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Virginia Journal of Education

First Person: Narratives from the Classroom

Wondering About Reina

By Amy Issadore Bloom

Reina bounced into our small classroom, giggling and teasing Carlos. It was nice to see her in a good mood. Like a typical fifth-grade girl, she could be sullen and moody.

Reina and Carlos were the best of buddies, though they made a funny pair. Reina was tall and curvy. Carlos was short and skinny. They had different upbringings back in El Salvador. Reina had more advantages, even though her family was struggling here. Carlos was left in his grandmother’s care at a young age, and barely attended school. They had both lost relatives to the violence there. Both missed the warm weather and tropical fruits.

The two students spent a lot of time getting extra help from resource teachers. They were in the same classes, but had very different needs and learning styles. Carlos picked up spoken and “playground” English with an impressive speed. But his illiteracy in Spanish, and lack of grade-level content knowledge kept him from succeeding in class. He was also terribly immature.

Reina had a good educational background; she could read, had lovely handwriting, and knew a bit of the science content already. She just didn’t speak in English. She had been here a couple of years, so was expected to have made some progress, if not with academic language, certainly with social English. But she wasn’t budging.

It drove her other teachers crazy. Some thought she had a learning issue. The majority of the staff assumed she was just “difficult.” The most popular theory was that she anticipated and wanted so badly to return home that she didn’t bother learning another language. It wasn’t that she could not do it, but rather that she refused.

I wasn’t sure what to think. Her silence was different than other students learning English. She wasn’t like the students coming from strict foreign schools -always waiting for permission to speak, always afraid of making a mistake.

Reina was friendly with her Spanish speaking friends - laughing with the girls, and flirting with the boys. She would boss Carlos, “Dile! Dile! (Tell her! Tell her)!” when she wanted him to recount something from recess. Sometimes, she would whisper the right answer to him, and he would say it out loud. In my small reading group, it was obvious, but I let them get away with it. 

Once in a while, Reina would blurt something out in English, fast and barely waiting for my response, just like her American classmates. “CanIgo drink water?”

The ESOL teachers and the reading resource teachers praised her, considered it progress. Other teachers looked at it as a sign that she was merely picking and choosing when to use her English. It proved to them her problem with learning the language was all “in her head.” Had she been a boy, I think it would have been different. It seemed as if the mostly female staff expected more from her, if nothing else because she looked so mature.

And she was mature in many ways. Her parents worked long hours, and Reina was left to babysit her little sister (who, as it turned out, was a Chatty Kathy in English). Reina also did more housework than most kids her age—you could tell by her dry, chapped hands. I gave her hand lotion to keep in her backpack. She was delighted. Despite this, it was apparent that she was well cared for and from a “good” home.

Reina was the one who knew Carlos’s father was responsible for the bruises, and she became angry at him for lying about it. Whether it was a distrust of adults outside of family, or her hesitancy with the language, I don’t think she would have come to us to talk about it. I just happened to overhear their conversation one day.

Despite her seeming maturity and intuition, she was the kind of girl we worried about. We worried she would end up with an older boyfriend, and become a sad teenage pregnancy statistic.
I planned on trying to keep in touch with her and perhaps be a mentor to her through middle school. At the very least, I assumed she would return to visit us once in a while.

The following school year, we learned that she had moved to another county. And that was that—I never saw her again. Ideally, she continued to get the extra support she needed. Whether she had an official learning disability, a language “block,” or just a stubborn resistance to being here, she needed to be with teachers who would encourage her to stay in school, to speak up for her friends like Carlos, and to learn, play, and laugh in English.

Issadore Bloom (, a former member of the Fairfax Education Association, is now a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. Read more of her writing at on her blog,




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