In 1992, Loreen Sumner was hired as the first English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in Duplin County, North Carolina, and, through the years, she has had the privilege of teaching many students coming to this country from diverse parts of the world. Oscar Mojica, a twelve-year-old from Mexico, was one of her first ESL students. His stubborn personality and determination to succeed in the face of enormous struggles intrigued her so much that she was drawn to him and helped him. In the process, she became fully convinced that God had brought Oscar to America for a significant purpose and that she had been destined to meet the boy, help him like a mother, and eventually tell his amazing story.
Coming to America, for Oscar, had not been the dream everyone might imagine. He was hurt and bitter about having to leave his homeland and his beloved abuela, his mother’s mother, and had departed from Mexico only at his mother’s insistence (because she desired to alleviate the poverty and harsh trials he and his younger sister had suffered their whole lives back in Mexico). Arriving in America, Oscar was hurt that he did not feel very welcomed here, hurt that many Americans saw him as an intruder, and it took him some time to adapt to his new surroundings and feel a part of things.
Today Oscar Mojica is thirty-seven years old, and his story covers an amazing journey that ultimately brought him to the fulfillment of God’s purpose for his life. Oscar Mojica is not only an amazing person of Mexican heritage, he is just as much an American as you or I, and the intriguing details of his life story will surely convince many Americans of that fact. This is his incredible story.
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As a new teacher, I was optimistic by nature. I felt that I could conquer any negative attitude that my students presented. I could do anything I set my mind to do. As an opened-minded person, I did not have prejudiced attitudes tow11rd anyone. I grew up in a loving, supportive American Caucasian family that was not prejudiced in any way.
Although my mother was born in the South in 1940, on a tobacco farm in the heart of Back Swamp, Richlands, North Carolina, she was not racist or prejudiced. In fact, both my mother and father were true Christians who loved their fellowman of all races and nationalities, and they had never taught me to be racist or biased toward any person of any origin. My parents loved and appreciated diversity, and I learned from their example to truly love and respect all races and nationalities of people from all over the world.
Honestly, I was not expecting it when Oscar Mojica ran into my classroom with such a hurtful, resentful attitude toward America and Americans. When he dared me to teach him English, in essence he was really daring me to try and make him fit in where he did not feel welcome. He didn't want to be here anymore than Americans didn't want him here.
Oscar was stubborn, but he had met his match when he met me, his first ESL teacher. What he did not expect was that I, as a new teacher, was just as stubborn as he was, and I eagerly accepted his challenge. I determined that I would definitely teach him English, and I would teach him well.
In the process of teaching Oscar English, I never intended to try to take away his Mexican heritage. Naturally, I supported his love for his familiar culture, and I embraced that culture, even as I introduced him to my American culture.
Just as tenacious as Oscar was, I wholeheartedly accepted his dare, and I immediately began to teach him to speak English. I knew that he had to learn English to survive in that American junior high school and, later, in the world at large. Coming to America as a twelve-year-old student meant that Oscar would have to learn English just as quickly as possible if he hoped to successfully climb grade levels with his peers. He would have to study more than the American students studied to achieve it. They had grown up speaking English. He spoke very little.CHAPTER 2
The Big, Fat, Red F Translated to Failure
There can be no doubt that it was daunting for Oscar having to enroll in an American school. Back in Mexico, he had been studious and had made straight A's on all his schoolwork. Now he had to start over, learning everything in a strange language.
This was complicated by the fact that Oscar now had several academic teachers, a physical education teacher and various resource teachers for music and art. I had him for only ninety minutes a day in my ESL class, and I tried to understand his situation. In some of his regular mainstream academic classes, however, he began making some big, fat, red F's on some of his tests, which were given only in English.
It took time for Oscar to learn enough academic English to excel in the classroom. He was forced to quickly acquire some basic communication skills in English, but that's as far as it went.
Fairly quickly, Oscar learned to communicate in English socially and conversationally, and some of his teachers mistook this as meaning that he understood everything. This resulted in those big, fat, red F's.
I did not have to translate any of the big, fat, red F's for Oscar. He knew what they meant; he had failed another test. This was very discouraging. He knew that he was smart, above average, in fact, but how could he compete when he didn't understand enough English? He was sure he could have passed all of those tests if he had clearly understood the instructions and how to properly word his answers. He was not accustomed to failing in class. He was very studious, and he had a desire to perform well academically.
Very quickly our Duplin County School Board of Education began realizing that our changing student population meant that we needed more ESL teachers in our schools, and they responded. It was a learning process for all of us, and our county ESL Supervisor, Linda Smith, had the wisdom to quickly put into place some ESL workshops to aid in educating all of our county teachers in how to respond to this need. In these workshops, we were immersed in the teaching strategies needed to support our burgeoning immigrant student population.
Oscar was in the first wave of foreign students to arrive from Mexico to our small rural community, and teachers did not yet know how to grade ESL students, and so Oscar received those F's. Strangely, Oscar's frustration in receiving an F on an academic test worked to his advantage. He was not accustomed to failing tests. Because he was tenaciously determined not to fail, he applied himself and began to learn academic English very quickly.
