First Person Singular

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Before I was 15 or 16 years old, I really didn't have much contact with other cultures. We didn't have any diversity at my high school. It was all people who looked like me, who were from the same background as I was. But I studied abroad in Spain after my junior year. I went over there with a group of students and my teacher. We spent a couple of days traveling together, and [then] we took a train to southern Spain, which was where our host families were. This family came to the train station to pick me up, and they're just staring at me, and I was staring at them. I remember my teacher hugging me and saying goodbye. As I'm watching my teacher walk away, I'm like, No don't leave me! I was terrified. [After] the first two days, I called my mom, crying: "I can't understand anything they're saying. I want to come home." I love to talk; I'm a talker, and to not be able to talk, it's so frustrating. She said, "Just tough it out one week, and if you still feel this way, we'll send you home." After a couple days, it started to make sense.

I understand what it feels like to be vulnerable, and I use that to my advantage to help my students. I make a fool of myself. If I want them to get up and sing a song and dance around the classroom, I always do it first. I will sing and dance and jump around the room to get [them] to understand something.

[One] evening, I was going to do a Johnny Cash song; I was going to teach them "Ring of Fire." I had 25 students at the time, and they're all there, all ready to learn, and they see me walk in with my CD player, and their eyes light up. They love learning the songs that all Americans know. It makes it so rewarding to teach them -- they're here because they want to be here.

I let them listen to the song, and then I asked: "Is it a happy song or a sad song? What does it make you feel?" One student said, "It's a song about love." I said, "Love? But it's called 'Ring of Fire.' " He said, "No, it's about passion." We talked about the meaning, and then we sang. They have no qualms about singing. When I went to finish, they all yelled, "One more time!"

Interview by Robin Rose Parker

© 2007 The Washington Post Company