Debbie Nathan on the collision of history, immigration, and language learning @ Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood.
In the spring of 1980 I was a cocky new teacher of English as a Second language, fresh from education grad school, with innovative pedagogy that I couldn’t wait to try out on students. My first job in New York was a gem: “Vocational ESL.” It was funded by the feds and I’d gone to the French Quarter in New Orleans for training. By night I’d visited blues clubs to see Professor Longhair. By day I’d studied how to teach foreigners words like “key punch card, “on-off switch” and “transmission.”
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Back in Manhattan my new workplace was called Solidaridad Humana—Human Solidarity. It was a giant shipwreck of a public school on Suffolk and Rivington Streets, long abandoned and vandalized before being commandeered by militants and mural painters with barely enough funds to clean the graffiti. The temperature inside was ridiculous even in March: we had no heat from oil. But there was plenty of heat from enthusiasm. The students were all recent arrivals from the Dominican Republic. Their population in New York was still small then, and they were breathtakingly ambitious. I had the vague sense they worked in shady places for illegal alien wages, and I knew they wanted clean labor in bright offices and big auto repair shops run by Americans. I knew because those were the jobs whose vocabulary I was supposed to teach them. And these were the words we used. We never talked about how they made a living in the meantime.read more