In 2005, Bruce Springsteen went on a tour with just himself, an acoustic guitar, a harmonica, and a pump organ. This tour was in support of his album entitled Devils and Dust. It was a follow up to The Ghost of Tom Joad, which was released in 1995, and was a sequel to Nebraska. On each of these albums Springsteen wasn’t backed by the E Street Band. These albums featured sparse guitar and fleshed-out stories of people who were down and out—people who struggled and fought for something better despite having every single odd stacked against them. Characters in these songs included a boxer who by the end of the song would fight in back alleys because fighting was all he knew. One character was a man who was so down on his luck that he was willing to make a deal with the local mob just to make ends meet. Even Jesus Christ made an appearance on an album and was portrayed as a man who was conflicted and lonely and whose mother faced loss just as much as he did.
But the song that stood out most to me when I listened to Springsteen sing on his album (and when I sat on the ninth row in the Fox Theater in St. Louis in 2005) was called “Matamoros Banks.” The story is told in reverse and begins with a body on the bottom of the Rio Grande River which separates Brownsville, Texas, from Matamoros, Tamaulipas, in Mexico. The characters in the song wanted a better life and were willing to literally die for it. In the song they never made it. They died while crossing the river. Before they drowned, however, they dreamt of what life could be like across the river. Before Springsteen played that song in St. Louis he said this: “So many people die each year to get in this country to do the roughest jobs we have. They die in the rivers, they die smothered in the back of trucks, they die in the deserts. We need nothing more now than a humane immigration policy.”
That was ten years ago, and today we are still being faced with immigrants who are trying to escape a life that is deadly. That was ten years ago, and today there is still debate and discussion over what to do with human beings who simply want a better life for themselves and their families. Thankfully our local school system is being proactive with people who made the decision to leave what they had always known and tried to make a better life for their families.
When I was nineteen years old, I spent a month in Honduras. I’ll be honest: I hated it. I couldn’t watch wrestling in English, I couldn’t understand 80% of what was being said to me, and I never found a restaurant that could cook a steak medium-rare. More than anything, though, the language barrier was incredibly challenging. Even though I had taken two years of Spanish in college, it nowhere near prepared me for the slang, speed, and intricacies of the native language. Luckily I had a place to stay every night and a person with me the entire time who knew the language and could translate for me.
Once, however, when I decided to walk to the local gym by myself, I encountered a man who spoke to me in an extremely aggressive manner and made a “tsk-tsk” sound with his tongue and front teeth and made a gesture with his thumb, fore-finger, and middle finger. I just smiled, gave a “thumbs up,” and walked briskly in the opposite direction. Later I found out what he was telling me involved something extremely inappropriate and something I wouldn’t be interested in anyway. That was the last time I went anywhere without a translator. Regardless of how global our society has become, face-to-face interaction with two different languages is the last barrier we have yet to conquer. This year the Jackson-Madison County School System has begun the process of bridging that gap for people who are here and simply want a better life for their families.
Nancy Ibrahim is over a program that provides English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to adults who are not native speakers. The program is completely funded by Title III funds, which were part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The only requirement of the program is that adult learners must have a relative enrolled in the school system. As a teacher in the system, there have been several times when I have had to have a student translate to their parent what is being said during a parent-teacher conference. When I first heard about this program, I was immediately intrigued. Below are several questions I asked Mrs. Ibrahim about the program.
How did the program originate?
The idea of having a program for Adult English Learners within our district has been discussed for several years. This year we decided to move forward make this idea a reality and implemented the program in January. We began planning for this program at the end of last school year and sent home interest forms and applications this past fall.
How much English do the participants know upon entering the program?
The amount of English that the participants know varies from person to person. We have three levels for our classes: low beginning, high beginning, and intermediate/advanced. We decided which level the Adult English Learners would be placed in by giving an initial placement test.
Does the program last the entire school year?
This year the program did not begin until January. However, for next school year we plan for the program to begin in September or October.
What was the initial response to the program?
We have had a tremendous interest in our program and are so excited for what the future of this program holds. We currently have four tutors teaching these classes. Each class has between twelve and fourteen Adult English Learners. All four of the classes are currently full, and we have a waiting list of participants that will be added to the classes if any of the current Adult English learners no longer attend.
That means that over fifty adults are learning how to communicate and feel more comfortable in a place that may still seem foreign to them. This is the business I want my town and my school system to be about. We need to be inclusive in our words and our deeds and not turn our backs on people who we don’t think “deserve” what we believe we’re owed. Our community will never truly thrive until we are truly diverse.
Several years ago I was approached by an old friend of mine and asked to help with a Wednesday night program at a local Baptist church. She told me that they would be taking a bus into a trailer park and picking up kids (mostly Hispanic) and bringing them to the church. Their parents would be able to learn English, and the kids would learn about the Bible. I told her the best I could do for her was to ride the bus, keep the kids calm on the ride, and organize some games for them during the recreation time. She agreed, and so for several months we would take an old charter bus through the narrow roads of a trailer park. Some kids would be waiting for us when we pulled up; others would have to be persuaded to come. Many times when we would bring the kids back it would be dark, and I would have to walk them to their door. I would occasionally peer into their trailers and wonder what it would be like to be an adult in such a foreign place while at the same time trying to be a parent to a child who knew the language better than I did. I never could truly wrap my head around what that would be like.
I still listen to Bruce Springsteen, and his characters seem a little more real to me now. I take pride in the fact that the school system I work for is doing what they can to make a life a little easier for people who have never had it as easy as I have. My coworkers are doing what they can to help people assimilate as best they can to a culture that may seem daunting to them and that makes me feel proud to work along with them. With so much political rhetoric going on during an election year, my hope is that our community can be inclusive. My hope is that we can show grace and mercy to people who simply need help in learning to communicate in a place that is unfamiliar. That will make our country and our town great. Not “great again,” but great now and great moving forward.
Gabe Hart is an English and Language Arts teacher at Northeast Middle School. He was born and raised in Jackson, graduating from Jackson Central-Merry in 1997 and Union University in 2001. Gabe enjoys spending time and traveling with his daughter, Jordan, who is eight years old. His hobbies include reading, writing, and playing sports . . . even though he’s getting too old for the last one. Gabe lives in Midtown Jackson and has a desire to see all of Jackson grow together.
Header image by Kristi Woody.