In 1981, with knees knocking and nerves rising, 14-year-old Yanira Gomez walked into Ulysses Grant High School with her sister at her side and only two English words remembered from her classes in El Salvador: chair and pencil.
Gomez’s parents and seven siblings had just immigrated to the U.S. fleeing the increasingly violent Civil War in El Salvador.
“My parents saw the fear rising in us throughout the war. We had to move and migrate here to Los Angeles,” she remembers.
From one terrain to another, Gomez encountered a completely different type of fear: the fear of not fitting in, of not belonging, of not being able to communicate.
ESL teacher, Meg Samaniego, saw this fear in Gomez and was determined to reach out to her. What started as a demoralizing, endless day of isolation soon became the periods before what Gomez called her “cozy class,” her ESL class with Ms. Samaniego.
“I found support. [Ms. Samaniego] motivated me and kept me going. I could listen to my classmates and ask advice from them,” Gomez said. “They were proud of me and kept me going.”
To everyone else in the school, they were known as the “sink or swim class.”
“We were labeled like that. Many of my friends didn’t make it to graduation. They were high school dropouts, they couldn’t handle the pressure,” Gomez said. “It was very difficult for them to make it through high school without the language skills.”
For Gomez, however, there was never a question of finishing because of one key difference: she really liked English.
“I fell in love with the language,” she explains, “I saw it in a positive light from the beginning.”
In one of her very first ESL classes Ms. Samaniego gave her advice to live by: “You’ve got to wake up with English and you’ve got to go to sleep with English.”
And that’s exactly what she did. She listened to English music round the clock trying to understand the lyrics. She scoured advertisements, menus, and the backs of shampoo bottles and soaps.
“Everything is a lesson,” she explained, “Ms. Samaniego always told me that.”
And it was this love for the language, the support of her ESL teacher, and her sheer determination that inspires Ms. Gomez to stand in front of a classroom today.
Immediately after high school she became a teacher’s assistant and started studying to become a teacher. Upon graduation she worked as a first grade teacher in the public school system before taking a job at Our Lady of Loretto Elementary School.
“There was something missing. It was a call I wasn’t attending to. I wanted to instill in my students the seed of Christ.”
She quickly gained notoriety for her natural ability to aid foreign language-speakers. She was the teacher to send the “newcomers” to.
“I would get all the newcomers to the country. I was given the opportunity because I knew how they felt,” she explains, “I was able to take everything that was done for me and apply it to them.”
And in addition to her compassionate warmth and patient understanding, one of her most notable gifts was the ability to get the most reticent student to start speaking up in their classrooms.
Ms. Gomez says the biggest hurdle is helping students find their voice again. She explains that the amount of courage it takes just to raise a hand, to voluntarily share something, takes unthinkable courage for a child in their position. She recalls a student who had recently immigrated from Guatemala and would never participate in the class.
“He would put his head down on his desk every day, he wouldn’t look at the chalkboard. He was so discouraged,” she remembers.
“One lesson several weeks later I was teaching about countries and he was able to tell me in a complete sentence and point on the map where he was from. He was able to tell the class about his parents. But most significantly, he had the courage to do that in broken English.”
To help students find their voice Ms. Gomez employs the same wisdom her own ESL teacher told her years go: everything is a lesson.
“I tell my class to look at everything: posters, signs, billboards. At grocery stores look at pounds, ounces.”
She takes them on nature walks to identify words through a kinesthetic learning approach. They had a cooking class where they brought the menu items in and made a meal speaking in English. And of course, like the little girl who used to dance to the radio all day long, she starts with music.
“At the beginning they’re too timid to speak words so I start with songs,” Gomez explains. “Music is universal so I think they’re able to identify with it more. They have heard phonemic awareness. Music gets them used to hearing English so they will be less nervous when it is used in my lesson.”
Ms. Gomez’s heart aches for her students. She knows their pain, their struggles, and the hurdles they’ll have to overcome as she did. Standing in that classroom gives her flashbacks of the student she was.
“We need people to open their hearts and minds to the sensitivity and needs of a child. Sometimes people think we’re not able to learn because we don’t know English. It’s not that we’re not thinking, it’s not that we don’t have a brain, it’s that we have a barrier, and that barrier needs to be knocked down.”
Thirty-six years later, the timid Spanish-speaking young woman walking into a foreign high school is a thing of history. Today she walks into her school, Precious Blood, as a proud teacher, commanding the classroom, and giving students a future like hers.