dry erase board. Passing along knowledge is its own reward, they said.

"We don't get any funds for this, but we don't care," Cartagena said. "We just want to help."

Despite the help of their teachers, many of the women said learning English has been one of their life's major challenges.

It's even tough for Claudia, who Gonzalez said has been attending his class for more than a year.

"Everything is different," Claudia said. "It is very hard, but it is important."

For some, the hardship of learning to speak a new language is a reminder of their rough move from Mexico. However, all of them said the time and struggle spent in class is better than life back home.

Flor has nine children and said she misses life in Mexico, but she knows her family will have more opportunities in this country.

"Everybody is very poor in Mexico," she said. "If Mexico helped me the way America helps its people, I would have never left."

Claudia agreed, and said she is slowly adapting to life in the United States.

"I want to have a better life," she said. "My family is in Mexico, but I want to stay here for my daughter."

Another woman, Patricia, said she is enjoying learning English. She hopes one day to be able to communicate with everyone in the community, for her children's sake and her own.

But it's still hard, she said as she began speaking more quickly in Spanish to her teacher.

"She said she was talking fast because she wanted you to feel what she feels when she hears you speak English," Gonzalez said.

Learning any language for the first time can be difficult, he added -- and he should know. After all, as the son of a Cuban and Spaniard, he too once made the jump from Spanish to English.

At the end of class, the mothers go back to their daily lives. Gonzalez, on the other hand, gets ready for his next class. A few hours after teaching English, he returns to Brogden, this time as a Spanish teacher. His students are the English-speaking teachers at the school.

They said learning Spanish is a way to communicate with the school's rising Hispanic student population -- and their parents. And these women find it equally as challenging to learn a foreign language.

"It's really difficult because you have to retrain your mind," third-grade teacher Barbara Newsome said. "You feel like children."

All of the teachers said they decided to learn Spanish to improve communication between themselves and Hispanic children in their classrooms.

But third-grade teacher Heather Alexander said it's as difficult for her to speak Spanish as it is for her students to communicate effectively in English.

"It's definitely an eye-opener," she said. "I guess you realize how much of a struggle it is for the Hispanic children."

Gonzalez stood in front of his students, reading from the day's lesson.

"Now, say it with me," he said.

Izola Barbour was still confused.

"I just have to keep listening," she said.

Every once in a while, Gonzalez brings in women from his other class to interact with the teachers. During break-out sessions, the two groups learn from each other as he works with those in need of special instruction.

"I want you to learn from each other," Gonzalez said.

One Monday, Susie sat with Mrs. Alexander and Rosemary Holloman, guiding them through the Spanish alphabet. As they finished, student became teacher again.

"Now it's your turn," Mrs. Alexander said to Susie, pointing to the same alphabet. "In English."

The women went back and forth, teacher to student, encourager to encouraged, as the class neared its end.

At the end of the lesson, Gonzalez sat with the teachers, who happen to be his students, and asked them if they were having trouble communicating with any of the Hispanic children in class.

"We're trying," Joyce Pate said.

And sometimes the effort is all that matters, Gonzalez said.

"Soon, that fear the children have of going to see the teacher is gone," he said. "Because now, there is a mutual understanding."