For immigrants who come to America as children and teenagers, adapting to a new language can make middle and high school feel like hell.
Shortly after my family relocated from Taipei, Taiwan, to Modesto, California, an older boy groped me on the middle school bus. I ignored him until I felt his sticky fingers touching my legs, bare in denim shorts. I tried to blink the reality away, but his hands were still there, creeping further up. I squeezed my knees together, and with my arms, I pushed down my backpack on my thighs as hard as I could, creating a physical shield between him and me. Internally, I was searching for the words I could use to stop him—stop touching me, get off—but all I had in my English repertoire were things like, "The restaurant is on the left side of this street. I like to bike and swim. How about you?"
By the time we reached campus, I was exhausted from maintaining the tense posture. I didn't report what happened to the teachers, both because I lacked the language to describe the incident and because I was so terrified that I never dared to look at the boy's face.
I can't prove I was singled out as an easy target due to my poor English, but statistics show it's not uncommon among immigrants in school. A 2007 survey from schools in Massachusetts showed that 49 percent of middle school English-learning students were verbally bullied. Twenty-eight percent were physically bullied, compared to 21 percent of native English-speaking students. Based on a 2012 report from the National Education Association, one-fourth of all Asian American students are English learners, and 54 percent of the overall Asian American population are harassed in school—a rate much higher than other ethnic groups. "Racial tensions, resentment of immigrants and language barriers, the stereotype of API students as unassertive overachievers, and the spike in attacks against students perceived as Muslim" were listed as the likely causes.
By 2050, estimates suggest more than one third of America's schoolchildren under the age of 17 will be either immigrants or second-generation Americans. But research conducted by Harvard University shows that "many schools are ill-equipped to meet their needs"—including giving them the language skills to speak for themselves.
Before I moved to America, I wasn't one to hold my tongue. My mom likes to tell the story of how, as a toddler, I stopped a much taller girl from chasing my older brother—I was bold, mouthy even. At home, I had to be told to be quiet; at school, although I was a star student, I was sometimes chastised for talking during class or even talking back to the teachers.
Before we got our green cards, I watched Disney Channel shows in our fourth-floor walk-up apartment in Taipei, imagining what my new life in the United States would be like. Then in 2000, when I was 12 years old, my family moved to California. I often think back about that initial adjustment period and how it shaped me as an individual. Puberty is tough enough without having to adapt to a completely different language, culture, or environment. I realized what I truly missed the most during those first few years actually wasn't my family, and it wasn't my friends—it was the ability to use my voice.
I was a top-of-class student in my motherland, but in English-speaking California, my comprehension of the foreign language was at a level at least five years below my age. I'd taken some English classes back home, but no matter how many textbook English phrases I memorized and recited, none of them provided the proper tools to help me navigate the life of a middle schooler on the West Coast.
Since the classes for ESL (English-as-a-second-language) students were taught in English, which we were still struggling to understand, my school basically dumbed down the entire curriculum. I remember constantly fuming, Just because I'm stupid in English doesn't mean that I'm stupid in everything else! In math class, I strained my ears to understand what the teacher was saying, only reaching clarity when she wrote down numbers and signs on the blackboard. I both hated and relished those moments, when I registered that I understood the mathematical concepts perfectly well, yet could not comprehend the words coming out of her mouth.
Puberty is tough enough without having to adapt to a completely different language, culture, or environment.
The diluted coursework for ESL students can have disastrous academic repercussions. In 2013, 20,000 students sued the state of California after they were held back in school for low proficiency due to language barriers. Similarly, Haley Jordan, a former eighth-grade science teacher at a school in Phoenix, Arizona, told me her school often assumed that English learners wouldn't excel in other subjects, even though her "immigrant students were the ones most interested in science. They responded really well to visuals and hands-on activities, but all the district looks at was standardized test scores."
Other schools have handled immigrant students more gracefully: Abbey Davis, a fourth-grade social studies teacher in Marin County, California, told me her school encouraged her to attend a two-day workshop solely dedicated to educating English learners. "It was paid for by the school district since this is a privileged area with plenty of funding," she told me. "We talked about ways teachers could make the English learner students feel comfortable and safe within the community."
Making English-learning students feel safe and comfortable isn't just important for their academic performance but for their social survival. When each conversation means yet another potential failure, kids go to great lengths to avoid human interaction. Once, shortly after I moved to California, I was playing paddleball in gym class when a girl on the opposing team accused me of cheating and called me a chink. Even with my limited English, I recognized it as a racial slur. I struggled to retaliate by calling the girl a bitch—one of the few insults I knew—but the girl only laughed at my poor pronunciation of the word and mocked me even more. For the rest of that quarter, I took refuge from others in the school library whenever possible.
Things do seem to be improving, and most American schools now take a hard stance on harassment and bullying. Jen Pinkham Gutierrez, a sixth-grade teacher in Lodi, California, told me her students have made an effort to welcome immigrant students. "They want to help and teach the new students," she said. "They ask, 'How do you say this where you come from?' and we talk about everyone's different culture."
During my first few years in America, none of my ESL teachers asked about my background—how smart and confident I'd been back in Taiwan, and how much I struggled to bring that confidence to classrooms where I could barely grasp the language. I felt powerless without my voice. I couldn't prove my worth, stand up for myself, or make friends. It was well into high school when I could adequately express my thoughts and emotions in English, when I stopped dreading being called on in class. And if that moment can come sooner for the thousands of other immigrants who will enroll in American schools this year, we'll all be better off.
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