Although I was technically born in America, because my name is Mustafa and my parents were immigrants, it was pretty much assumed by everyone who met me at first that I wasn't born here.
I grew up eating different foods, practicing different cultural norms. I had different ideas of propriety — I'll never forget the first time I watched Family Matters and saw everyone indoors wearing their shoes. And when Eddie Winslow talked back to his dad, my older brother and I braced ourselves because we knew it was only a matter of seconds before that kid got spanked into oblivion by his mustachioed father.
As much as my cultural upbringing made identifying with my fellow classmates an issue, I did have the benefit of at least explaining that the reason why my PB&J sandwich didn't look like theirs was because my parents didn't believe in sliced white bread. On a completely unrelated note, jelly soaks through pita rather easily, FYI.
I can only imagine how much more difficult school would've been for me if I didn't understand English and what it must've been like hanging out with a bunch of merciless elementary students. So when I saw this Twitter user's post about the first school test he took in English after moving to America, I couldn't help but sympathize with him.
T.K., blogger at Ask A Korean, talked about how frustrating it was for him to know the answers to a test about photosynthesis - but only in Korean.
As a formerly non-English speaking immigrant, here is a story I cherish.— T.K. of AAK! (@AskAKorean) May 11, 2018
It's 1997. I just moved from Korea to Los Angeles area. I took regular English courses in Korea, and that was good enough to get me out of ESL classes and into the regular 10th grade classes.
Since it was only his second day of class and the other students were given a quiz that day, T.K. wasn't expected to do the work. He was, however, handed the material by his biology teacher, Ms. Gallagher.
It was my second day at the biology class. There was a quiz. My bio teacher, Ms. Gallagher, told me I didn't have to worry about the quiz since I just got to the class, but gave me the quiz sheet anyway.— T.K. of AAK! (@AskAKorean) May 11, 2018
Upon seeing the quiz he knew exactly what he was looking at: the process of photosynthesis. He learned all about it back in his native country of Korea.
The experience made such an impact on him that he'll never forget the quiz question.
This is more than 20 years ago, but I still very clearly remember every detail of that quiz sheet. The quiz was about photosynthesis. It had a diagram of a leaf, and I was supposed to write what kind of gas comes to the leaf, what is expelled, etc.— T.K. of AAK! (@AskAKorean) May 11, 2018
He knew the answers, he just couldn't tell anybody what they were in English.
I remember staring at it for about five minutes, slowly getting angry with frustration. I was mad because the quiz was easy. I learned about photosynthesis in Korea as a 7th grade. I knew all the answers. Just not in English.— T.K. of AAK! (@AskAKorean) May 11, 2018
Until this day, the feeling of helplessness he had when realizing that all of his knowledge and experiences were useless in a new country where people spoke a new language, is something he clearly hasn't forgotten.
The quiz was my new reality. I hope you all have a chance to experience this: the experience of suddenly becoming stupid, suddenly having all of your knowledge turning into dust, useless and inaccessible in a new environment with new language.— T.K. of AAK! (@AskAKorean) May 11, 2018
Unsure of what to do next, he decided to answer the quiz as best as he could - in his native language.
After five minutes, I just decided to write in the quiz in Korean. It didn't matter that Ms. Gallagher told me the quiz wouldn't count; I wasn't going to turn in a blank quiz sheet. I just had to prove to myself that I didn't suddenly become stupid.— T.K. of AAK! (@AskAKorean) May 11, 2018
The act of answering the text in a language you know your teacher doesn't understand is something that'll probably only be fulfilling on a personal level. T.K. proved to himself that he knew the source material and he was good enough to answer the questions on the quiz.
However what Ms. Gallagher did after receiving his test is where the story gets really interesting. She graded it, and our boy T.K. got the highest score in the class.
Two days later, Ms. Gallagher handed out the graded quiz. Then she announced to the class: "[TK] has the highest grade. He had the perfect score."— T.K. of AAK! (@AskAKorean) May 11, 2018
What - I looked at my quiz sheet. She graded my quiz in Korean, and gave me all the check marks.
