The came to my fourth-grade Spanish immersion class from El Salvador without having been exposed to much formal education. She caught my attention from the first day, because when I pulled down the overhead projector screen she yelled, "What is that?!" Other children stared at her as if she had come from outer space, but she ignored them. She was loud, feisty, determined to learn. And learn she did. By the end of the year, she was reading in Spanish at a second-grade level, and she could do third-grade work in math (her favorite subject).
I connected with her almost immediately. I, too, was an immigrant, and I think I saw a little bit of myself in her. She was a courageous girl, curious about life, excited about learning and not afraid to ask for help. The experiences she shared with the class on several occasions reminded me of my own childhood, growing up in a small town in the Andean region of Colombia.
One day, I asked my fourth-graders what their mornings were like. One child described his alarm clock playing his favorite music. My Salvadoran student, on the other hand, told the class how much she missed the roosters waking her up in the morning. Again, the students looked at her as if she were an alien, but she didn't seem to care. She was determined to tell us about the life she had left behind, even if that made her classmates laugh. I suspect that's how she built the bridge between "there" and "here."
She inspired me in so many ways. Because her name was hard to pronounce, I read a story by Alma Flor Ada to the class, in which the main character, also a young girl, fights for people to call her by her correct name, because her name means a lot to her. Later that year, I met the author of the book and asked her to sign a copy of it, which I gave to my student. She was thrilled with her gift.
When I met her mother during a parent conference, she told me how much her daughter admired me and how frequently she spoke about me. I couldn't hold back my tears when I heard that mother and daughter had been separated from each other for six years. Judging by how happy my student was about life, I never would have guessed the hardships she had endured. Obviously, her extended family had taken good care of her. The mother thanked me for helping her daughter succeed in school. I knew I wasn't the only one responsible for her success. But deep inside of me, the little girl from the small Colombian town who left her country to find a better life in the United States smiled and thanked fate for giving her a chance to see herself in another child.
Marleny Perdomo taught in the Spanish immersion program at Francis Scott Key Elementary School in Arlington. She is now a foreign language and immersion specialist with the Arlington public school system.