Teaching and Terrorism

Emotions and thoughts have been swirling through my mind since I heard about the acts of terrorism in Paris this past weekend. Paris is a city I love dearly, having lived there for over a year in the 70’s in my mid-twenties and returning many times to visit.

I first began reading about the banlieues (outskirts or suburbs) of Paris about a decade ago. This was not the Paris I first experienced. It had become a city of haves and have nots, with the native insiders living within the city and the outsiders/immigrants relegated to substandard lives on the outskirts of the city. These outsiders burned cars and trashed their neighborhoods as a way of expressing their frustration and anger.  Eventually things returned to the status quo and their frustration was forgotten.

This past year the news of the violence that took place at Charlie Hebdo, the French newspaper whose cartoons mocked the Muslim extremists, reminded us of that anger. The lives of several French cartoonists and journalists were taken in another outburst of hatred toward French culture. The world responded with sympathy (“I am Charlie Hebdo”) and a renewed vow to celebrate “free speech.”

But this past weekend’s events, in which local terrorists took the lives of over 100 Parisians, remind us again that this hatred is not dead. More extreme and widespread violence has just begun, and we are now wondering what to do next to contain or combat extremists throughout the world.

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This is where teaching comes into the discussion. I am so proud of my profession; moreso than ever. In the United States teachers are the ambassadors of plurality, seeking to find ways to assimilate and educate our newcomers as they arrive at our borders and in our airports.

This is not to say that all teachers welcome undocumented immigrants and their families; prejudice and scorn often rear their heads in faculty lunchrooms. But even those who do not appreciate our tolerance for immigrants understand that our nation was built on their efforts and continues to flourish in many ways because of them. They also understand that building a wall is not the best way to solve the immigrant dilemma.  Supporting the assimilation of immigrant children and their families into our culture is how our nation will continue to sustain its principles of freedom and equality.

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I have often questioned my own beliefs as a teacher of English to immigrant students over the past several decades. But I have always come to the conclusion that becoming more understanding of people from other cultures, while helping their children to become better educated and assimilated, is the only way to continue to build a foundation of trust and strength.

I am particularly proud of my fellow English as a Second Language teachers.  We are often not held in high regard in our own schools or communities because of the controversial work we do, but we are the best advocates in our educational system for making sure that all children have equal access to a good education. Education is terrorism’s worst enemy and the best weapon we have for preserving our values.

The Gifts of Sight and Insight

Today I woke up very early. The reason: cataract surgery in my left eye. I did not sleep a wink, but this is not unusual for me before a big event. I thought I was handling it well until I went to bed, which is when I began ruminating. Otherwise known as worrying.

A newly retired senior, I’ve been having an extremely hard time driving at night and have stopped doing so except for short 5 minute rides nearby. The lights from other cars are so blinding I cannot see well for a moment or two when a car with its brights on passes by. I knew it was time; I wanted to be more independent

But here’s the thing. I am a recently recovered cancer patient, and I just did not want to have any new medical procedures done. Then I got the news: there’s pressure in both my eyes otherwise known as glaucoma. The opthalmologist/surgeon is sure that once the cataracts are gone the pressure will be alleviated. Let’s hope he’s right.

So I’ve had a lot of time to contemplate the importance of vision. Even though we think we understand and appreciate our vision, it’s just like anything else we take for granted most of the time. Just like I took my life for granted before cancer. Well, not really…I was always appreciative of my health when I had it. But vision is so essential to our well being that we cannot imagine not having it, so we don’t, most of the time.

I am being promised much better vision following surgery in both eyes. (I’m having one eye done at a time, which is typical.) I am trying to imagine seeing clearly for the first time after decades of needing eyeglasses first for reading, then for both distance and reading. If it all works out like it’s supposed to, I’ll be seeing quite well without glasses, except for reading. This, in my book, is a miracle.

In my career as an ESL teacher I encountered many children who were having difficulty seeing either close up or distances. I was often the first teacher to detect the problem since I was able to meet with my students in small groups in my pullout program. I could notice things that mainstream teachers often don’t “see” when they are faced with a room full of students, each one needing attention.

