“Thank you to Alex for helping me with mathematics,” Imelda said, teary-eyed, her usually fluid Spanish broken with emotion. The young woman with long, shiny black hair was standing on the stage of an elementary-school cafeteria in a maroon cap and gown. She was the first of our parents to receive a Secundaria - a junior-high diploma. As she continued to thank the other tutors and teachers, as well as her family, she broke down.
I smiled in pride as my other students, most of them decades older, filed up to receive certificates for another year of study. They had worked hard; I hadn’t remembered how much effort is required to learn the basics. Each had to learn a whole new concept: fractions, pre-Algebra, or even how to read and write. I often wondered how they could come back to all of this after many years away. As I watched Imelda graduate, though, I understood what a huge accomplishment an education is and it was then that I appreciated the importance of giving them a second chance.
The morning after graduation, I was exhausted, but it was no wonder since I’d spent two hours a night, two days a week for a total of 60 hours doing my community service. I had heard about the opportunity to tutor
illiterate, non-English-speaking Mexican immigrant parents through my school’s Spanish Honor Society. The workbooks on reading, writing and mathematics came through the Mexican Consulate and were meant to help them pass the test to receive credit for grade school levels from Mexico. When we found out we’d be teaching in Spanish, half the volunteers dropped out, but I was thrilled. Although I had been studying the language for four years, I had never been able to use it consistently.
I went to the first session feeling shy, but immediately fell in love with teaching as I helped a 23-year-old janitor make sense of the cubes and squares in his third-grade level math book.
Over the next few weeks, it occurred to me that I had never had so much fun solving math problems. We laughed constantly. I had to concentrate to follow the quick and soft-spoken conversations, but it paid off when the teachers commented on how well I understood Spanish. There were Christmas and Easter parties with delicious food, and Jorge and Imelda, who liked to dance, taught me how to salsa.
As time passed, I began to feel the pressure of balancing school and volunteering. Explaining abstract
concepts in a foreign language was very difficult and it was frustrating to spend the night trying to make a student understand a problem only to watch a native speaker walk in and show them in five minutes. When I did get through to a student, though, it was worth the effort, such as when after several frustrating attempts, Rosa began to understand place value when I explained it to her in terms of pesos. My speaking and listening improved as well, and not just in Spanish. Aileen, the director of parent programs, wrote me a letter of recommendation saying that I am “very friendly and relate well with the adults in our program.” I smiled as I read this since it is the opposite of the way most see my shy personality. But I had grown. The desire to connect with and help my students had forced me to come out of my shell.
Spending 60 hours of my high-school existence as una maestra was exhausting, frustrating and ultimately 10,000 times more rewarding than sitting home watching TV. I feel blessed by every minute I spent with my students, every person I got to meet, every single new word of Spanish I learned, every dance and every laugh. Not many high-school students have the time to volunteer every week, or the opportunity to work with immigrants, but my experience and the impact I was able to make have become an invaluable part of my life.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.