Although I was technically born in America, because my name is Mustafa and my parents were immigrants, it was pretty much assumed by everyone who met me at first that I wasn’t born here.
I grew up eating different foods, practicing different cultural norms. I had different ideas of propriety – I’ll never forget the first time I watched Family Matters and saw everyone indoors wearing their shoes. And when Eddie Winslow talked back to his dad, my older brother and I braced ourselves because we knew it was only a matter of seconds before that kid got spanked into oblivion by his mustachioed father.
As much as my cultural upbringing made identifying with my fellow classmates an issue, I did have the benefit of at least explaining that the reason why my PB&J sandwich didn’t look like theirs was because my parents didn’t believe in sliced white bread. On a completely unrelated note, jelly soaks through pita rather easily, FYI.
I can only imagine how much more difficult school would’ve been for me if I didn’t understand English and what it must’ve been like hanging out with a bunch of merciless elementary students. So when I saw this Twitter user’s post about the first school test he took in English after moving to America, I couldn’t help but sympathize with him.
T.K., blogger at Ask A Korean, talked about how frustrating it was for him to know the answers to a test about photosynthesis – but only in Korean.
Since it was only his second day of class and the other students were given a quiz that day, T.K. wasn’t expected to do the work. He was, however, handed the material by his biology teacher, Ms. Gallagher.
Upon seeing the quiz he knew exactly what he was looking at: the process of photosynthesis. He learned all about it back in his native country of Korea.
The experience made such an impact on him that he’ll never forget the quiz question.
He knew the answers, he just couldn’t tell anybody what they were in English.
Until this day, the feeling of helplessness he had when realizing that all of his knowledge and experiences were useless in a new country where people spoke a new language, is something he clearly hasn’t forgotten.
Unsure of what to do next, he decided to answer the quiz as best as he could – in his native language.
The act of answering the text in a language you know your teacher doesn’t understand is something that’ll probably only be fulfilling on a personal level. T.K. proved to himself that he knew the source material and he was good enough to answer the questions on the quiz.
However what Ms. Gallagher did after receiving his test is where the story gets really interesting. She graded it, and our boy T.K. got the highest score in the class.
Stunned, T.K. asked Ms. Gallagher how she was able to grade his test and it turns out she did some leg work and asked a fellow teacher (who knew a bit of Korean) to help out. They referred to a dictionary and were able to understand what T.K. wrote down.
It’s a memory of validation that affects T.K. to this very day.
Which was a remarkable lesson for a young person undergoing such a huge change in their life. T.K. was motivated to learn English, and he did.
And although it took a while…
…he eventually reached a level of mastery that most native speakers would be impressed by.
T.K.’s post is a reminder that there’s more than one way to “assimilate” into American culture and he takes it as a personal affront when certain political groups and lobbies perpetuate the myth that most immigrants aren’t interested in becoming American.
Because T.K. is an immigrant success story if I’ve ever heard one, and when you look back at it, with the exception of indigenous and native Americans, we’re all immigrants in the U-S-of-A.
Tons of people related HARD to T.K.’s story and began sharing their own immigration experiences.
It’s good to know that there are other teachers like Ms. Gallagher out there who sympathize with ESL students.
It’s moments in our lives like the one T.K. just wrote about, where a single instance of someone caring is all it takes to make a huge difference in a child’s upbringing. Let’s hear it for all the Ms. Gallaghers out there.