Aug 23, 2015

Why I teach Spanish Immersion

It was around ten years ago that I first started my application to be in the Peace Corps.  It was my long time dream to go and Dave and I were on a bit of a break / break-up while I was living in Germany.  Of course a few months later, he won my heart back (it never takes much) and I put my dreams of 3 years in the Peace Corps on hold (through negotiation that we would definitely both join together after getting married).  I couldn't turn off all my anxiousness to get out and see and save the world though so upon college graduation we agreed I would just go for a year somewhere else.  After contacting and applying to 178409517238987+ organizations (and watching Hotel Rwanda one night), I set my heart on Sudan, not far from Darfur.  Right as I was about to buy my plane ticket, wouldn't you know someone would drop a bomb on the very city I was going to, kill the president and an all out civil war would restart.  So with a heavy heart, I started to look elsewhere.  My (now) in-laws asked me to come to Mexico.  I resisted.  My heart was dead set on Africa.  Africa was really my dream.  But everyone said if I chose Africa, I was choosing to be a 23 year old martyr, so Mexico it was.  It was safer, easier and surely would take me no time to pick up the language seeing as I already had a few years of Spanish in high school and everyone said it was so easy to learn.  Little did I know that I would get there in a few weeks and understand absolutely nothing that anyone was saying.  I thought I was going to save the world and make it better by volunteering in an orphanage but I couldn't even communicate enough to ask where/how to put the dishes away let alone be able to make a difference.  Everyone there bent over backward to help me out and accommodate me.  The kids learned to speak in verb infinitives rather than conjugating them properly just so I could understand them.  The only one there who spoke worse Spanish than me was my little sister who studied French in high school (love you Britt).  People would look at us with so much confusion when we talked while I always tried like crazy to stifle my giggles to no avail.  I was young, needy, spoke awful Spanish and had no idea what I was doing.  I cried multiple times a day and received way more help than I ever gave.  Nevertheless, people there welcomed us with so much warmth and love.  A couple from church we didn't even know gave us a key to their house upon our second time meeting them.  "Mi casa es tu casa" they said and we were always welcome any time, no questions asked.  When my crazy adventurous sister broke her arm jumping off a skateboard ramp (that + being super sick + horrible lice she couldn't pick out due to said broken arm) everyone came to the rescue to take care of her, take her to every doctor, and buy her what she needed with no request to be reimbursed for anything (she left Mexico early to come home and have surgery).  And while I was lonely without my sister there, I slowly but surely learned Spanish (thanks to the infinite patience of every person around me) and no matter how many idiotic mistakes I made, I was treated with nothing but love and kindness.

Fast forward a few years later, Dave and I were married and pursuing our dreams of the Peace Corps.  In the meantime, I traveled to a few more Spanish speaking countries and volunteered with Spanish youth in our church and community in Lansing, who I adored and admired more than words can say and could write another entire blog post about.  Due to economic downfall, we were cut numerous times from our Peace Corps placements and decided to go independently to the Dominican Republic where I would start a special ed. program at another orphanage.  While I know there are distinct differences between Mexicans and Dominicans, what I noticed immediately was the same Hispanic values of love, warmth, and hospitality during every minute of our experience there.  While I can make a meager attempt here on my blog, words cannot even begin to describe the extent of this.  There were a million small but incredibly kind gestures, like removing a piece of jewelry and giving it to me if I said I liked it or people living in extreme poverty who would insist on offering me the little food they had.  And then there were the bigger gestures - people who would do literally anything for us during our times of dire need.  When Dave was sick and nearly dying with malaria in the hospital, everyone we knew was there to help us out, bring us what we needed, and help us find the best care.  Strangers we didn't know would leave their spots in line at a clinic to help us find our way.  When Kenya was born and I couldn't walk to take her in to a doctor, there were doctors who came to the house, checked us and took care of us free of charge, left personal cell numbers for us to call 24 hours and brought diapers and gifts to boot.  Even though we were far away from family, we were with family because the people in this country loved us, received us, and cared for us like family.

Coming back to the states has been a difficult adjustment for about a million and one reasons, but part of it is transitioning back into a culture that has become unfamiliar.  Social norms/boundaries are way different here and I think I've become a bit (or maybe more than a bit) socially awkward as a result - never knowing how close I can get, how quick can I say "I love you" to a new friend, or wondering if I am total freak that I just accidentally kissed this person on the cheek?  So when we moved to Grand Rapids and found a new Spanish speaking church, we felt at home again where we are met with friendly embraces every Sunday and of course have been welcomed in with the same amount of warmth that we had been in the other Latin American countries we had been to.  And I thought maybe this would be an opportunity "pay back" these people with kindness as they were such a blessing to us when we were abroad.  But, not surprisingly, I was couldn't have been more wrong.  Of course, we are the ones who are constantly blessed over and over again by the people in our church.  If there was a hidden camera in our house, you would hear me say repeatedly all the time how much I love the people from our church and how awesome and kind and giving they are and how thankful I am to have met them.  They look out for Kenya like their own daughter, make sure she is fed, jump to help as soon as her little lip turns up and I am certain that they would leap out in front of traffic to save her if she was in danger.  Whether here or abroad, they are still the same people reaching out, showing love, and looking out for our family.  Our church calls itself "A Hispanic Church for Everyone" and goes by the motto "Open hands, open hearts, open minds".  While we might look or speak differently, we have never treated like outsiders or anything other than family.  We are proud to be a part of this family and among these people who work hard, love hard, laugh loud, love life, give anything and everything, and that truly make our community a better place.  Grand Rapids is made up of a 16% Native Spanish speaking population and I could not be more thankful for that fact.

