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A Cultural Plunge
by Gary Fortune

While attending school in San Diego I wrote an article on a observation I did of an elementary classroom. The observation reminded me of some of my own personnel experiences, which inspired me to change my credential from secondary to primary.

I took the plunge into a bilingual classroom at La Jolla Elementary. As I walked through the school's campus, I envisioned my self as a child again, entering the 2nd grade. This would be my first day at a new school. The tightness in my stomach was unbearable; again, I was going to be the new kid. Yes, this was an experience I had dealt with before, but still was powerless to control my feelings. Today was different though; my parents had recently moved overseas and today was my first day in a new school in a foreign country. A country where the language was unfamiliar to me. This was going to be my toughest challenge yet.

The teacher greeted me at the door of my classroom with a smile. He spoke a little of my native language to me as together we entered a world I wasn't sure I was prepared for. As I walked through the doorway I felt all the blood in my body surging. I had my fist clenched so tight, the whites of my knuckles were showing. I was ready, let anyone of my new classmates say something derogatory to me and I would show them.

As I scanned the classroom through suspecting eyes, and watched all the faces watching me, a feeling of isolation came over me. Their physical appearance was different from mine. The trepidation in my body was growing, I was wishing they would stop looking at me. It was then that the walls of the classroom caught my attention. The strain I was feeling was eased by the bright colors and beautiful artwork that decorated the walls. Maybe this wasn't such a terrible place after all,I thought. At that moment I knew the walls of the classroom would be my sanctuary. For there would be times now and in the future, that I would feel alienated and alone. Enmeshed in the tranquillity of the walls is where my mind would be at these times. The walls were also adorned with numerous words and phrases. This only reminded me of the confusion I felt, and after a few blank moments I paid them no more attention.

Once the teacher began to speak, I immediately felt lost. The only assistance for me was his animate behavior. It was apparent that he was modeling the lesson plan. I concentrated intently to attain any amount of information possible. As I sat somewhat bewildered, I feared the commencement of the day's assignment. I knew I would be lost and that my mind would drift away from my work towards the colors and pictures on the walls. Suddenly, the time had come, we were given individual tasks to be completed at our desk. The teacher attempted to assist me as best he could, but his insufficient language capabilities limited his desire.

While my classmates were busily working at their desk, I was busy straining my neck from side to side, trying to see what everybody was doing. Anxiety was building up inside me. I felt like the dumbest person in the world, and very alone. I wanted to do my schoolwork, but these people weren't giving me a chance. I despised them for making me feel that way. I despised them for not being able to speak my language, and overwhelming me with feelings of inferiority. I would just close them out of my mind, I thought. Who needed them anyway.

Deep down inside I wanted to make friends with my new classmates. So, at lunchtime I decided to open myself up and approach my fellow students. At first I was hoping to encounter someone who spoke my language. When I was unable to locate such a person, I gathered up my courage and introduced myself to some fellow students. The few I tried to engage in conversation shunned me with a look of disdain. Why was I so different, I asked myself? I just wanted to be like everybody else.

The school day eventually ended mercifully without me achieving much in the way of schoolwork or social acceptance. I didn't want to come back the next day, but I knew I would have to return. At least tomorrow, I was told, I would have a special tutor to assist me. I felt thankful for that; maybe I could begin to understand the people in this country. All I truly wanted was to fit in. If I could only act and speak like my classmates, maybe I would be accepted. As I walked out the door of the classroom, I was relieved to know that I was only observing a classroom in the United States.

an Equity Literacy Institute and EdChange project
© Paul C. Gorski, 1995-2020