Coming To America

The year was 1974 and Rui had come to America from Portugal a year and a half prior. He had said goodbye to his extended family, who lived in a small farming village on the Silver Coast, and traveled with his sister and parents to America. Because they wanted to make a good impression in the new land, he and his father wore matching three-piece suits and his mother and sister wore their Sunday best. The details are faded, but he remembers the feeling of excitement coupled with confusion.

When they arrived in America, speaking no English, they settled in New Jersey, all four of them living in the basement of their aunt and uncle’s home. Rui’s father immediately got a job in construction and worked evenings as a chef in the Ironbound District in Newark, which had, and still has, a large Portuguese community. His mother got a job in a factory packing boxes and worked evenings cleaning offices. And, a neighbor would watch the kids during the day while they would shadow their mom at night. Their goal was to save enough money to get an apartment of their own, save further to allow them to return to Portugal over the summer, and save even more so they could eventually return to the Motherland permanently.

Because they lived with family, attended a Portuguese church, and lived in a Portuguese community, their early years were very insular. They spoke Portuguese at home, ate Portuguese food and ensured that they were steeped in the traditions of Portugal. Rui’s father started picking up some English, but because he was surrounded by people from his homeland while working both jobs, Portuguese remained his predominant language. And, his mother was actually learning Spanish, as her work colleagues were mostly from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

Rui’s sister, who was a year older and started Kindergarten the year before, was quieter and would never think to bring English into the home. Not that it would be a problem, but her mind was keenly trained to keep her American life within the walls of her American school and return to her Portuguese life once she walked through the door to her shared home. This was further exemplified by the fact that she was sent to a Portuguese school once her American school day was over.

The need to integrate into U.S. culture came as a shock to Rui on that very first day of Kindergarten in 1974. The feelings of that first day of school closely mirrored that of the day he came to the United States, but the memories are more pronounced: excited, confused, proud, and nervous. But Rui knew that his older sister would look out for him and there would be a couple of Portuguese students in his class.

Rui remembers how big the building felt and how small he was in comparison, and how his mom made sure his shirt didn’t have any food remnants from the hearty breakfast she made before scurrying off to work. Rui arrived, hearing a mix of Spanish and English and smatterings of Portuguese in the halls of his school.

And, this is how an ENL student was treated in 1974. Rui – roughly pronounced Roo-ee in Portuguese – was immediately given an American name. He would now be known as “Roy”. 

There were a couple of other Portuguese kids with whom he could communicate in class, but he understood no other content. He was smart so he followed the lead of the other kids during major activities, or maybe that’s revisionist history and he was just shuffled along with the crowd.

A very common thing happened on that first day of school. Well, at least part of it is common to ENL students that is. Rui had to go to the bathroom. He squirmed in his seat trying to hold it in. He tried to think of how he could communicate this basic need to his teacher. But being so obedient, he was afraid to interrupt her lesson. Finally, during play time, he saw his chance, he went up to her and said, “eu tenho que ir ao bano”. She looked back at him blankly. His face growing red, he repeated, “eu tenho que ir ao bano!” She shouted something in English that he was unable to understand. Again, he repeated even louder, “BANHO!!!” Suddenly, he felt a warm sensation crawling down his leg, he then saw a puddle around his feet and began to cry.

And on that day, Roy was born.

Here are some ways to ensure that students who have limited English proficiency can have a successful transition during those first few weeks of school:

     1.    Glossary of Key Words. Include at each student’s desk a glossary of key words that they can use to communicate basic necessities. Be sure to include emotion words like happy, sad, and scared. Also include feeling words like hungry, thirsty, sick, tired, cold, hot. Nouns like bathroom, water, food, lunch. And school-specific words like principal, teacher, nurse, marker, glue, paper, pencil, test, study. You may also choose to provide visual clues by hanging pictures with corresponding English words across your class or providing students with flashcards.

     2.    The Bathroom. At the beginning of the first day of class, teach the students to use a symbol or gesture to request permission to use the bathroom. In our class, we use a magic wand. 

     3.    Assign a Partner. If possible, try to pair students who speak the same first language together for initial assignments. Even better if one student is more fluent than the other and can help with translations. This will enable your students to feel a level of comfort.

     4.    Alternative Language Books. Make an effort to have some age-appropriate books available that are in your students’ first language. Depending upon the situation, parents may even be able to donate some materials. This will enable your student to have some familiar materials available to them.

     5.    A Name is a Name. Do not Americanize a student’s name. Enough said. 

These simple techniques can help with your student’s adjustment to your classroom, and even U.S. culture, while allowing them to retain their identity.