By: Melissa Santiago
The first day I met Liliana was my first day at Weinland Park Elementary. On the playground and as a recent graduate with a Spanish major my ears immediately perked up. Hanging upside down on the monkey bars I saw Liliana and Gabby, talking in Spanish among a population of students who can’t understand them. Not having spoken Spanish since graduating from college, I excitedly walked up to the girls and said “hola”. They just stared at me for a few seconds smiling while, actually getting nervous about speaking in front of 4 year olds in Spanish I mentally planned out each sentence I was going to say to them in Spanish. The girls looked at me upside down on the monkey bars and as I spoke they looked at each other, then looked at me, and immediately started giggling (still not sure if it was at my rusty Spanish). They hopped down from the monkey bars and Liliana immediately started speaking in Spanish, like most Spanish speakers- at about a hundred words a minute. I quickly learned my college Spanish courses hadn’t prepared me for comprehension of a 4 year old speaking Spanish at lightning speed but thankfully the girls were forgiving when I said “You speak English too right?!”
They introduced me to the whole Spanish speaking gang (all 4 of them) and from that day on we haven’t spoken a word of English to each other- except when I have to ask for their help on how to translate certain words. One day while walking another student to class, Liliana’s teacher spotted me saying hi to Liliana in the hallway and asked me if I could translate for her and Liliana’s family in the parent-teacher conference that was about to take place. There was no school translator on hand because the teacher hadn’t anticipated needing one. Glad to help Liliana out, but skeptical of my translating skills, I anxiously followed Liliana’s teacher, mother and father, and brother into the classroom. I stopped being nervous when I realized how nervous everyone else in the room was- the teacher felt unprepared and embarrassed for not having requested an official translator and Liliana’s parents were anxious about communication barriers in their daughter’s first ever parent-teacher conference. With Liliana’s teacher on my left, and her family on my right I felt the importance of my placement in the center of them. I explained to Liliana’s parents that her daughter is a pleasure in class, knows all of the material that is required of her, and is a positive influence on her peers while her parents listened intently with huge smiles on their faces. The teacher commended her parents on making sure she always does her homework and is prepared for each school day, noting that it’s something that sets her apart from the other students. Afterwards, I couldn’t help but wonder if I weren’t serving in the school or if I hadn’t been standing in the hallway that day, Liliana’s parents might not know how well their daughter’s doing in school or how important their role in her education is. Maybe they would’ve given up involvement in her academics after losing communication with her teachers due to a language barrier…or maybe not, but that’s a risk I’m glad I don’t have to take.