Jorge, can you see?

Elizabeth Schuett

October 29, 1992|By Elizabeth Schuett

Gibsonburg, Ohio -- EVERY fall, class rosters at our local high school grow, adding names like Martinez and Hernandez to local names like Schuett and Miller and Wilhelm.

Every year dozens of children named Maria and Jorge and Jaime come to our small German farm community in northwest Ohio. The children of migrant field workers, they arrive with their parents at planting time and stay until the cucumbers and tomatoes are in. They are usually off the rolls of my English classes and heading for Arizona or Colorado or Florida or Texas and yet another school long before the first nine-week grades are in.

Some speak English very well. Others are embarrassed by their accent and aren't sure when to say "Cool!" or how to ask casually, "What's for lunch? More mystery meat?"

In a classroom where students work in groups, they seek out kids like themselves: those who change schools at least twice a year and speak English as a second language. Maybe they can help one another, maybe not. But at least they feel more comfortable.

Teachers worry about these kids -- socially and academically. We wonder if Hernando can stick it out until graduation and hope that Estrella won't marry before she is old enough to vote.

When my eighth-grade classes began reading assignments about the presidential campaign, none of the students had much to say. Jorge said nothing at all.

Only a few watched the first presidential debate. Most complained that their favorite TV shows had been usurped. Jorge didn't say anything.

We talked politics for a few minutes each day at the beginning of class. The kids began watching the news and reading the papers. Suddenly, they were hooked. Most watched the second debate. Now they had opinions and wanted to argue them. Jorge sat alone, quiet.

Interest was high. The kids decided to have their own presidential election. Each student became a candidate for president of the United States.

"You are now officially in the race for president. Write a three- to four-page campaign speech stating your platform and its planks. Don't criticize if you can't offer solutions. Be prepared to deliver your speech to the class on Wednesday."

The usual panic set in. "I can't write that much!" "How do I begin?" "What can I talk about?" Jorge stared out the window.

Kids feverishly asked classmates, "Where do you stand on the environment? Would you vote for me if I said everybody had to recycle?" or "Did Perot say we were overdrawn billions or trillions?"

Jorge asked, "Miss, how do I spell 'democracy'?" and went back to his desk, where he worked alone. From time to time as I cruised the room, I stopped and asked how he was doing. "Fine."

On speech day, volunteers were accepted first. We had four. The other 15 dropped their names into a shopping bag. Jorge showed no reaction when his name was drawn third from last, but he had gained some time to polish his speech -- and to dread its delivery.

By Friday, he had listened intently to each speech and the follow-ups. But he still sat alone, shy and silent, a stranger in yet another strange classroom.

As Jorge's turn neared, I was prepared to tell him it was OK if he didn't want to speak in front of the class; he could just turn in the written part for full credit. He remained impassive.

Our class sergeant-at-arms called the next name. "And now, candidate for president of the United States Jorge Sosa." Jorge hesitated, then walked to the front.

He began speaking. Many words and phrases were difficult to understand. He has an accent. The hand turning the pages shook slightly and his voice cracked once or twice, the same as everyone else's.

His speech lasted about three minutes. Jorge's classmates were motionless and speechless, not a normal condition for eighth-graders. Eighteen kids were mesmerized as the slender boy, stumbling over some words that to him were only a few days old, taught a lesson that wasn't in their textbooks.

What they all recognized in Jorge's delivery wasn't locker room bravado or bathroom boasting. It was gut courage.

Jorge asked softly, "Any questions?" Instead, his classmates rose and began to applaud. It continued as Jorge smiled, muttered a "Thank you" and returned to his seat.

We had 10 minutes left at the end of class, and I told the kids they could get together and talk. There was nothing left for me to teach that period.

Richard came to my desk and asked, "Is it OK if I go over and sit with Jorge? He's having trouble with math and I think I can help him."

"Sure, Richard. Go ahead." We owe him one.

Elizabeth Schuett, a writer and teacher, wrote this for Cox News Service.

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