A Teacher Evaluates Her Students in Accented Verse
World Class; Poems Inspired by the ESL Classroom, by J.C. Elkin
My students arrive in a dust storm of change. …
their tongues in accents
lush as rustling crop leaves.
In World Class, teacher, poet and author Jane (aka J.C.) Elkin — a Bay Weekly contributor — gives human voice to the nation-riveting theme of immigration. Her Poems Inspired by the ESL Classroom capture the hearts of her English as a Second Language students at Anne Arundel Community College. Spare words, often borrowed from their own halting voices, reveal the wounds, humor and spirit of their immigrant lives.
Escaping difficulties and wars, they have come to America in hope of a better life, only to be judged for their inability to speak English. Determination and courage are their hallmarks. “They ask intelligent questions and request extra work,” Elkin says. “They complain that vacations are too long but never complain about their personal struggles with poverty or discrimination.”
Not all can complete full semesters of 12 hours a week. One young man, Fernan, who “wears his cap Gangsta-style,” must return to Mexico to bury his mother. In “Adios Fernan,” Elkin wonders:
Who knows when he’ll return —
if he ever returns.
She bids him farewell:
Vaya con Dios, my friend.
Your seat is empty today
but will be filled tomorrow
with another young dreamer.
The wait-list is long as the fence.
Their fortitude inspires both poet and teacher. In “Alma Works It Out,” a student disappears after Elkin has helped her get a new job.
Six months I fretted for her.
Had she quit? Moved back home?
When the woman returns, triumphant and lavishing thanks, Elkin writes:
My payday comes early sometimes
without any check at all.
These 14 vignettes remind us of the human condition we share. Elkin hopes her readers will see immigrants in a fresh light.
“Many Americans have the impression that immigrants don’t want to learn our language, but I have found the opposite,” she says. “My students have either become citizens or are working toward citizenship. They want to enmesh themselves in our society and succeed. If I never publish another word but change a thousand minds with this book, I will have counted my literary efforts as a success.”
Students of another sort share responsibility for Elkin’s new book. Apprentice House, her publisher, is run by communications students at Loyola University Maryland, who seek, acquire, design and publish books as part of their coursework. World Class satisfied Apprentice House’s standards for quality and social interest.