Four pages about this!?

I knew that this assignment would be interesting. Every child has a story. As I took Ting from her ESL classroom into the library where I would interview her, asking questions that would help me identify the students that I will someday teach, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Who is this person? How did she get here? What is life like for her?” She seemed excited, bouncing happily beside me down the hall – an understandable attitude considering the realities of the drudgery of High School. Had I been called aside for an interview by a strange twenty-year-old college student, I would have bounced along, too. I wondered if she was nervous to talk to me.

Rewind the scene. Jessica, possibly the only person I know with as hectic an academic and work life as me, and I had decided the previous day to find an ESL student together at Orem High. We, as idealistic junior/seniors at BYU, were probably both simulataneously imagining the good works we would most assuredly accomplish with this assignment; bridging gaps between educators and students, providing impoverished, starving children with books and resources, saving them from a destitute family situation – building bonds that would last for years and years, and possibly beyond this world. We walked into Orem High.

Our meaningless chatter stopped almost mid-sentence as we pulled the heavy front door open and walked inside. It was unlocked. There were students scurrying through the halls, apparently late for class. The corridors were lit by flickering fluorescent light; almost no natural sunlight in the high-ceilinged, maze-like building. “Where’s the office?” After walking a few unsure steps, we finally saw a depressingly brown sign proclaiming, “MAIN OFFICE,” jutting out from wall. We walked inside.

It should be noted that both Jessica and I attended school districts distinctly different from Orem High. For one, they were both far away from the security of Happy Valley. My parents both teach in public schools where in order to enter the building during the school day, someone from the office must buzz you in. The school was not locked. If we had wanted to, we could have walked straight to the ESL room, without bothering to check in at the office. Jessica and I both felt alarmed by this lack of security. Our worries continued as we entered the office.

There was one woman in the Main Office. She had curiously blonde hair – curious, because of its context with the rest of her old and tired body. We stood there for about two minutes, and she didn’t look up until Jessica made a small cough. “We’re BYU students, we have an appointment with Terri Martin, your ESL teacher?” “What?”

Jessica and I were not intimidated by this woman, although that seemed to be her main goal. Maybe I’m being a bit harsh; she was probably just unleashing the stress accumulated from years of stacks of papers to collate and file, phones to answer, and directions to give to various people. In the end, we got our bright neon yellow “VISOTOR” badges, and left the office in search of the ESL room.

Hall C, room 11. C-11. C-11. “Wow, that sign must have been there for centuries!” TERRI MARTIN, it proclaimed, in white letters on blue plastic. It was above the room C-11. “Well, here goes!” Jessica opened the door.

There were approximately twelve students sitting in a semi-circle around the teacher’s desk, behind which sat an old-looking lady with her hands folded on her desk. Of the twelve students, eleven were boys. Not just boys – loud Hispanic boys. Jessica, who had lived in New York City for two years, told me later that they had been swearing and using the kinds of vulgarities that would probably have made the old-looking lady send them to the office, had they been in English.

It turned out that Ms. Martin, the lady with her hands folded so neatly, had no control whatsoever over these boys. Not only were they swearing, but they poked, teased, laughed, yelled, and talked. They did not even seem to acknowledge Ms. Martin’s existence. When we popped our heads in the room, it took about forty seconds for the Hispanic boys to stop their act.

“We’re the BYU students…” Jessica said. “Oh yes! You need to interview two students who have been here for more than a year. That’s it, right?”


“Who would like to go?”

The class was silent for a while, until one of the boys reached over and poked his neighbor, which set all of the Hispanic students into a fit of giggles. “I go! I go!” said a voice in the corner. I hadn’t noticed her before, but there, sitting with book open and her hands folded in an almost perfect impression of Ms. Martin, sat a small Asian-looking girl. Jessica and I had previously agreed that we would interview two separate students, and I gave her a non-verbal gesture indicating that I could take the Asian-looking girl. After Jessica found one of the Hispanic boys willing enough to play along, we exited the ESL room en route to the library.

I then started my interview with Ting. She told me that Tina is her Americanized named, but that everybody at school calls her Ting. She was born in Beijing, China, where she lived and received schooling until she was 16. She came to the United States when her mother took a nursing job in southern California, where she lived until three months ago. She has been attending Orem High since the beginning of school in September.

When I asked her how long she was planning on being here in the United States, she laughed and said, “Forever!” as if it was common knowledge, a waste of breath to ask. The assignment requires that we ask certain questions about the students’ family life, but when I tried to ask about her parents, it was very hard to understand what happened.

I wondered if it was a language barrier or if perhaps, she was embarrassed about something. Her father is still in China, where he teachers Mandarin Chinese. I decided not to ask about the last time she’s been back, or whether she’s even seen him for two years. I could tell she wanted to move away from that particular subject.

“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” Here, she really laughed at me. “One!” might as well have been, “DUH!” She explained that in China, the government controls the number of children allowed per couple.

As we continued to talk, I realized that her mother is still in California, but she is living with his brother, her Uncle, and their family in Orem. They live in white, middle-class, quiet suburbia. At home, Ting speaks Chinese with her uncle sometimes, but mostly ends up speaking English. Her aunt doesn’t understand any Chinese, “She American!” Ting has three cousins she lives with, all under the age of six. She never speaks Chinese with them.

