How Pop Culture Taught Me English When School Wouldn’t

On a hot August day in 1999, my family and I moved to the United States from Colombia, I was 9 years old.

“Pollito chicken, gallina hen” was about as much English as I knew back then, but in order to enroll in the public school system I had to prove it with an exam. The results showed that I had to be placed into an English as a Second Language program starting September. 

Back then, my mom, my older brother and I were living with my aunt and her husband who offered us the living room in their small apartment. The night before my first day of school all five of us sat on their bed while my aunt’s husband tried to teach me to say: “I don’t speak English” over and over again.

The next day, mom walked me to my new school, gave me la bendición, and headed to work. The front yard was complete chaos, there were kids running and screaming, teachers frantically looking for the students that would be in their classrooms, and then there was me, a child lost in the middle of the storm.

As time passed, teachers eventually found all of their students and slowly everyone began to head inside, except for me. No one called out my name, no one seemed to know I existed. Confused, I headed to the main office, where I visited with my mother the week before. The secretary, an older Cuban woman, remembered me and tried to help me out. There was a problem with my placement and they didn’t know whether I should go into a third or fourth grade classroom.

Moments later, I was brought into a fourth grade room. My new teacher pointed to a desk where I sat down while desperately trying to remember the words I learned the night before. 

Soon after, the clock hit 9 a.m. and a voice blared from the speaker on the top left corner of the room. Everyone around me got up with their hands on their hearts and faced the speaker as they recited something in unison. Terrified, I slowly got up and placed my hand on my heart, I could feel the palpitations increase rapidly. I faced the same direction and moved my mouth pretending to say what they said.

Once we all sat back down, I felt an overwhelming wave of fear, loneliness, displacement and sadness come over me so I just put my head down and cried.

I spent the next month in my new classroom quiet and failing all of my spelling quizzes while my teacher ignored me.

It turns out the school administration had no idea I didn’t speak English, or maybe they didn’t care, but unbeknownst to me, something else was teaching me English.

Every morning when my aunt would drive me to school and pick me up, she always had 106.7 Light FM on. It was this station that introduced my young ears to the sounds of funk, R&B, soul, jazz and much more.

“September” by Earth Wind and Fire, seemed to be one of the station’s favorite songs, and it soon became one of mine. Every time it came on I would sing: “Do you remember, blah blah blah, September!”

In fact, thanks to pop-culture, the world of English became readily available to me while it was being denied at school. 

Because of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, I learned the difference between “witch” and “which.”

And thanks to N’Sync, I learned how to give a proper farewell.

I also learned how to express my emotions thanks to pop-culture.

While watching TV one evening, I came across South Park and was immediately fascinated by the badly designed characters. But the part that captured me the most was when Kenny died and Kyle always yelled: “You bastards!” I related this word to anger, and saved it in my mental word-bank.

The next day at school, we were taking a math quiz and the whole class was quiet. Suddenly, the tip of my pencil broke and I yelled: “You bastards!” Everyone held their breath in surprise and I giggled to myself because something at that moment told me I had just learned my first bad word in English.

Four months passed before the school placed me into an ESL program. 

By this time, I was not only speaking broken English and making myself understood. I was able to take in how the words ― to me as a native Spanish speaker ― came in the wrong order and were not pronounced as written (no wonder I couldn’t get one word right on the quizzes). I also figured out that the weird morning ritual we did in the class was simply a salute to the flag. But best of all, I learned how to speak and write English at a more advanced level than what was expected of me, and I owe it all to pop-culture.