What My ESL students from “shithole” countries taught me about being a good American

Swearing under oath.
Swearing under oath.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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After a year’s worth of the Trump administration, just about nothing the president says surprises me, though most of what he says continues to raise ire. His most recent comments about people coming from “shitholes” like Haiti enraged me not only for its gross insensitivity, but also for its blatant ignorance about the people of Haiti, as well as its willful blindness regarding the dubious role the US has played in places much like it.

For more than half of my professional life, I worked as an English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor. During that time, I had students from all over the world, but most especially students from Haiti and El Salvador, two populations that have currently been under attack by the Trump administration. To say that teaching ESL was the best teaching experience of my life is an understatement; had I been able to make a real living at it, I’d likely still be doing it today.

One particular class I recall was in the basement of a Baptist church in a function hall. Every morning learners had to assemble the classroom, pulling foldout chairs and tables from closets, rolling out a white board. It was not uncommon to have people walk through our classroom while meetings were in session, to have repairmen take phone calls or bang on pipes, to have an industrial-sized fan blow our handouts around because there was no air conditioning there, even in sweaty DC summers.

Most of my students barely slept. They lived in poverty, had experienced extreme trauma in their home countries, had to make the heartbreaking decision to leave family members behind, were supporting those families back home, had health problems—the list is endless. But these students never complained once about having to assemble or disassemble their classroom, or the lack of resources, or the over-sized classes, or the frequent disruptions during our time together.

In fact, my students rarely complained about their lives, instead coming to class with humor and humility, two qualities the President knows nothing about. They were hardworking people, most carrying two, sometimes three jobs on top of the three hours they spent with me in the classroom, three to four days a week. Many of those jobs were, ironically enough, in the service and hospitality industries (no doubt my student doppelgangers are cleaning hotel rooms at Mar-a-Lago and the Trump International Hotel as I write these words). In addition to these multiple jobs, they had children and sometimes aging relatives to care for. And yet they still were driven to improve their lives. They wanted to become citizens, many of them including voting rights as one of their main reasons to do so. In addition to classes with me, a lot of them were taking pre-college courses or classes so they might get their GEDs. They aspired to a bachelor’s, perhaps even a master’s degree one day. They wanted professions in the medical and health related fields. They wanted to run their own businesses. They wanted their children’s lives to be easier than theirs were.

Do these sound like the sorts of people that wouldn’t add value to the American culture and economy?

Beyond any economic or social benefit to allowing Haitian and Salvadoran immigrants to come and/or stay in our country, there is little discussion of the moral imperative in our existing immigration debate. Let us not forget that many immigrants coming to the US are leaving dire sometimes impossible circumstances back home, circumstances that, in many instances, the US has played an unfortunate role in creating or exacerbating (destabilizing the Middle East just one of these examples). Many experts argue that US policies towards Haiti and its long history of occupation and involvement in that country have made the situation there far worse. In El Salvador, the US was involved in that country’s “dirty war” in the 1980s, a conflict with its repercussions still felt today. The fact that the current administration is intent on implementing policies that are actively hostile to immigrants from countries we helped destabilize (Iraq and Afghanistan, anyone?) adds further insult to injury.

When it comes to being an adult and taking responsibility for our actions, the US is no better than a scolded bully in a playground, unwilling to say we’re sorry and make rightful amends. Meanwhile, my ESL students were some of the best Americans—the best people—I knew.

All I can say is, thank god I had the time I did with them. They taught me about compassion, humility, generosity, hard work, perseverance, and humor. Of all the teachers I’ve had in my life, they were hands down the very best. I only wish our government would take the time to learn some lessons from them.