Ting did not understand the question when I asked if she was being taught to read and write in Chinese. She replied that she can write and read Mandarin, read Cantonese, read Taiwanese, read a little Japanese, and read/write a little English. After rephrasing the question several times, she answered no, she receives no schooling in Chinese here in the United States.

When I asked her about her friends, she said that there were two other Chinese girls she likes to be with, but they never come home with her to her Uncle’s house. Ms. Martin later told me that those two students were not receiving instruction through the school’s ESL program; they were either bilingual or had previously been mainstreamed. “She really doesn’t have any friends,” Ms. Martin sighed.

In an essay Ting wrote about herself, she described her social situation: “When my first day I came to Orem High School I feel so scary, because everything is new for me, for example; I need to use my school map to find my new classes, I don’t have a friends in here, I don’t know how to use a locker, and I don’t know how to talk with each other. I still felt scary and confusion.”

I started to wonder if maybe Ting was held back in school; she was an eighteen year old junior in High School. I wondered if Ms. Martin was exaggerating Ting’s social life; if maybe her perspective was limited by times that they interacted during the school day. Later, I learned that Ms. Martin has Ting for four out of seven periods during the day. The way Ting smiled when she talked with Ms. Martin told me volumes on how important this tired woman was in her life. It’s possible she is the sole person who actively cares about Ting’s social and academic development.

There are, of course, many resources available for ESL students in Orem, Utah. Although a predominantly middle class, white, LDS city, a surprising amount of resources exist and can be made available to help people from diverse cultures. There are Asian Culture clubs, as well as cultural activities (films, panel discussions, forums, etc.) hosted by the Orem Public Library. Aside from Asian-centric activities, there is an active and prominent Recreation Center that organizes Jr. Olympics and a Halloween Corn Maze. If Ting wanted friends, she could walk into just about any LDS church building and expect a mob of grinning, bouffy-haired, blonde girls. “Welcome!” However, all of these resources end up being useless until a connection can be made between them and Ting, which hadn’t yet happened.

What expectations are there for Ting? What will her future life be like? The eleven loud Hispanic boys make her ESL class a difficult learning environment; will she be able to successfully acquire the English proficiency skills needed to get a successful job in society? Will Ting be able to rise above her difficult family circumstances? Is she set up for failure? When I went back to visit with Ms. Martin a second time, she mentioned to me that, “It’s too bad that Ting will be moving next year. She already changed schools five times since coming to the United States, and now she will have to start all over again in Draper.”

Ting has linguistic skills beyond the average ESL student. She can not only read and write in her native tongue, Mandarin Chinese, with a fairly high proficiency (having been schooled there until she was 16), but she can also read Japanese, Taiwanese, and Cantonese. Nobody seems to value these skills that she possesses; instead, they seem to reinforce the fact that she does not speak or understand English very well. She expressed embarrassment during our interview, and again, in a sample of her writing that I read. She expressed feelings of shame, stupidity, and self-deprecation for her lack of fluency in English. Ms. Martin did not seem to do much to promote her self-confidence/self-worth.

Here I sit, now, typing up a four-page paper on the experience of getting to know this ESL child. I understand the objectives of the assignment; getting to know the students that someday, if we can ever obtain that distant piece of paper (diploma) approving us as being competent beings of intelligence, we will have in our classrooms. This student has a difficult life. The more I ask myself what her future is like, and what she will be able to expect from life and the world, the more depressed I become – especially contrasting it with the affluent private school education I was able to obtain. How can this world be so unfair?

The daily challenges Ting faces seem almost insurmountable. It seems that even help from other teachers would do little to provide Ting with what she needs to get a worthwhile education. Ting needs confidence, friends, and a positive learning environment in her ESL classroom. Unfortunately, the latter item is almost entirely dependant on Orem High’s enrollment and ESL student policies/procedures. That problem is almost easier to solve than the elusiveness of self-image and sociality. You can’t force someone to feel good about themselves – you can’t force someone to be liked/likeable. Ting is in a tough spot.

Unfortunately, both Jessica and I realized that we are really not in any kind of position where we can become mentors to these children. The pace of our busy lives runs both of us thin, averaging four hours of sleep/night, both of us trying to balance teaching foreign languages by day while learning about how we should by night, through BYU’s night class program. The truth is, I have no idea what can be done in the short run to help this student.

There is still hope, however. I would like to end this paper with the last paragraph from Ting’s essay. It proves that a positive attitude has the power to change bad situations into something better: “A few days ago, I am better then first day. I can quickly to find my classes with out school map. I can talk more with my teachers and my classmates. In the lunch time, I ate with my new friends. I never felt nevouse, I never felt lonely, and I never felt confusion. Now I felt so happy to come Orem High School. I hope I can have a great time in Utah.”


  1. Very interesting...let's talk. Sharon

  2. Thanks for all the detail. I felt like I was a fly on the wall during your interview.

    How does this compare with your feelings of being in France, all alone?

    I can only imagine.


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