The Education Review

Trading Places

By Emmet Rosenfeld
Sunday, November 6, 2005

Renan Guzman had been pursuing a high school diploma for almost seven years when he entered my night class at Bryant Adult Alternative High School, a tired low-slung building off Richmond Highway in Fairfax County. A 28-year-old construction worker from Honduras, he wore his dark hair pulled into a small ponytail, which peeked from the back of his baseball cap.

From the start, Renan was articulate, engaging and respectful. It didn't surprise me to discover, once we got to know each other better, that his boss trusted him to head construction crews and deliver OSHA training to Spanish-speaking co-workers. And get to know each other we did. While other night school students sped through English 12 in one semester or less, it took Renan a year to finish the self-paced course. An extended visit to a sick relative in Honduras slowed things down. So did reading Animal Farm three times.

Renan liked to get things right. The first time he encountered George Orwell's classic, he theorized that it was about American slavery. I asked him to explain his thoughts in journals and was intrigued by his interpretation. I eventually told him "the truth," that Animal Farm was an allegory for the Russian Revolution. So he read it again. And when it came time to write his paper, he reviewed the text a third time. Just to be sure.

Renan took a workman's care with his essays, too, though one of the things I urged him to do was to learn to write quickly. Let your ideas flow, I'd say, and you may surprise yourself. He listened and started scribbling in his notebook during one class. At the end of the period three hours later, he handed me an eight-page draft.

His best piece of writing was about an Easter picnic at his grandmother's village in Honduras when he was 10. A drunken fight broke out on the riverbank: "The skinny man swung his machete with everything he had. It was as if he wanted to destroy Agustin with one swing. I could see the sharp edge shining in the air."

Renan was a teenager when he arrived in the United States by way of Mexico. He viewed a high school diploma as a way to climb up, to be successful. He also wanted to honor the memory of his mother, who'd died when Renan was 16. "She never wanted me to be a burro," he recalls, "to be ignorant."

Renan learned to love the library hush of our class as much as I did. We both cherished the eddy in our evening that night school came to be; it was a time to pause, to breathe, to read and write.

During breaks, we'd talk about the books we were reading. Or I'd yammer about home mortgages, and he'd share the latest soccer scores.

Without night school, it's safe to say Renan would have been as anonymous to me as the dark-haired men I see playing pickup soccer games on neighborhood fields. It was my second teaching job that pulled me into his orbit. I often wondered how I would have fared, if, like Renan, I had left my country with an eighth-grade education and had to make it in another land that demanded another language.

This past August, I watched Renan and 14 other night school students proudly march across Bryant's stage to collect their high school diplomas.

Renan had been asked to speak at the ceremony. In his graduation address, he graciously acknowledged what I'd given him: the confidence to write and deliver his speech.

Afterward, he gave me a keepsake, a pen holder with the figurine of a graduate standing atop a dictionary clutching his diploma. Painstakingly hand-lettered on the bottom, Renan's name and the invocation, "Recuerdo de mi Graduaccion." How could I ever forget?

Emmet Rosenfeld spent four years teaching night classes at Bryant Adult Alternative High School. He now teaches English at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company