My tenth-grade students sat in the darkness, their eyes fixed on the grainy black and white photograph magnified on a screen in front of the classroom.They considered the four figures frozen in time: a man with an insouciant grin, a woman with a pearly smile, a curly-haired girl wiping her nose, another staring defiantly into the lens. A family posing in a sparsely decorated bedroom, as if perched on the edge of an unknown future.
The unit theme was cultural stereotypes. The Honors English class assignment was to invent a story based on the image.
“They’re an immigrant family!” piped up one student. “They’re about to move to the United States!” conjectured another. “It’s the first picture they took after they got here!” posited a third.
Then there was a pause. “Miss Rhor? Is that you?” asked one student, pointing to the toddler with the unwavering gaze.
A murmur of recognition skittered around the room. They looked at me for confirmation.
I nodded. They were all right. It was me. We are an immigrant family. It was the first picture we took after arriving in this country from Ecuador.
Across the room, waves of understanding lapped across the students’ faces. Suddenly, a standard creative writing exercise became something much more personal. Suddenly, the classroom discussion about stereotypes became something much less academic.
That was my plan.
My students knew well that I am a Latina immigrant, that my family came to this country when I was a child, that I grew up speaking Spanish, that I’m proud of my culture and my roots.
I make sure they knew—because they needed to know.
About half of the students in that high school were Latino; in some of my classes, two-thirds of the students were. Yet, in Texas, where Latinos make up nearly half the student population and are growing in numbers, only 22 percent of teachers are Hispanic.
So, for many of my students, I was the first teacher who shared stories of her Latino heritage, who infused the normally European-centric English honors reading list with works by authors of all backgrounds, and who pronounced Latino names correctly.
This opened the door to a learning experience that can’t be measured by standardized tests.
When we analyzed a short story by a Haitian-American author describing the dichotomy of her bicultural upbringing, I told tales of my own immigrant childhood—how my parents played Andean music every Sunday morning, how my mother used Vicks VapoRub to cure all ills, except that I thought it was an Ecuadorian medicine called Bicbaporu.
When we studied A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, a routine class reading turned into an impromptu bilingual staging, with one Latina student reading her part in Spanish and her classmate reciting his in English.
For my many Latino students, those moments validated their lives in a way much of their schooling has not.
They giggled when I rolled my r’s and elongated my o’s to call on “Roberto” or “Antonio.” Then they puffed their chests out a little prouder. They lit up with delight when I introduced them to Coca-Cola and Coco Frio by Martin Espada and Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario. Then they shared their own family histories.
Few things have moved me as deeply as the gleam that surfaced in their eyes and the pride that emerged in our discussions.
Perhaps it was because I saw myself in them.
In one soft-spoken girl, diligent and determined in her studies, I saw the me of many years ago, a pig-tailed girl with crooked glasses and the fire to learn, a girl whose loyalties were divided by immigration and who hungered to find her identity.
In one sharp-witted boy, dismissed by a previous English teacher because of his classroom antics, I saw an aspiring writer whose talents had simmered undiscovered.
In the three male cousins assigned to one of my classes, I saw my own primos—mischievous but tender-hearted, rowdy but respectful.
And they saw a teacher who regarded them not as statistics or stereotypes or strangers, but as familia.
It made a difference—not just for the Latino students, who seemed to thrive like wildflowers, but for all my students. The classroom became a place where differences and diversity were discussed, not avoided or met with uncomfortable silence.
A Pakistani girl told one class about her experiences with discrimination. A Polish-American student talked about his family’s immigrant journey. Bookworms and band students. Jocks and cheerleaders. Each had a story to tell. Each story contained a lesson worth teaching.
Just like the faded photo of the immigrant family from Ecuador.