LOST IN TRANSLATION

Today was the day I’d been waiting for: I finally got an assignment to work at “Lansing West” High School. I grew up in the suburbs of Lansing and Lansing West had the reputation of being the most “ghetto” school in the area. When I was teaching in Detroit, and would tell people about the tough working conditions at my school, people from Lansing would always nod solemnly and say, “Ah yes, it sounds like you work at Lansing West.” Since so many people in casual conversation associated Lansing West to my school, I was curious to see how it compared with where I used to work.

In short, there is no comparison.

Lansing West High is a much nicer school than its reputation would suggest. Like Lansing Central, it seems like Lansing West has been unfairly maligned (see my earlier entry entitled “Perspective” to get a better grasp of the high schools in the Lansing area). However, there are some minor differences that make Lansing West stand out from the other Lansing high schools. From a socioeconomic perspective, students at this school might have a few more students living under the poverty line than the other Lansing high schools. Lansing West also seems to have more English as a Second Language (ESL) students and the school appears to be quite ethnically diverse compared to the other schools I’ve subbed in.

The teacher I was covering for taught three sections of 9th Grade English, and two ESL classes and yes, I was forced to show movies – again.

The first few hours of the day passed very slowly. The teacher had me show the film “The Secret Life of Bees” to all three sections of 9th Grade English. As a sub, it’s annoying to watch only the first 45 minutes of a film three times in a row. And, although it might be a good film, watching those first 45 minutes left me with no desire to see the rest. Anyway, the funny thing about having the class watch this film, was that male students in all three classes hooted, hollered, and said things like, “she’s fine!” when Alicia Keys appeared onscreen. It appears that Alicia Keys’s attractiveness transcends the boundaries of race and economic standing.

The second half of my day was absolutely fascinating. I had no prior experience working with ESL students and I was curious about the types of students that are placed in these classes. The first ESL class was geared toward reading enrichment and familiarity of the English language. When it was time for class to begin, nearly all 26 students were completely silent and staring at me expectantly. Based on the information I got earlier in the day from the secretary, students in this class represented the Hmong, Bengali, and Burmese populations of Lansing.

I introduced myself to these ESL students, and there was no response. I asked a question, like, “So, how’s everybody doing today?” and there was no response.  I was starting to feel like an amateur stand-up comedian (“I know you’re out there! I can hear you breathing!”)

Now, I have no idea what types of activities the teacher usually does with these students, but this teacher had me show the first “Twilight” movie to this class. I wanted to attempt some sort of connection with the students so I took a wild stab at conversation and said, to nobody in particular, “What do you all think of the ‘Twilight’ series so far?” Somehow, my attempts to make conversation were lost in translation. In response to my conversation starter, a few students smiled and gave a friendly look – a look that seemed to say, “I have no idea what you are saying, but I’ll be polite enough by not talking over you” and the rest of the class just stared at their books or at the TV waiting for me to turn the movie on. After a couple moments of awkward silence I said in a cheerful voice, “Well, then I guess we better get started on the film!”

I put on “Twilight” and studied the students as they watched this film. Their faces seemed to display expressions of confusion and amusement. I would have killed to get inside each of their brains to hear what they were thinking as Robert Pattinson brooded across the screen (one thing I bet they were wondering was why vampires always seem to talk in a loud whisper and act so unhappy). When the hour ended, the students left as quietly as they came in.

My final class of the day was another ESL class that met in a computer lab. A majority of the students in this class were also in the previous class, but none of the students seemed to acknowledge that fact and acted like they were meeting me again for the first time when I took attendance. It was sort of funny, and sort of awkward.

The focus of this class was learning the English language by using Rosetta Stone, the popular language learning program. Most students worked diligently at their computers, clicking through screens with pictures of common nouns (houses, cats, hamburgers, etc.) and looking at common phrases (“I have a question” or “Hello, my name is…”). Those who didn’t do Rosetta Stone spent the hour reading news sites or watching videos on YouTube in their native languages.

The class was nearly silent all hour except for one amusing outburst of laughter from two Bengali girls. I was reading at a desk in the computer lab and I started to hear giggling. I looked up and these two girls were trying to suppress their laughter at some sitcom that was in Bengali. This particular video showed two actors dressed in military uniforms standing in front of a wall that had been painted like a jungle. Soon, the two unsuspecting soldiers were “pounced” upon by a stuffed tiger (translation: a tiger with a molting taxidermy job was lowered with wires from the ceiling of the TV studio). This was clearly a low-budget feature, yet it was also an interesting window into a different culture. For the rest of the hour, I found myself wondering what they would think of American television. I’m sure they would still find the cast of “Jersey Shore” to be quite annoying.

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