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April 19, 2021

My Immigrant Story: Embracing Education, Navigating Failure

I love the time of year when parents proudly post and share their children’s prom and graduation pictures. It’s — without a doubt — an accomplishment worthy of celebration. 

This might not be the best graduation picture you’ve ever seen — it’s not even an original. But, it’s the only picture I have of my graduation day.

Emily graduation photo

Here I am, in a cap and gown that I wasn’t permitted to wear after taking this picture. This picture, for so many years, represented a personal narrative of failure.

I encourage you to read about my personal journey from Guatemala to the United States. These posts provide some background on my early years, my journey to America, and ultimately, how I arrived at my graduation day.

Embracing Education

January 1994 marks the date I started attending school in the United States. I was 15 years old when I enrolled at Martin Van Buren High School in Queens Village, New York. I was very confused. I was starting in high school, but I hadn’t yet completed the requirements of junior high school. I learned that because of my age, I needed to begin in the ninth grade. Talk about a serious achievement gap!

But I was thrilled to start school. My new school was towering, fascinating, and alluring. It was so clean and the structure was something I had only seen on television. I was stunned when they handed me a pass to ride the bus to and from school. For so many years I’d walked miles to attend school, and now I’d get to ride the bus. Oh, but wait… it got better. Free breakfast and lunch. WOW!

I couldn’t have asked for more. I realized that my school was meeting my essential needs so I could attend school and learn.

From the very first day, I gave it all I had. I didn’t speak a word of English, but I welcomed every single opportunity available to learn. I enrolled in any class I could — even weekend English classes. There was no stopping me — I was in a land of opportunity and I was going for it.

ESL, ESL, and More ESL

During my first school year, my classes consisted of one English as a Second Language (ESL) class after another. I had wonderful ESL teachers. They were very friendly, always making me feel welcome.

One ESL teacher knew a little bit of Spanish so if I needed something, she was my go-to person. My ESL classes had an old-school structure with textbook guided lessons. There was no interaction, but a lot of note-taking and worksheet practice.

I didn’t understand then why I wanted to get out of ESL so badly. Today, I realize that not being able to be part of the courses other students were taking was making me feel like a failure. In some ways, walking the school hallways as an ESL student made me feel inferior and not worthy of “real” learning. I had different classes, different textbooks, different schedules. I was different.

A determination within me ignited to learn English to shed my ESL status. A year and a half after starting school — during my junior year —  I placed out of ESL after taking the annual language assessment. I was super excited because that meant I could enroll in core courses to gain credits for graduation.

I started taking economics, history, math, biology, health, etc. But this is where the real struggle as a language learner began.

An Uphill Battle

My sitting spot was always in front of all my classes. I wanted to be as close as possible to the teachers and the boards. I took as many notes as possible in each class. I brought home all my textbooks to review and to complete assignments. I realized that the school had a library that would give me books to take home, so I checked out three different types of dictionaries and a thesaurus. I would use these at home to translate my notes and to complete assignments.

Of course, my school work was always done after making dinner and putting my siblings to bed. Don’t forget, even though we were in the U.S., I was still the oldest child and expected to care for the little ones while our mother worked. My mother can attest to how I’d stay up till 3:00 am completing assignments and studying my notes. I enjoyed learning. I cherished new information. I was like a sponge soaking it all in.

I’ll never forget the day I started reading my economics textbook and the terms “supply” and “demand” began to make sense. I was understanding the words… I was understanding the content. I was learning!

I must’ve finished my economics book in a day or two. I started passing my classes and earning the required credits for graduation. I was so focused on school work that I didn’t care much about “senior’s field trip” or “prom.” To be honest, I didn’t know how important these events were. All I wanted was to get my credits and pass required assessments to graduate.

I’ve learned how important and necessary a high school diploma was to be able to go to college. And I wanted to go to college. I wanted to be the first in my family to have a career. I wanted to be a teacher and make a difference. I had the vigor, so I knew I could do it. What you can’t see in the graduation image above is the excitement I felt taking graduation photos in that cap and gown.

The Walk of Shame

During my senior year, I was required to take some standardized state assessments. I don’t remember exactly which ones I had to take, but the one I’ll never forget is the United States History State Exam. I wasn’t prepared for this exam. I’d not taken enough classes to learn the required information to pass. I’d only been in the United States for a little over two years — not enough time to learn the whole of its history. Yet, this standardized exam and others were required no matter what. I took the exam not once, but twice. The first time in English and the second time in Spanish, but I failed both times.

My guidance counselor called me to her office to explain that passing the U.S. History exam was a requirement for graduation. She was kind, but she told me that without a passing score, I wouldn’t graduate. She said,

“You have all your required credits for graduation, so you don’t have to continue in school. Go home, study, and come back next year to take the test again. Once you pass, you’ll get your diploma.”

Go Home. Study. Come Back Next Year.

These words echoed in my head as tears ran down my cheeks. That afternoon, I walked out of Martin Van Buren High School for the last time. The walk of shame from the guidance counselor’s office and down every step outside the building felt like an eternity.

high school

I was crushed. I was so disappointed in myself. I was disappointed in the school system for the lack of support. How was I going to explain this to my family? Where was I going to get the strength to study for the test once I was out of school?

failed. I was a failure.

I became part of the statistics of Latino high school dropouts in the United States because I didn’t go back. Why go back? I thought. I failed it twice, there’s no way I can make it now.

Drew Barrymore Quote

If I wasn’t going to school, I had to work. So at the age of 18, I got my first full-time job as a cashier at a local supermarket. My first job in the United States. I was a cashier at C-Town in Floral Park, New York.

working at the cash register

I was a very efficient worker. I worked for hours to earn money… or perhaps, to forget and avoid how I was feeling.

This, of course, is not how my story ends.

Read my entire immigrant story on Tchers’ Voice.


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