Why I Speak Spanish

Warning: Some of the content in this post may challenge you as I talk about a politically charged topic.If you start reading, please read all the way to the end or you might miss the main message.

Here’s What It Was Like Growing Up As An Illegal Alien 

I spent most of my life as an illegal alien, watching from the outside as I desperately wanted citizenship. I did everything I could to fit in; I changed my behavior, learned to speak another language, and looked down on the other illegals who didn’t put in the same effort I did to ‘look the part’. 

I was treated like a second-class citizen because I was not a native-born, many in the community looked down on me when they met or learn of my family. My family was clearly not citizens, they didn’t speak the language, kept to themselves, didn’t attempt to integrate, and everything about their behavior and accent gave away how much they didn’t belong.

Then, I married a citizen. He taught me about his culture, while still struggling to integrate. People were kind and nice, but on occasion, some changed the way they treated me because I was not a born citizen and my past was not acceptable. They spoke slower even though I learned the language. When misunderstandings arose - normal ones that happen in life - they sighed and chalked it up to me not being born into it. They’d looked down upon me rather than clarifying what was confusing.

Middle School

I am not a front-row student. Those students get way too much attention and I’ve always preferred to fly under the radar if I can. There’s the added benefit of being able to work ahead if you sit in the back row and finishing your work before the teacher can even finish her lecture. That’s exactly the tactic I used in my 7th-grade geography class.

The teacher was really passionate about the subject and overall a very caring teacher, but geography, in the forms of technical terms, never interested me. I was very bored in the class and I’d frequently have the homework done before she finished her lesson. Once the lesson was over she’d give everyone 15 minutes to start working on their homework and I could use this time to read my own book. 

One day she was walking through the back row and she paused at the students next to me. She spoke slowly and clearly to them but I could tell she was very frustrated, they had been drawing pictures on their worksheets rather than doing them. Outright not doing the work would never have crossed my mind so my interest was piqued and I observed as casually as I could.

“You need to do these worksheets.” She said to them.

They looked up at her and shrugged their shoulders.

Her impatience was growing. “You need to do the class work or you won't pass. NO PASS-EH.”

One of the boys spoke up. “No learn-eh no speak-eh.”

She rolled her eyes and put her hands up in exasperation and walked away. I watched the boys out of the corner of my eye for the rest of the period as they tried hard to figure out the worksheet. My next few classes had a handful of the same students in them and I observed how the teachers all clearly avoided them and in some cases utterly ignored them. They were there but not really there.

It went against my grain. I didn’t like how completely overlooked they were - even though I had ignored them until only a few days earlier. They sat away from everyone at lunch and were totally ignored by the other students. Sure everyone has their group of friends they eat with but they at least acknowledge the other students with nods and pleasantries, but these kids were unacknowledged.

I didn’t fly below the radar because that’s what I wanted, I genuinely wanted to be seen but because of a complicated home life it was just better, I felt, to go unseen. My insides hurt that there were others that lived this same existence. They were ok with being unseen because in many of their cases they were not legally here so going under the radar was also to their benefit.

I asked one of my friends what they thought of the table in the corner that no one ever looked at and she replied “That’s where the dumb kids sit. They’ll fail out soon enough or drop out.” a few others agreed with her.

I was sickened by her sentiments. I had seen what one of them was drawing on his paper it was great. He wasn’t stupid he just didn’t understand. Speaking English couldn’t and shouldn’t be the sole measure of their intelligence and worth. 

So a few days later I mustered up my courage and when our geography teacher was done with her lecture I moved my chair in front of their desks and began to slowly read the worksheets to them. At first, they just looked at me in shock, but I had a natural self-consequence about me and I pushed through the initial awkwardness.

I used hand movements and gestures to help me, I didn’t speak a word of Spanish and they spoke very little English, but we managed. Each day was the same and it moved from being more than just in geography class into the others. My Language Arts teacher got mad at me one day but I told her my grades weren’t suffering and neither were theirs and asked her to make an exception to her no talking rule. She liked the classroom to be quiet so the students could do their reading and my voice isn’t exactly quiet, I eventually talked her into letting us go to the library at the end of each period promising we would not mess around and get in trouble.

This lasted the rest of 7th grade and 8th grade. They picked up more English and needed less and less help and I learned some very basic Spanish. As soon as I got into 9th grade and could take a language I jumped on the opportunity and took the accelerated program. I was in advanced classes so I rarely ever had ESL students in my classes anymore but they all knew where my friends and I sat for lunch and they’d seek me out if they needed anything. My friends were all appalled with me over this set-up and frequently asked me why I bothered to talk with them. They were undesirable. I just rolled my eyes and did my own thing, which if you haven’t noticed, is pretty much what I did all the time.

