A shy junior boy silently slips into room 206, staring at the floor, avoiding others’ gazes as he does. He is immediately taken aback by the state of the room. As if occupied by feuding siblings, the room had an invisible line cutting it in two. The left side was adorned with several posters of Disney movies with their titles written in Chinese (or what he thought looked like Chinese). Ten baseball-sized red and yellow paper lanterns and a red flag with yellow stars also hung from the ceiling.
The side on the right donned a Mexican harbor. At least he assumed it was, based on the fact that the wall adjacent to the door was covered in massive signs, blaring words such as “HOLA” and “ESTOY BIEN.” Mixed in with those signs were a sombrero, a Mexican flag, and a box of Spanish cheerios. The front of the room, the only un-segregated wall, consisted of two identical desks and a white board that covered the entire wall.
The rest of the class filed in soon after Chris, the shy junior. Sitting next to another American teenager, Chris smiled and held out his hand to introduce himself. He waited, but the other boy didn’t respond. He lowered his hand, noticing as he did that the boy was playing with a grapefruit. When Chris coughed, the grapefruit boy looked up, seeing for the first time that Chris was there, nodded his head in recognition, and then proceeded to smell the grapefruit.
“Welcome to Chinese class, everyone,” a quiet but wise-looking Chinese woman said from the front of the room. “My name is Mrs. Kai-ling Wu. Why don’t we start off by introducing ourselves?” Chris looked around at all the students, amazed at the variety of kids who had signed up for Chinese class. The diversity of the class was an outstanding contrast to the segregated walls: every race, every high school stereotype was represented. Chris was the writer and artist, the quiet, sometimes misunderstood, type, who was always found with pencil and legal pad in hand. He had a feeling that being the only “normal” kid in the class might actually make him the weird one.
=There was a Vietnamese girl named Katie, a Korean boy and girl named May and Shan, though he didn’t know which was which, and an American boy named Kevin, who, based on what Chris saw, was the typical athlete. Before and after they introduced themselves, May and Shan were either whispering in Korean and giggling or running their hands through the other’s hair, and when they introduced themselves, they held hands and played with each other’s fingers.
But they weren’t the only kids in the Chinese class who were a little odd. The grapefruit boy, who Chris later learned was James, pulled out another grapefruit from his backpack sometime during the introductions and started juggling them. The Vietnamese girl, Katie, raised her hand as soon as Mrs. Wu stopped speaking and asked, “Mrs. Wu, how do you write “death” in Chinese?” and proceeded to ask, every five minutes or so, how to write words like “Pain,” “Bones,” “Kill,” and others just as ominous.
But as unusual as they were, Chris loved them. They became a family; diverse, international, and often dysfunctional, but a family none-the-less. Slowly but surely, Chris overcame his shyness through this new family. Every day, he was forced to practice speaking the language, and while it was embarrassing and he often made a fool of himself, Chris wasn’t alone; everyone in the family was new at this language, showing him that it was okay to make mistakes. He learned that his voice was important, and that he would never know what he could accomplish until he tried.
The international family grew and moved on; some members graduated, newcomers joined, but the spirit of the group never died. And as Chris prepared to graduate and leave the group behind, he knew that he would never forget his Chinese class family, and how they taught him to speak.
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