Because Oscar was very intelligent and wanted to make straight A's in all of his classes, just as he had in his school in Mexico, he was determined to learn English — in spite of his obstinacy never to truly assimilate.
Oscar did not want to become an American because Americans, upon his arrival, had deeply hurt his feelings by not wanting him in "their" country. In the end, he learned English because he loved learning. His school subjects were being taught only in English, and he wanted to understand those subjects, so he applied himself and learned. He wanted to excel in English class, just as much as he wanted to excel in science, math and social studies.CHAPTER 3
Undeniable Body Language
Oscar clearly understood that many people, including some teachers, were not so thrilled that he was here in the United States. He felt that he was a burden to many of them, even to some of his teachers. Often he was all too keenly aware that he was a burden, based on the facial expressions and attitudes expressed through body language or gestures, which are much the same in every language. I did not have to translate facial expressions and body language, including rude gestures that Oscar received from some Americans, again, including some of his teachers. He knew what they meant.
Remember that Oscar was only twelve years old, but, even at that young age, it was clear to him that many people, including some of his teachers, would have preferred that he had never come to the United States. Nonetheless, he realized that learning English would help him succeed in school and in America, so he purposed in his heart to study the English language religiously.
As his ESL teacher, I was supportive of his shortcomings, but, at the same time, I knew I had to be extra tough on him. His survival depended on him mastering English quickly, and he occasionally resented the fact that I would not allow him to feel sorry for himself.
I had always believed in The Serenity Prayer, and I taught Oscar that he had to accept the things he was not able to change. I would not allow him to become depressed or discouraged in his studies. I held high expectations for all of my students, but especially so for Oscar. Therefore I pushed him and kept pushing him and encouraged and kept encouraging him, and taught him to persevere even in difficult times.
Oscar was often frustrated with me because I would not allow him to have a pity party, not even for a minute. When any of my students complained over too much classwork, my favorite response to them in English (and Spanish) was "¡No hay excusas!" or I would say, "¡No pongas excusas!" which translated to "No excuses!" or "Don't make excuses!"
I taught my students that it takes five years to master a language and that they would have to work extra hard to maintain the same grade level as the American students. At the same time, I did not want to overwhelm them to the point of causing them to feel like giving up, so I taught them that they would have to have patience when learning a second language.
"¡Tenga paciencia!" I said. I was a serious teacher in the ESL classroom, but I was also realistic. I taught the students to patiently learn one English word at a time, but I insisted that no time could be wasted. They would have to study at school and at home. So I told them they had to limit their television time (or any type of entertainment). If they watched television at home, they should watch programs in English.
Since junior high students love music, I insisted my students listen to music in English. I told them that they would have to fully immerse themselves in the English language in every possible way if they were to succeed in their studies. It was for their own good.
Every day, in class and for homework, I assigned dozens of English words for my students to learn. I called it "tough love," and Oscar sensed that I cared. He knew I had grown to love him as if he were my very own son. In this battle for his life, our hearts had become intertwined, not only as teacher and student, but as mother and son.CHAPTER 4
Oscar's Eighth-Grade Graduation
In no time at all, it seemed, Oscar became proficient in the English language and excelled in his other classes. When three years had passed, he was on the threshold of graduating eighth grade. This was a very emotional experience for me. Oscar had become like a son, and the thoughts of him graduating and leaving me caused mixed emotions. I was so proud of him, but, at the same time, I was sad to see him leaving junior high and transferring to high school.
Oscar, on the other hand, was thrilled. He was graduating eighth grade and would soon be rid of Ms. Sumner, the ESL teacher who had never allowed him to make excuses or feel sorry for himself for being in a country in which many citizens by birth truly resented him. Also, he was growing into a fine young man and no longer wanted his teacher/mother to treat him as a little boy. He had his pride to consider.
On the day he graduated from junior high, Oscar proudly strutted across the stage to receive his eighth-grade diploma. With his diploma in hand, Oscar barely said goodbye as he rushed out of my life, but when he walked off stage and smiled that grateful smile, I knew that in his heart he was so grateful for all I had done to help him succeed.
Oscar and I had an understanding that went beyond language. He knew my heart, and I knew his. In my ESL classroom, he had become his teacher's son. He had seen my motherly love for him in my eyes, and I had seen his deeply hidden appreciation for the genuine concern and love I expressed for him daily.
On that last day of school in June of 1995, Oscar briskly waved goodbye and quickly ran toward the school bus, which would take him home for the summer vacation.CHAPTER 5
Was God Following Oscar?
The truth is that when Oscar finished junior high and was preparing to transfer to high school, I was so moved by it that I wept. I tried to keep this a secret from Oscar. For his sake, I had to pretend to be okay. Life is a struggle, I had taught him, and we have to deal with it, accepting the things we cannot change and moving on. So now I had to practice what I preached.
I also couldn't let Oscar see me crying because I didn't want him to worry because my heart was breaking at seeing him leave for high school. It was the pain a mother experiences when her child has to leave her behind, to grow into young adulthood.