All Men Were Created Equal

I’m not quoting from any American doctrine here, I’m quoting a Christian one. You see when I said earlier that I was an illegal alien I meant I was an outsider in the body of Christ. I didn’t grow up in a Christian home and every time I stepped foot in a Christian house or a Christian church I knew I was a foreigner and I accepted that I would not be treated with the same respect and dignity as a ‘citizen’ would be. I knew I would be judged when they met my family.

When I was 12 years old I went to the church at the end of my street. I had decided that I was old enough to make that trek and so I did (see I really did whatever I wanted). For several weeks I showed up at the church and sat in the back during the grown-up service - I had no clue there was a children’s service. Several of the parishioners noticed me and were entertained by my appearance. At first, they just watched me but after a week or two someone finally greeted me. They were so nice and I was so excited I went straight home and told my mom how cool they were and began convincing her to come to. 

Eventually, my mom came with me a few weeks later. Comments were made by both parties and my mom left never to return to that church again, and the next week when I showed up I was told it was better if I stopped coming and that I wasn’t welcome.

I wasn’t a natural born citizen of the kingdom of heaven and my visa was denied. Years passed by and I continued to attend church, in fact, I even believed Jesus was the risen Son of God and my personal Savior, yet church after church treated me differently than those who were born into Christian families. I’d attend with friends who were from Christian families and I would get excluded from activities or events because I didn’t come from a Christian family. I spoke “Christianese” I modified my behavior and yet I still wasn’t one of them. In some cases, I even followed the rules better than the kids from Christian homes.

I wanted so desperately to be a part of the community. To each other, they were kind, loving, helpful, forgiving, and understanding. I couldn’t explain it back then, but I knew God was real even if they weren’t. I knew God loved me as his daughter and I had the same value to Him and that after this life my reward would be the same, but I accepted that in this life I would never be a member of the in-crowd. In some cases, I even viewed Christians as a necessary evil that had to be dealt with to follow the God I knew existed.

Being unseen and unheard is a painful way to live and there is a large population of people in this country that live that way every single day. The plight of these students was familiar to me because it was what I faced every time I attended church. I couldn’t have articulated it this way back then, I simply knew I was just like them in some way. I knew we were the same even if our earthly citizenship wasn’t the same.

Conversation Tools - Trying

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When we hear "I'll try" from our children we generally have one of two responses: we drop it, or we bury them in shame for their failure thus far trying to impress upon them their need to do not try. Both of these responses do not deal with the conflict at hand or the future conflict that will arise when "I'll try" turns into another failure.

When we hear "I'll try" that should be our cue to ask an important question: "What does trying look like?"

Say John is always late for school. Mom is getting very tired of having to walk him in after the bell rings to check him in. They've had the conversation about how John's actions are affecting the situation, and John sees the problem, but he responds that he will try to do better. Mom can now identify with John what it looks like to try. Perhaps John can have his clothes picked out the night before, and he can set his alarm earlier. 

Let's try another one. Jane has gotten a letter sent home again because she has shouted at another kid at school. We've done all our listening and used all our other skills, and Jane has said she will try to keep her temper in control. Now, mom must identify what it looks like to try, what are the things that Jane needs to do to prepare herself to "try" to keep her temper in control. Jane can practice mindfulness each night before bed, or other calming exercises for a set time each day. She can practice telling a teacher before it gets to an escalated point, etc.

 

Santa and Gwendyl

I know that I’m going to get the question so I figure I may as well go ahead and address it. I’m pretty open about the poor relationship that I have with my own mother, and I know someone is bound to ask if I think the Conversation Journal could have helped us. Sometimes, as I’ve gone through this journey I want to say no way there are too many problems between us, but if I’m honest my mom and I had a form of this when I was young.

The year was 1990 something and I still believed in Santa. Long before Elf on a Shelf, my first-grade teacher Mrs. Feather had a little elf that came to our classroom in the month of December to keep an eye on us. I was always wildly caught up in the fantastic and the romance of a good fairy tale. I’m sure my mother could see the light in my eyes as I came home every day to enthusiastically report on the activities of our classroom elf.