During the children's lesson in church today which involved a "back to school" theme for the kids, all of the teachers were asked to stand and we were asked to share on the spot (something I'm never good at) about why we do what we do.  I stammered something in Spanglish about empowering kids and helping them believe in themselves and make the world a better place.  But the reason I teach Spanish Immersion is so much beyond that.  If you go on our program website, you can find all kinds of research on the benefits of language immersion to the developing brain.  In fact, in the school I attended growing up, a neurosurgeon came to talk to parents and staff recently about how intensely language immersion learning can develop brain muscles that otherwise would remain inactive, resulting in higher order thinking skills, increased creativity and intelligence.  Students receive higher test scores even when tested in a language they've never been instructed in.  They are more likely to get better jobs and earn higher salaries.  But none of these are the reasons I teach Spanish Immersion. I teach Spanish Immersion to give kids the opportunities to connect to these beautiful, amazing people that I have been so blessed to have built friendships with.  To travel to these countries, to reach out a hand, to serve, to connect and to love are the reasons I want to give my students the gift of knowing Spanish and being bilingual.  I am certain that every student in my class will be a better person for being able to know the people of this culture that I have grown to love so dearly.  This is the reason I teach Spanish Immersion and fully plan to enroll Kenya in Spanish Immersion.

Those of you know me know how much my heart longs to be back in Latin America - to be back in the vibrant culture I love, eating the food I love, among brightly colored houses, soaking up sunshine, and more than anything, with the people I love.  But since God's plan is not always the same as our own, this is the next best thing because I'm giving children a gift to go (whether 5 hours in a plane or 5 minutes down the road) and taste the culture and meet the people that I love so much.  And while this blog post may seem long-winded, this doesn't even begin to touch on just how blessed I have been by this beautiful group of people and how they have shaped my views and world and made me a better person.

While I try to avoid writing about anything political because I hate conflict of any kind, this really isn't a political post.  Because really no matter what your stance is on the immigration issue, I am okay with it.  I know immigration is a very complex and sensitive issue.  But what I'm not okay with is seeing such hurtful blanket statements and stereotypes being made lately about the people I love.  Remarks that build walls between cultural groups (pun intended) and teach and perpetuate racism among adults and children alike.  I've seen this both on facebook and outside of it, among both young and old.  And it just really breaks my heart that these people who have shown me so. much. love. are not being welcomed in with the same kind of hospitality that I was always shown and - it makes me ashamed and it is really not okay.  Unfollowing people on facebook and turning the other way is the easiest way to deal with it - but instead I choose to take a stand for these people because I know with certainty that they would take a stand for me.

I know that there are people from Mexico who choose to do horrible, awful things and epitomize the words that Trump has used about them, in the same way there are murderers, drug dealers, and rapists here in the states and every other country in the world.  There are sick, lost, troubled people of every race, every language and every country.  But during the past 10 years of being deeply involved in the Latino culture, I have never met any of these people.  The ones I've met are kind, generous, smart, hard-working, fun, loving and just absolutely amazing people.  The more time I spend with them, the more I admire them and learn about the kind of person I want to be.

In a few weeks I start teaching and will do my first Social Studies unit on the core democratic values of the U.S.A, which include justice, liberty and equality.  In one of the lessons I teach, I give the kids a big stack of photos which include people of every race, age, ethnicity, disability and profession.  There are hungry children, homeless men, astronauts, teachers, and presidents.  I draw a long line on the board representing a continuum in which I write "least value, deserves least rights" and "most value, deserves most rights" on each end.  Then I ask the kids to evaluate each person and place them along the line.  The kids discuss and contemplate this, and there is always at least one kid (I love that kid) that will challenge this idea.  In the end we place every person in one big stack at the far right end of the line - because they all have infinite value.  They all matter.  They all deserve every basic human right.

This seems like pretty basic third grade stuff.  We say that we are a country founded on justice and equality, that every life is equal and every life matters.  But we have to live it and show it in what we say and what we do.  So let's live it, show it, do it - with every person, everywhere, every day, regardless of race, language, social status, documents, or anything else.  Under God, we are all equal and equally have infinite value.  I teach Spanish Immersion so I can teach 8 year olds these basic but oh so important life values.  So how will you live out these values and teach them to your own kids and those around you?