What It Means to Have A Former ‘English Learner’ as Secretary of Education

Photo by Anna Moneymaker — Pool/Getty Images

By Melina Kiper

When I reminisce with friends, some of them will bring up “How do you say…?” as a loving callback to when we first met as teenagers. And while I can now look back on that time fondly, that sentence was more than an oft-uttered phrase — it was an assimilation tool that was key to my survival. It was a real-life tactic to help fit into a new country and immerse myself in new norms.

At the age of 14, I thought I had to make a choice between embracing my culture or assimilating into my new surroundings. At the time, this felt like a very easy choice. Who wouldn’t want to fully embrace the idea of American exceptionalism, and do all they could to achieve the American dream? It took some time, but I learned how to code-switch and develop a dual consciousness. While I was constantly aware of my heritage, I learned how to navigate new cultural norms in dress, music, and customs, but the ability to speak English didn’t come as easily.

Over the last few weeks, I watched as Dr. Miguel Cardona was nominated by President Joe Biden as the next U.S. Secretary of Education; testified in front of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee; and was confirmed by a two-to-one vote of the entire Senate, and I felt a sense of relief I didn’t know was bottled in me. I never expected to see someone who shares my experience as an English learner in a position like U.S.Secretary of Education. I watched in awe how Secretary Cardona owned what he represents, how he highlighted his struggles to fit in as a child, and embraced the complexities of his lived experiences. I know, from my own experience, what it means to have someone for whom English is not a first language as the foremost education official in our country.

This month marks 22 years since my family left Brazil to move to the United States. My parents, descendants of immigrants themselves, knew well what it meant to start from scratch, to do what you think is best for your family, even if it meant leaving everything you knew behind. So, in March 1999, we landed in Miami to start our new life. I don’t remember much from that day other than I wore a pink shirt, a song that said “Welcome to Miami, Bienvenidos a Mi-ah-mi” played several times and, when we left the airport, we drove by the biggest American flag I had ever seen.

I spent the next several weeks watching my parents try to understand and navigate the public education system. The process was daunting and confusing, especially since, in Brazil, we were an upper-middle class family and attended private schools our whole lives. We learned that not all schools are created equal. The quality of our education would depend on where we lived — those in more affluent neighborhoods had access to better schools, more experienced and qualified teachers, access to high-quality courses and advanced coursework opportunities, school counselors, smaller class sizes, and more. We learned that where you lived would even affect whether you had access to schools with air conditioning or classrooms that run in what I can only describe as containers.

While my parents were navigating this process, getting by with what we could best describe as Portunol (our native tongue, Portuguese, plus broken Espanol), I spent my days watching “The Price is Right.” It was an incredibly helpful tool to learn English — Bob Barker would say “you won a car!” and they would show a shiny new car! The show taught me words like toaster, hot tub, lawnmower, vacation, coffee maker, microwave, and many others. These words may seem unimportant and mundane, but they opened my world.

I was incredibly privileged that my parents were ultimately able to afford a house on the outskirts of a zone for a highly ranked school. When I entered the school system, I was placed in an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) class. I spent my day in a classroom with more than 20 students of different ages, most speaking different languages, with a teacher who — in addition to trying to create a welcoming learning environment — had to manage a classroom that felt like the Tower of Babel. In this class I learned that language was much more than just vocabulary, it was my lifeline.

After spending my life in Brazil fitting in, for the first time, I felt what it was like to be “the other.” While I was lucky that I could get away with pretending — my physical attributes allowed me to easily fit in my diverse school in Miami — the moment I opened my mouth I would understand what it was like to be on the other side of a stereotype. That’s when I realized that education is the greatest equalizer, and that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, because we are all different.

I keep thinking about the teacher in my ESOL class who was trying her best, but had to work within the constraints of an underfunded system that reflected an antiquated, narrow notion of educational success that was tied almost exclusively to academic performance measurements. It didn’t take long until I was able to regurgitate the right words to be moved out of ESOL, but I lacked the social purpose of the language. It wasn’t until my ninth-grade that my teacher, Mr. Dreeson, created a learning environment that fostered healthy, engaging experiences, and equipped me with the tools (like using the words I knew to describe what I wanted to say…”how do you say….?”) to develop and master the English language. In turn, language skills helped me foster self-confidence, engage with other students and teachers, and build the capacity to meet new challenges head on.

Representation is crucial and seeing it at the highest levels of government really matters. Having a Latinx U.S. Secretary of Education who shares that journey — or at least his own unique version of it — is a turning point. My highest hope is that Secretary Cardona will not only change the perception of what it is to be an English learner, but that it will also help the next generation to feel like they belong.

Melina Kiper is the Advocacy Manager at America Forward.

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