Growing up, border town's teachers experienced their students' struggles

SCHOOLS: Many of Calexico's educators once grappled with learning English.

CALEXICO – Veronica Medina teaches a newcomers class to help manage the steady flow of kids coming across the Mexican border.

In Room 8 at Mains Elementary, the 23 fifth- and sixth-graders play English word games to ease the fear they have of the language. Students are timed as they line up word cards to form the nursery rhyme “Eency Weency Spider.” They perform skits about the Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks to build confidence in public speaking.

“Des por-ridge is too hawt,” recites Juan Manuel Ramirez, a lanky brown-haired boy who plays Goldilocks. His classmates giggle, tickled by the gender switch and Ramirez’s thick accent.

Medina smiles. She detects the struggle in Juan Manuel’s voice. “Shhh, let him go on,” she tells the class gently.

“Des por-ridge is too lahm-pee,” Juan Manuel says louder.

Medina praises his confidence. She knows it’s embarrassing, she’s been there.

She is one of the 80 percent of Calexico’s teachers who grew up in the poverty of the border town – where the average annual income is $12,000 and 30 percent of the students are children of migrant farmers.

Students who don’t learn English usually go back to Mexico. So teachers in Calexico understand the options: education or los campos, the fields.

“I tell them not to be ashamed,” said Medina, who has been teaching the newcomers class for a year. “I tell them to be patient. I did it. It takes time.”

Medina was one of 12 children in a migrant-farming family. While her father followed the crops from Sonora, Mexico, up the Imperial Valley and as far north as Washingtion state, Medina stayed with her mother in Calexico so she wouldn’t miss school.

Arriving in Calexico in 1976, Medina was placed in second grade in the school she now teaches at.

She knew a few words in English. Red for rojo. Green for verde. She and her older brothers struggled. They felt mute.

Three of her brothers lost confidence after two years and dropped out of high school. They returned to Mexicali and the comforts of their mother tongue. But they work the fields.

Medina kept on. She had a knack for language. She found tutoring others was a way to build her own courage to speak.

“I give them sermons and share with them my story,” said Medina, holding her fourth-grade class picture. “And they start to believe they can be somebody too.”

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