Storyboard is a citizen reporting project focused on multilingual families and students who are learning English. Members of Storyboard are teachers, parents, experts and students across San Diego County exploring ways to improve outcomes for students. Storyboard is a joint project of Voice of San Diego and New America California.
It was the first day of third grade, and students at my elementary school in Redwood City had just returned from summer break. My friend Fernanda had only been in the United States for about a year, and because she struggled to speak English, I spoke to her in Spanish.
Fernanda and I both stood at an intersection of language and culture. I was simply further along. Because I attended a bilingual elementary school since I was in kindergarten, I could speak both English and Spanish.
I’d just given Fernanda a friendship bracelet when our teacher interrupted.
“Don’t talk to her in Spanish,” the teacher told me. “It is not allowed. You can only speak English at school now.”
Those are words etched in my memory, along with a sense of shame toward my native language and culture. Spanish was my first language, but I came to understand that my school saw it as a limitation. For me, finding academic success meant leaving my language and culture behind.
For 18 years, state law in California restricted bilingual education and taught students like me that knowing two languages was a disadvantage. In November, those restrictions were lifted. Now, as school districts across the state grapple with whether to expand bilingual education, they have the chance to show students they don’t have to give up their identity and native language to find success in school.
Parents at my school had the option of enrolling their children in an English-only classroom or a bilingual one.
My parents wanted me to be educated in both languages. In the third grade, however, my school decided to cut off the bilingual program, and all students would only learn to read and write in English.
One day, I was taught to be proud of being bilingual and the next, I was told I could only learn and speak English at school.
I began to lose my language, and I struggled to integrate into an English-only taught classroom.
Because English wasn’t my first language, I was labeled as an English-learner. I would have to step out of class sometimes to meet with someone for additional help or additional testing.
Even though, at 8 years old, I didn’t completely understand what this meant, I didn’t like having to be separated from my classmates. I felt embarrassed, so I was determined to catch up.
I put everything I knew about the Spanish language aside, and I committed myself to only speaking English at school and even at home.
I soon began to struggle to speak to my aunts, uncles, grandmas and grandpas in Spanish. To this day, I avoid long conversations with family members who only speak Spanish because I struggle to hold a conversation.
After the third grade, I was at the top of my classes. I stood out from my other classmates for the rest of elementary school. My teachers told my parents I was outstanding.
But as I entered sixth grade, my parents decided to enroll me in a K-8 school up in the hills called Roy Cloud. This was the wealthier side of Redwood City, where most of the population was white. At Roy Cloud, I would be separated from my elementary school friends.
I had been on the waiting list for three years, but when it came time to switch schools, I begged my parents not to move me to a place where I knew no one. Over and over, they told me it was the best choice for my education. They told me I would one day thank them.
When I stepped onto the middle school campus, I immediately felt out of place. Kids had rolling backpacks because they had so many books. They dressed differently. They spoke differently.
Most students didn’t have the same skin color as me.
Right away, I noticed the school seemed to determine students’ academic potential based on how well they spoke English.
Sixth grade students at this school were divided into three classes: the lower, the middle and the upper level. The upper level included the advanced students, the middle included the proficient ones and the lower level included the students who needed extra help. The lower-level class included most of the Latinos who attended the school. I was one of three Latinos in the middle level.
I started to fail all my classes. I hid it from my classmates because I knew they would think I was dumb, and I especially didn’t tell my parents I was struggling because they thought I was exceptional.
I began to feel ashamed of my culture and background because kids like me weren’t taught the way the kids at this middle school were taught.
When my parents saw my first report card and GPA – barely above a 1.0 – they were so confused. My previous teachers had labeled me as “outstanding.” They didn’t understand.
I told them it was because I hated the school. And that was true. But I hated it because I didn’t know as much as the other kids. They were more organized. They asked questions. They hardly ever disrupted class, and they understood the material. They had better teachers.
I detested the feeling of not being smart enough. I would get pulled out of class into the library with other students, most of whom were Latino.
I had to go through additional testing, and that made me feel embarrassed.
I was determined to catch up, but it wasn’t because I wanted good grades. I wanted to prove that I could be at that school and be as smart as the other kids.
I had tutoring and dedicated most of my time to homework, ignoring other extracurricular activities.
I struggled the rest of my sixth grade year, but by seventh grade, I made the honor roll, where I stayed for the rest of middle school.
I’d done it. I assimilated into their education system and their environment. But in return, I had left behind my culture and the pride of being a Latina.
My parents told me I would one day thank them for pushing me to attend that middle school. I do, and I don’t.
I thank them for helping me obtain the education I deserved. I don’t know if I would be at San Diego State studying journalism today if I had gone to the middle schools my elementary school friends attended. I don’t know if I would have been as determined as I am today if I hadn’t fallen behind.
But, at Roy Cloud, there was not a day where I did not feel self-conscious because of the way I looked or where I came from. I call the school “that middle school” because I can’t call it “my middle school.” I didn’t feel accepted.
I wish I could speak Spanish as well as I used to and was more connected to my ethnicity and culture.
I thank my parents for enrolling me both at Roosevelt and Roy Cloud because my eyes were opened to the injustice in the education system.
Children are left behind because of where they live. If they don’t live in a wealthy area, they aren’t given the sufficient resources they need to succeed at their schools. They aren’t taught in the proper environment that motivates them to reach for their goals.
Even children who speak more than one language are taught to prioritize one of them. Because their capability to learn is measured by how well they can speak English, they are stripped of the chance to find academic success in two languages. A child should not have to choose to give up either a proper education or their identity, and a parent shouldn’t have to choose that for their child either.
I, along with my elementary school friends, deserved to have the education that set us up to succeed and deserved to be proud of where we came from at the same time.
Jocelyn Moran is a journalism student at San Diego State University. She is originally from the Bay Area, and hopes to pursue writing and other forms of journalism in the future.