I think this must have been what inspired my mother to start writing to me as the elf named Gwendyl. I’m not sure exactly how it started out but a tradition began that carried on until I was in sixth-grade. Gwendyl would arrive sometime after Thanksgiving. I’d find a little note card somewhere in my room with greetings from the little elf and report on what Santa thought of my behavior from the year. I would write him back and give him gifts of stickers and miniature toy items. Between the start of the letters and Chrismas morning, Gwendyl and I would have written dozens of letters to each other.

Through my parents' divorce when I had no one to talk to, I confided my heart to the little elf holding back nothing. I told him of the bullies at school that were picking on me. I opened my heart about everything I had kept inside for the other eleven months of the year. My desire to move out or run away. As I got older and started to question whether or not Santa was real and if the elf was in fact real he would write to me about all the kids in California (I wanted to move away from my mom and live with my grandparents in California) who had stopped believing and how they were sapping the magic out of Christmas. He’d tell me about how you didn’t get Christmas presents anymore if you stopped believing. In short, Gwendyl guilted me to believe Santa for far too long.

In sixth grade (yes I said sixth grade), we were given the first graders’ letters to Santa and asked to write back to them. I was horrified by the act of lying to the first graders and was ranting to my mom about it. I asked her if I could just send the letter to Santa instead of lying to the poor kid. It is a moment that shaped me. I can remember exactly where we were driving and how I was sitting in the car. Corner of Forest Meadows and Beulah in front of Coco’s always feels a little drained of hope to me because that is where hope and magic died for me. That probably sounds dramatic but it felt dramatic.

santaandgwen small

My mom quietly said, “I suppose it has gone on long enough and I’ve got to say goodbye to the Gwendyl act, but Santa isn’t real and Gwendyl has been me this entire time.”

I had bared my soul to that elf, I had asked her on many occasions if she was Gwendyl. My trust was completely broken and shattered. Now we weren’t on the greatest footing already, but this destroyed any last vestiges of respect I had for her. It was literally a tailspin downward in our relationship after that. 

Do I think that a Conversation Journal could have helped us? Yes I do. The first section of the journal parents and children lay down ground rules for the journal and that is designed to prevent the trust from being betrayed or broken. You might want to skip over this part as I’m sure it could feel like the hardest part of the journal, but it is there to protect the relationship. Had my mom and I been on the same page about our letters to each other, had there been transparency and boundaries I do believe that for me, writing to my mom would have been a better way for me to continue conversations with her.

Now there are some mental illnesses involved in our relationship so I’m not sure if we could have ever been as close or open as my heart desired, but I do think that written conversations would have been the best way for her to connect with me. Gwendyl proved that I was willing to open up in writing way more than I ever was verbally. I have never been a huge talker, I have bursts of talking, but then I need recovery time because talking is very draining for me. I’m sure there are other introverts out there that are the same way.

Now the Conversation Journal was designed, initially, for me to continue talking with my oldest daughter when we couldn’t logistically talk with each other. She is a talker and I love her little heart, but at the end of the day, there are 4 other kids that have to be put to sleep that also want to talk to mom. I don’t have the capacity to sit and talk with each of them for an hour or two before bed. We’ve built rhythms into our family of each child having a special one on one time with me and Jason but realistically it can’t be every day. The Conversation Journal allows her and now my sons as well, to continue talking to me when life prevents us from having verbal communication, and I can respond to them while they are at school and I have more leisure time for such things.

I love that they want to talk to me. It is a strange sensation to have them fight to talk to me as I don’t remember ever wanting to sit and talk with my mom, or at least when I did it was always followed by an apprehension that prevented me from speaking up. I am in way over my head and have no personal experience with this. The Journal and the podcast are tools I use to help equip me for this load I carry and I hope that they can benefit others because I’m betting I am not the only person who feels this way when it comes to talking with their kids. 

 

Conversation Tools - Tone

tone

It is a deadly sin in today's world of social media and blogging. This word can really affect how we communicate with our children, and if we do it, we run the risk of damaging the relationship and shutting down the conversation.

To pontificate is to express one's opinion condescendingly or dogmatic manner. The fact that we know more than our children doesn't impress anyone, and we certainly won't impress them if we pontificate to them. It isn't always in what we say, but how we say it.

 

Conversation Tools - Be Curious

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A quick tip on asking questions. Open-ended is always better and will yield better answers; however, not all open-ended questions are equal. Avoid using strong words because these are the words that your child will respond to and perhaps not the question itself. For example, "You must have been angry when that happened, tell me about that." Your child is going to tell you about feeling angry in that situation even if fear was their strongest emotion.

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