That summer, before Oscar was to become a ninth-grade East Duplin High School student, I received a call from the high school principal in the small town of Beulaville. To my joy and surprise, Mr. Ken Kennedy was offering me the opportunity to transfer to East Duplin High School, as the first ESL teacher at the same school Oscar would attend as a freshman. Mr. Kennedy was aware of the influx of immigrant students who had enrolled in the junior high feeder schools, and he knew that the eighth-grade graduating ESL immigrant students would need much more support as high school freshmen. This was to be the next step in their mastery of the English language.
In high school, they would need to write essays and prepare research papers, and this was a complex and demanding process for any student, much more so if English is not their first language. I joyfully accepted this offer.
I had not seen Oscar all that summer, and he did not know that I would be his ESL teacher at high school. That August, on the first day of school, he confidently and assertively walked toward room 28, which would be his high school ESL classroom. He was expecting a new ESL teacher, not his former junior high ESL teacher, who had been extremely tough on him for the past three years. When he rounded the corner, came through my classroom door, and first saw me, his facial expression immediately dropped. He was seriously disappointed.
Oscar was in disbelief now that he realized I was to be his high school ESL teacher. He stood with his mouth agape. He said nothing at first. No ¡hola! No hello! Nothing about his expression suggested that he was happy to see me. Finally, in perfect English, he blurted out, in his typically rude-like tone, "Are you following me?"
I smiled and said, "No, but God is!" Oscar had never liked it when I talked about God. When I told him that God had a plan for his life, he scoffed and rolled his eyes in disbelief. He may not have believed me, but I knew the truth of it. Deep inside my heart, I knew there was something special about this brown-skinned boy who was growing into a fine young man, and I knew that I had to somehow help him fulfill his purpose for being in America.
I knew that God had brought Oscar to America for a very special purpose, but he really didn't want me to talk about God. If anything at all, Oscar felt that God lacked a sense of humor by allowing his first junior high ESL teacher follow him to his high school, and he didn't really appreciate my sense of humor in pointing out that God was "following" him, not me!CHAPTER 6
Becoming Legal Was a Process
Oscar was still hurt when certain Americans expressed the fact that they did not want Mexicans in "their" country. Now, as an older student, a high school freshman, he understood even more that many Americans believed he was trespassing. Even though his mother had applied for legal status for her children, Oscar knew many Americans did not want to share "their" country with him, even if he was here legally. It was natural for him not to be thrilled to be living in a country where some of the citizens felt he was trespassing, but he had not had a choice in the matter. He had arrived here as a child, escaping utter poverty. He remembered well the fact that he had barely had enough food in Mexico to keep him alive. He had come to America to survive the thing called life.
Now, as a young adult in high school, Oscar still did not feel that he belonged in America. He knew that many Americans did not want him in this country, despite his mother's determination to legalize his status.
Oscar had always been the impatient type, and he was hard on himself, pressing to succeed. Along with the other ESL students, I had taught him that it takes five years to master any language, but impatiently he had said, "I don't have that kind of time!" I told him that he would have to read a chapter in his physical science textbook five times as compared to once for the American students and taught him to carry around his English-Spanish dictionary and use it as if it were his Bible.
Back then we did not have the technology we have today, and I was forced to translate and write every word on the chalkboard. There were no Smartboards, iPads or Macbooks. We had hard-bound paper grammar books and English-Spanish dictionaries and a gigantic chalkboard that stretched horizontally across the classroom, wall-to-wall. The result was that I left school every day covered in dusty, white chalk because I had translated on that board dozens of English sentences.
I insisted that my ESL students use their pencils, or lapices, to copy each translated sentence into their personal English language translation notebook. It was hard work, but I was determined to help them learn English just as quickly as possible.
Oscar paid the price to learn and studied every available minute. Although he would never admit that his ESL teacher was right, he knew that I was telling him the truth, and he believed me when I instructed him that he would have to read each physical science chapter or American history chapter five times as compared to a native speaker's one. Honestly, he did it, for he was determined to excel in school.
Oscar and I were tenacious together. We worked hard, and I helped him study for all of his classes. He continued to come to my ESL class once a day for ninety minutes during his freshman and sophomore years, and he and I continued to share that bond that went beyond language. As before, our hearts were intertwined, not only as teacher and student, but as mother and son.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Oscar Mojica: He Dared Me to Teach Him English"
Copyright © 2017 Loreen Sumner.
Excerpted by permission of McDougal & Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Challenge Accepted 33
2. The Big, Fat, Red F Translated to Failure 38
3. Undeniable Body Language 45
4. Oscar’s Eighth-Grade Graduation 52
5. Was God Following Oscar? 56
6. Becoming Legal Was a Process 63
7. The First Soccer League in Beulaville 70
8. Oscar’s Hidden Pain Surfaced 85
9. Knowing the Truth Makes You Free 97
10. Oscar Finally Accepted God’s
Sovereign Plan 109
11. Leaving His Comfortable Nest 114
12. Oscar Came to Say Goodbye 118
13. Deployed to Iraq 122
14. Oscar Returned to America 131
15. I, Too, Have a Dream 148
16. Ignorance Is Not Always Bliss 163
A Special Acknowledgment 175 Author Contact Page 178