Children converged, as if scrutinizing an alien. And actually, she was an alien, according to the green card that would eventually be issued by her new government. Submerged in the thick unknown, sounds around the alien were muffled and incoherent, her voice silenced by an inconsolable discomfort. A gentle hand from behind led the alien to a seat and provided her with crayons and paper. Books with foreign characters were also set on the table. The older hand of the nameless grown-up enveloped her younger hand to help scrawl letters on the page. The struggle to write and read would persist for a few years yet. Just try, was the implied message. Just try.
A kind teacher with smooth hair and shiny lips let kids spray foam on desks to write letters with their fingers. The alien did not understand. Her report cards were littered with a smattering of U’s and S’s for unsatisfactory and satisfactory, categorizing the alien’s struggles. How can one know what’s in the mind of a child who does not speak? If the kindly teacher with smooth hair and shiny lips had been evaluated based on the test scores of children like the alien, her salary would surely stagnate as inflation grew. The comments on the report card suggested the alien watch “Sesame Street,” as deciphered by a warmhearted landlady, who became guardian and teacher of things important to life in a new land. “Watch TV” was a curious charge, before the controversy of TV as babysitter that preceded the research on screen-time. The alien grew comfortable with letters by watching “Sesame Street” and progressed.
The following year, something interesting happened on one particular morning. Mrs. Franklin, usually full of warm hugs, came in with big, dark glasses. Worry and foreboding set in. Mrs. Franklin was the one who nurtured three alien girls, the ones who barely spoke but whispered to each other in a common language. With the trust of parents from a culture that valued teachers, Mrs. Franklin took the girls to her home and provided a simple but rich experience. Cherries were harvested off a laden tree to be eaten with vanilla ice cream. The alien girls learned to spit magenta pits into a white bowl forming trails, then patterns.
But this morning, something was different. Someone whispered that one of the bigger boys, a two-time second grader with unruly hair and features hardened from a lack of something or someone dear, said or did something cruel - or perhaps it was an accumulation of cruel moments - driving her to tears, the remnants of which hid behind dark glasses. The alien was also missing someone dear, but this brought sadness, not meanness. As much as she tried, Mrs. Franklin could not reach every child, yet each affected her, in small and large ways, at deeper levels than anyone could know. She retired midyear with little fanfare, and Mr. Matsuo took her place. Reasons for her departure were weakly communicated, but her warm hugs and the way she removed frustration from those struggling were deeply missed.
Mr. Matsuo, stern, intimidating, and bespectacled, was rumored to crack knuckles with a ruler, but no one in this particular class saw that. An argument between two students resulted in both students leaving the classroom to talk it out. The ultimate outcome was a best friendship, and children becoming adults who shared pictures of their kids on Facebook several decades later. The alien learned to read under the firm but fair hand of Mr. Matsuo — in the absence of rulers.
Then, there was Ms. Erdos, a tall wisp of a woman who encouraged her students through struggles and allowed the alien to express her culture. Sometime before the Lunar New Year, the alien made red paper envelopes to fill with pennies for distribution to her classmates. An errant staple accident occurred, in which two little fingers were stapled briefly together. It hurt, but the alien remained mute, quietly removing the sharp bits, which left two tiny red dots in the tips of small fingertips. The alien returned to her math packets. The struggles became manageable as the alien completed one math packet after another with the help and encouragement of Ms. Erdos, who made the alien fit into her surroundings. Instructions started gaining sense; risks were taken and mistakes were made and then corrected under Ms. Erdos. The alien with U’s and S’s, who did not read until the second grade, was placed in Gifted and Talented Education (GATE), learning the rudiments of BASIC and saving on cassette tapes in the days before floppy disks, CD-ROMs, and the cloud. Ms. Erdos cried with the alien when she moved across country a year later with parents who went from two jobs each to one that mattered, weaning off of food stamps somewhere along the way.
In a new place, the alien was forced to adapt yet again. And she did, with the lessons of those who molded her from elsewhere. The alien started to love reading and picked up increasingly thicker books by C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and Susan Cooper. While minding her younger siblings at play, she read on her own in the shade of elm tree canopies, before Ophiostoma ulmi would devastate the arboreal archways of the Midwest. Questions and curiosities were building, requiring answers that did not come easily. Middle school found her placed in one teacher’s class, who recommended and pushed for the alien to be placed in another teacher’s higher-level class in the early days of tracking. The alien, who preferred to remain mute, hesitantly accepted the challenges posed and learned to speak in front of interested and disinterested eyes, despite her preference for silence.
One teacher after another acknowledged the struggles of this young alien and reached out to meet her reach, challenging her forward toward a greater, yet-to-be-realized future — one in which the alien would become a citizen, seeking incrementally positive ways to impact our society.
Chi Klein serves as the Academic Dean of the Upper School and teaches AP Biology at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal School in Bradenton, FL. She has a bachelor’s degree in Life Sciences from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master’s degree in Biological Sciences from Northern Illinois University. Her interests include encouraging students to follow their intellectual passions and supporting teachers as dedicated professionals in their field.