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Joe: My Personal English Learner Story

Joe: My Personal English Learner Story

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By: Dr. José Medina, Director of Dual Language and Bilingual Education, Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, DC


Joe: My Personal English Learner Story

My name is José, but when I was six years old, my first-grade teacher changed it to Joe. Her decision to do so, continues to impact my life daily - as a person, as an educator, and as an advocate for all students, but especially for those who like me, are looked down upon for not having English as a first language.

It started when I was kicked out of Kindergarten. My parents, in their early twenties and recently having moved to El Paso from Ciudad Juárez, took me to my local elementary escuela in one of the large school districts in the city. Because I only spoke español like my parents, and also, because I was a nervous child, I did not react positively to school. I kicked, I bit adults, I urinated on myself, and I would run out of the classroom daily. After several weeks, the principal informed my parents that I "had to mature" and, therefore, would need to stay home and be brought back as a first grader.

I guess I was afraid that I would never be enough if people knew my real name – if people knew that Spanish, not English, was the language closest to my heart.

At the age of six, I returned to the same school only to do the exact same thing as before. Once again, the school principal informed my padres that I could no longer attend the school. This was in 1977 and the U.S. Supreme Court Case, Lau vs. Nichols, had not yet fully made its way to the border town in Texas. I was a six-year old English learner without a school to attend.

My Godmother, mi madrina, informed my parents that they should enroll me in a local Catholic School because there, the nuns would be able to "fix" me. On the first day at the private school, I once again did the things that got me kicked out of public school. However, this time it was different. Una monja, a nun, who my parents understood to be the principal, had a gurney rolled into her office from the nurse's office. I was placed on the rolling bed, strapped in so that my arms and legs were not able to move, and I was rolled through the school hallways to my first-grade class.

Even as I remember this life-altering event, I can see my young Mamá and Papá with tears in their eyes, seeing their firstborn child tied and delivered to his classroom. My teacher introduced me to the rest of the class as the new student – Joe. So, I lay there, watching my parents escorted away from the classroom, urine-stained clothes on my body, and flat on my back, wishing that I was somewhere else…anywhere…but not in that classroom.

Joe: My Personal English Learner Story

Continue reading to find out more of José's journey....

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