The nervous young man stood in line at the cafeteria of the kitchen on the back stretch of a thoroughbred racetrack in New York. It was 6 a.m. in the morning, and I was on my third cup of strong coffee. I was a horse trainer, and our days started around 4 a.m. The young man in front of me was Hispanic, shy, obviously uncomfortable, and he spoke barely above a whisper to the impatient woman behind the counter. “Cheeseburger,” he said, and handed her a twenty dollar bill.
“Cheeseburger?” I asked, incredulously to my friend. “First, it’s 6:00 in the morning; why is he ordering a cheeseburger? Second, where did he get a twenty so early in the morning?”
My friend, also Hispanic, softly explained, “He’s only been in America for a week. He gave her a twenty because he can’t understand your money. ‘Cheeseburger’ is the only word he knows, so I think he has been eating them at every meal.”
I was appalled: imagine being surrounded by walls of words, immersed in a culture you don’t understand, and too shy and afraid to ask anyone for help. That very week, I began an English as a Second Language class on the racetrack, and two amazing things happened. By the end of the summer, my young ‘cheeseburger friend’ was no longer afraid. He could order many more things on the menu, and had begun to assimilate into the rough racetrack culture.
As for me, I had discovered teaching English as a Second Language. I went to college, worked several jobs to pay for it, and volunteered for eight years as an ESL tutor for adults. I have been teaching almost every day since then, have worked in three states, and I haven’t regretted one day. And you know something? I will never hear the word “cheeseburger” again without smiling…
Debbie Vaughn is an ESL Specialist and teacher in the Lebanon Special School District. Debbie was Middle Tennessee ESL Teacher of the Year in 2009, Lebanon Special School District Teacher of the Year in 2010, and a regional finalist for Tennessee Teacher of the Year in 2010.
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