School in many languages

Calenthia and Amy have both written posts about the beginning of school. I thought I would continue in that vein and offer some of my own reflections as the parent of a public high school student. Like many families around the country, yesterday was an exciting and momentous day – the start of a new school year. Cierra had her first day as a ninth grader. Any transition brings a mix of emotions: fear, anxiety, anticipation and excitement. For the past two weeks, Cierra has wavered back and forth between being petrified that she will be late to all of her classes, that she will slip on the steps when she is running from one class to the next, and that she will have no one to sit with her during lunch. Far less often, she has been excited to get back into the school routine, taking new courses, seeing friends and meeting new teachers. I tried to tell her that teachers go through all of the same kind of emotions, just maybe not to the same degree.

In the last few days, Cierra received two different class schedules, which escaped our attention until this weekend when we were making that mad last minute dash to lay out school clothes, organize school supplies and buy groceries for lunches. Yesterday morning, I called the school as soon as I thought they might be open in an attempt to straighten things out before school started. No one answered the phone and I got a wonderful voice mail from the principal of the school. Like any customer service recording, I had the option of selecting another language; four other languages to be exact: Spanish, Hmong, Somali, and Karen. I was struck by the variety and perhaps, that sparked me to be more aware once we arrived at school thirty minutes later. As we pulled into the parking lot, I was amazed at the diversity; young people in a wide array of hues, dress, and language. How beautiful and how complex!   It was exciting to see young people from across the city representing cultures from across the world, gathering on one high school campus, As an educator, I have to say, I felt the enormity of the task of educating students from such diverse contexts.

After we got Cierra settled with a new schedule and off to her first day, I walked slowly through the throng of students back to my car. I couldn’t help but reflect about my own first day in ninth grade. I don’t remember much about that first day, except the bus ride home, a thirty-minute ride from the school. I do remember that there was added anxiety and tension at the beginning of that year; the year that schools in my town were integrated. We had one African American student that came to our school. I don’t remember much of the details that led up to that day, but I do remember that Ronica Brown was the student’s name and like me, she was a ninth grader. Every day that year, she and I rode the same bus home from school. Perhaps it’s my impressions as I look back, but I recall the dignity with which she held her head and sat quietly in her seat for that long ride home. I also don’t know if I idealized my memories, but I don’t recall any tension or disrespect, but I also don’t recall that any of us was friendly beyond general politeness. The next year we went to different schools and integration became a city-wide thing at the high school level, with the closing of the all-black high school (I think because it was condemned, but that’s another conversation!).

We have so, so, so much more work to do, but I am thankful for a world where it is more commonplace for schools to look like Cierra’s than the schools of my day. I am also very thankful for people like Ronica Brown who stood against division and hatred and helped bring us to a better place. May we also be beacons for change and instill in our children the confidence, wisdom and strength to be instruments of change in our society.



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About Pamela Erwin

Pamela Erwin (DMin, Fuller Seminary) has a long-time interest in how culture and theology intersect. She studies the global church and issues of reconciliation and diversity. She is also interested in how young people form an understanding of identity and purpose.