Stunned, T.K. asked Ms. Gallagher how she was able to grade his test and it turns out she did some leg work and asked a fellow teacher (who knew a bit of Korean) to help out. They referred to a dictionary and were able to understand what T.K. wrote down.
I asked Ms. Gallagher (somehow) how she managed to grade my paper. Turned out Ms. Gallagher took my quiz to a Korean Am math teacher at my school. The math teacher's Korean wasn't great either, but she looked up the dictionary to help my bio teacher grade my quiz.— T.K. of AAK! (@AskAKorean) May 11, 2018
It's a memory of validation that affects T.K. to this very day.
I get more emotional each time I think about this. Because the older I get, the more I realize what an extraordinary step Ms. Gallagher took for the sake of her student. She already told me the quiz wouldn't count. She didn't have to go through the trouble of grading my quiz.— T.K. of AAK! (@AskAKorean) May 11, 2018
Which was a remarkable lesson for a young person undergoing such a huge change in their life. T.K. was motivated to learn English, and he did.
But Ms. Gallagher graded my quiz. I truly believe that moment changed the trajectory of my immigrant life in the United States. Thanks to my teacher, I was able to prove to myself that I didn't suddenly turn stupid. I just had to learn the new language.— T.K. of AAK! (@AskAKorean) May 11, 2018
And although it took a while...
So I did. I learned English, I studied hard, and graduated second of my class. My graduation speech was like a scene out of Napoleon Dynamite--it was so rambling and so terrible and so accented, my classmates were so confused. They were kind enough not to boo me off the stage.— T.K. of AAK! (@AskAKorean) May 11, 2018
...he eventually reached a level of mastery that most native speakers would be impressed by.
I moved onto a good college, then a good law school. Now I'm a lawyer and writer who engages the world via my writing. I've had writing professors telling me they use my English writing as a model for their students. That blows my mind every time I hear it.— T.K. of AAK! (@AskAKorean) May 11, 2018
T.K.'s post is a reminder that there's more than one way to "assimilate" into American culture and he takes it as a personal affront when certain political groups and lobbies perpetuate the myth that most immigrants aren't interested in becoming American.
So. Every time a fuckshit like John Kelly talks about non-English speaking immigrants not assimilating to America, I think back to Ms. Gallagher. I remind myself that America has way more Ms. Gallaghers than John Kellys.— T.K. of AAK! (@AskAKorean) May 11, 2018
Because T.K. is an immigrant success story if I've ever heard one, and when you look back at it, with the exception of indigenous and native Americans, we're all immigrants in the U-S-of-A.
Remember: nearly all Americans came from somewhere else. More Americans are coming from abroad as we speak. So if you're born and raised in America, I hope you would be kind and patient with the new arrivals. I hope you would be the Ms. Gallagher to someone else. /end— T.K. of AAK! (@AskAKorean) May 11, 2018
Tons of people related HARD to T.K.'s story and began sharing their own immigration experiences.
This tweet resonates with me. I moved to and live in Japan as a software developer. My 10 years of prior experience was nullified on my first day because I was speaking like a 5 year old. My empathy goes out to all second language learners out there, it is frustrating af.— Brian Jones (@mojobojo) May 12, 2018
I lived in Canada my whole life and for some reason they still taught me photosynthesis twice, in grade 7 and 10.— Brianna Muffin (@tassaron) May 12, 2018
It's good to know that there are other teachers like Ms. Gallagher out there who sympathize with ESL students.
I am an ESOL teacher, and I see what you experienced quite often in my school. I feel bad for those students to have to sit through a basic math or biology class for the entire year just because their English is not yet proficient.— HJ Cho (@hyocho) May 11, 2018
It's moments in our lives like the one T.K. just wrote about, where a single instance of someone caring is all it takes to make a huge difference in a child's upbringing. Let's hear it for all the Ms. Gallaghers out there.