Flavio M.'s parents were killed by the Angolan army in their country's civil war. When the army came to conscript Flavio, he walked 1000 miles to freedom in The Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he stowed away on a ship and sailed to the United States. There he hoped for political freedom and a chance to go to college. On his voyage towards his dreams Flavio ended up in an ESL class in a teeming inner city high school in Houston, Texas. That classroom, where my life and Flavio’s intersected back in 1994, was where I learned to teach.
Robert E. Lee High school was an oasis for many -- an overcrowded school of over 3000 immigrant students brought their hopes and little else from Somalia, Bosnia, Colombia, Vietnam, El Salvador, Afghanistan, and just about every other part of the world. They were the poor, the disenfranchised, the refugees of war, famine, and economic dislocation, the huddled masses dislocated from home by the jarring forces of globalization. Over 100 languages were represented in our school: strolling down the hall was like walking through the United Nations or taking a cab in an American city. The students of Lee High School had tremendously difficult lives that would seem hopeless to many. After all, many of my students worked forty hours a week, others were parents, others were their own parents. I went to funerals with these kids as we buried classmates (Jean was killed on the way to school), and parents (Edilson's mom was killed in a hit and run accident as she walked to work). I walked students to the bus who feared being shot by rival gangs. I took students to the Museum of Fine Arts on days the museum was free. One would expect a sense of resignation from these students, but their lives were so hard, so confoundedly complicated, that they were full of hope (what e e cummings calls the thing with feathers) that their lives could only get better. I have rarely known people so full of happiness, joy and optimism as these resilient students. At school we laughed together (at my funny Spanish accent), played together on the soccer field and basketball court, and learned together as we studied ESL and history, compelled and animated by hope. They taught me much more about life than I ever taught them.
Experience is so often our best instructor, and I learned many lessons in Houston about how to teach. I learned that creative lessons where my students were active and energetically engaged invited success and learning. I also learned that my most successful lessons were student centered: dominated by student discussion, interaction and questions (from me to students, from students to me, and best of all, from students to each other). I found that the best way to learn something is to teach it, and I employed this knowledge in group work and projects where my students taught other students (and themselves) social studies, the English language, communication skills, and how to connect across boundaries.
I still think of Flavio and all the other Lee students and I am grateful for all of the things they have taught me. They have taught me that their innate curiosity and questioning leads to the best learning, that their inherent goodness will blossom when given an outlet, and that when they are engaged and motivated they can move mountains. I think about the joy and liberation that hope brings, be it in a gleaming high school in North Carolina, or a bombed out village in Angola, or a crowded noisy classroom in inner city Houston. Hope is not quantifiable, it can not be measured on a test, but it is the most valuable thing we can learn in a classroom.