I’ve been reading a lot of complaints about the “integrated model” for teaching English as a New Language (ENL), part of the new regulations for teaching ENL under CR Part 154, but until now I hadn’t given much thought to how this would affect ESL students other than giving them less optimal conditions for learning a new language. In my ESL classroom, where I usually sat right next to my students, I have found marks on children being abused, identified communicable rashes and diseases, noticed children who were listless due to hunger, identified children who need eyeglasses and even one child who was nearly blind but hadn’t been identified as such by second grade, and scores of children who are not sleeping properly due to less than perfect home lives.

With so many children coming from homes where resources are few and often strained, these children need the extra vigilance that an extra pair of eyes can provide. Mine were the extra pair. Now that ESL teachers are having to run from classroom to classroom to co-teach in mainstream classrooms, who will be that extra set of eyes?

There is so much to “see” when you are teacher. Let’s not forget that as we continue to struggle with our students’ academic success, we need to “see” them as children whose physical and mental well being is just as important, if not more so.

Back to Brooklyn

I consider myself and my family members to be well traveled.  Before marriage and children I had driven across the country several times taking different routes; spent three years living in Central California; and lived for nine months in Paris by myself (not as a student). With my family I have traveled to the Northwest, Canada, the Southwest and New England. My two children have lived in even more far- flung locales such as Botswana, Africa; Menorca, Spain; Berlin, Germany, Costa Rica; Australia and New Zealand.  Because we are all so peripatetic,  I think of us as citizens of the world.

What I did not see coming was my return to Brooklyn.  Until my family moved to the north shore of LI when I was 9 years old, we lived in an unusual community of German immigrants in Ridgewood,  Brooklyn. I was too young to know it then, but it was like living in a foreign country.  Most of the families in my neighborhood were German, with a smattering of other immigrants.  Mostly everyone I knew, including the local shopkeepers, spoke German.  Neither I nor any of my six brothers and sisters spoke German, even at home.  My father was a transplanted Floridian who spoke only English, so English was our first and only language. My mother spoke only German until she entered school and eventually became English dominant.

Like all postwar families we were ready to leave Brooklyn and move to a “better life” in the suburbs.  My father was building our new home, pretty much singlehandedly, which is the only way my parents could have afforded to move.  I don’t remember my feelings about leaving Brooklyn and I remember very few things about actually living there.  I know we walked everywhere, took an elevated train to church every Sunday, roller skated a lot on our street, and pretty much stuck close to home during the week.

It was very liberating for me to move to the small seaside community on LI  where I lived until I went to college.  I discovered nature, wide-open spaces and the freedom to wander all day without fear.  Those were the golden years.  Life must have been much better for my parents, too, since their brood had grown to eight children which would have been unsustainable in our cramped city apartment.  We were lucky enough to be part of a very fine school district, so we all received a very good, albeit old- fashioned, education.  Although the house my father built was sold following my parents’ deaths, I will always think of it as home.

But this story doesn’t end there.  Today my husband (who is from the Bronx) and I will be returning to Brooklyn to visit our son and his girlfriend who share an apartment in Carroll Gardens.  When my son first moved to Brooklyn about a decade ago I thought it was a phase and he would eventually move on.  During that decade he moved several times through several neighborhoods, each time improving his real estate status.  He has now been in Carroll Gardens for several years and loves it there.  At first I was shocked.  Why would anyone choose to live in Brooklyn?  I didn’t realize then that a major migration of young adults was doing the same and bringing new life to old Queens and Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Soon we will be making the now familiar trek to a place we have grown to love to visit (I am still at heart a suburbanite)…Carroll Gardens…to meet up with relatives and have dinner at my son’s favorite venue, a local jazz club.  We love the change of scenery and the change of pace, and I have learned to think of Brooklyn as a place where happiness can be found. But having become a suburbanite, it is not a place where I could easily choose to live.