“Teaching English in India is not an innocent act”

“Miss, miss, miss”
“Akka, akka, akka”

“Le dieron el trabajo por que sabe hablar Ingles”
“She got the job because she speaks English”

“Tu que sabes hablar Ingles, ven”
“You, who knows how to speak English, come”

On parent-teacher conference day, a parent walks through my classroom door. I knew tired faces. I would say, “Prefiere en Ingles o Espanol?” Shoulders would relax, chins would raise, exhales. I knew the relief. I had seen it a million times before.

On the first day of 7th grade, in my classroom, the first order of business was my name. My classroom overlooked the industrial landscape of the South Bronx: junk yards, apartment buildings, empty lots. When September rolled around, after all the planning, setting up of the classroom, organizing, hoping and praying, with 28 sets of eyeballs looking at me, I would begin. Ms. Gonzales. Ms. G. Miss. From September to December, I responded only to Ms. Gonzales. By February, I’d already accept Ms. G.

By April, Miss was endearing. But I knew. I knew I should’ve re-directed my students. I should have said, “My name is not Miss. My name is Ms. Gonzales”. But I let it slip. I thought, “They’re still young. They’ll learn to adapt as they get older. They’ll understand the rules with time and age”.

Everyday, after work, I’d cross the Bruckner overpass to catch the 6 train to 125th Street. I’d see, on a clear day, the financial district in the distance. The epicenter of everything. The power, the money, the everything. It seemed so close, those skyscrapers. “Miss” wouldn’t be accepted there. I should’ve known better. I should’ve guided better. Teaching standard English was my responsibility. But I paid deference to another type of English.

On the first day I entered Vidyavanam, I was met with “What is your name?” by 1st and 2nd graders. “Sylvia?” (face says: are you sure that’s your name?) Yes. “Sylvia?” Yes. “Sylvia Akka!” Yes. Sylvia Akka.

In few words, my project involves working with village schools to support the existing ESL curriculum within the very successful MGML (multi-grade multi-level) methodology. MGML sets out to serve the needs of multiple grade leveled classrooms in rural settings.

Lost in the web of my own ideas and tasks, I was stopped. “Teaching English in India is not an innocent act”, she said to me. Yes, my soul agreed. But I thought of those skyscrapers and I thought of the gate-keepers. I thought of the relief on tired faces as they approached me during parent-teacher conferences. I thought of conversations between family members. I thought of what was lost and what was gained.

After graduating from UC Berkeley, Sylvia returned to her hometown of south San Diego to work as an AmeriCorps Fellow, in border-community schools with a focus on providing gang and violence interventions for targeted students. Afterwards, as a graduate student at Harvard Graduate School of Education, Sylvia conducted research for the project, "Redirecting the School-to-Prison Pipeline" at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, where she facilitated focus groups to document the anecdotes of young men of color and their experiences surrounding disciplinary actions in Boston area public schools. The majority of her teaching experience has been serving the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the nation.

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