ESL Students Sitting in a Tree 

Adult education does more than just educating adults. For many immigrants, it also serves as a social network.

Like all foul beings who stalk the earth, Oakland school administrator Randy Ward is a sworn foe of all that is good and true. Take his recent threat to shut down the adult-education program, for example. Ward didn't do it to balance the budget and save $13 million for K-12 education. Nor did he do it, as his critics alleged, to set ESL instructors against the teachers union, thereby splitting labor solidarity in the run-up to the contract vote. Ward did it because he hates love.

Make no mistake about it -- love is just what you'll find at adult-ed classes like those in the temporary buildings on Fruitvale's 45th Avenue, amid the homeless shopping carts, "Cash for Cans" recycling center, and palmistry storefronts. A young man I'll call Tony leaned against the wall between classes, sporting a rugby shirt, white baseball cap, a single madonna on a chain, and a big purple hickey on the right side of his neck, courtesy of his classmate, a young woman I'll call, oh, Maria.

Tony arrived in San Leandro a little more than a year ago, from the crumbling old colonial city of Guanajuato in the south interior of Mexico. Maria came from a border town a thousand miles to the north. He's a young man on the make, working as a cook in a Montclair restaurant and nurturing dreams to open his own joint someday. She is daddy's little girl -- her father brought her to the States just three months ago and keeps her in English classes, far away from the world of dishwashers and day laborers. But the heart will out in the end, especially for people bewildered by the fast pace and strange customs of their new world. "I felt like a different person," Tony says of his experience arriving here. "You feel very alone, because you don't have anybody."

In fact, the only place they feel comfortable enough to let their personalities emerge is in this squat, beige building. Tony used to hit on the señoritas with his broken English, but now that he and Maria are together, he has put that aside and plies her with flowers. Love is still tricky for them, however; if Maria's father finds out, he'll ship her back to Mexico. So they have to steal time together on the down low. A few weeks back, Maria's aunt drove by the school and saw them cuddling outside, and her father gave her the third degree when she got home. She's shy, and a bit girly, with a propensity to blush at the drop of a hat. But she had enough cunning to ease her father's fears. Maria's father swears that one day he'll come talk to her teacher and find out what's really going on. "Don't tell him!" she begs her teacher.

Let's say it all together: Awwwwww. Randy Ward, you big meanie. Do you really want to get rid of this?

Most adult-school advocates -- and at its core, adult education is essentially English-language education, despite the occasional sewing class -- stress the program's value in preparing immigrants to work in the East Bay's service and restaurant industries. But adult English classes also teach a less-appreciated skill: how to emotionally relate to the new world you find yourself in. Many immigrants have left behind extended family networks and familiar social traditions that buttress their emotional maturity and give them a host of social mores and cues. Catholic churches and community centers can replicate Old World ambience and help people feel at ease, but someone has to teach immigrants how to adjust to life in America: how to shop or use BART; how to ask for directions or say no to panhandlers -- even how to deal with stress. ESL teachers start with grammar and vocabulary, but eventually wind up imparting first-world social mores.

Jessie Ortiz may ostensibly be teaching the English language in her Fruitvale class, but along the way she teaches socialization. She even has visual aids like "feelings faces," a pink handout with facial expressions that approximate emotions. "In order to have vocabulary acquisition, you need all different kinds of gimmicks," she says. "Everybody knows happy and sad, but people don't know more nuanced words like 'upset' or 'stressed.'" In fact, her lesson this morning, "What makes you upset?," serves as inadvertent therapy for immigrants who often have no one else to talk to, and offers a few nuances about white and black English to boot.

Whenever lonely people find a place to express themselves, can romance be far off? Karla Hernandez left El Salvador with her husband and child two years ago, but her husband, who worked as a cop in his home country, soon found himself without a meaningful role as a man, freaked out, and left her for some time out in Maryland. She tried to make the best of a bad situation, working as a babysitter ten hours a day and learning English at night. But it was tough going: "When I came, I was thinking, this is the worst thing I do," she recalls. "I cry, the one thing I want is to go back to El Salvador. But we sell everything." Fortunately, young Willie Hernandez, who came to America from Guatemala, happened to be in the same class. They soon started dating, drawing knowing glances from their fellow students. Eventually, Karla's husband begged to come back, and poor Willie got the heave-ho. They still attend the same class, however.

Of course, Oakland school politics intervened last month, as Ward suggested he may not have the money to keep the adult-education program. Ward agreed to keep the program for another year, but a teachers' strike is likely, and God knows what might happen if tensions escalate. Teachers like Ortiz are hardly in the mood to talk about romance in their classrooms. "We're veteran teachers, only a few of us have contracts, we all got layoff letters, we are all scared and we think we need to look for work," she snaps. "We're getting second layoff letters, we've been to legal hearings, and we're in a very blue, depressed, angry, resentful mood. We're not in a good place to talk about people falling in love while they learn English."

Ah, but she can't resist. "I had a student who was from Vietnam, a woman, and a man who was from Mexico," she starts. "And the two of them spent all of their literacy classes together, and they always sat with their heads together looking at dictionaries, 'cause they didn't have one language in common. ... And they definitely were interested in each other, there was no doubt. And we all talked about it." But love always comes with heartbreak, and even Vietnamese girls will learn the truths of a simple country song. "We had a big party for Christmas ... and the Vietnamese woman's family, somebody, spoke good English and wrote a note: 'When is this Mexican guy gonna marry my sister?'" The man asked Ortiz to read the note for him, and the whole class fell silent when she spoke. "They began to cheer and scream, 'Marry her, marry her, when are you gonna marry her?' He ran out. He never came back to class. This was such a sad thing."

Only in America can a Mexican man break a Vietnamese girl's heart without a lick of English. To be precise, only in ESL class. Don't turn away from love, Randy.



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