It’s Feb. 14, and Jeanne Taylor’s pockets are full of crumpled dollar bills and children’s valentines.
The valentines are from her students, and so are the dollars. Taylor, an English as a second language teacher, can’t walk into a classroom at Franke Park Elementary without tiny hands thrusting bright scraps of paper and candy at her.
Many valentines she receives are ones she gave away once already. This year, she bought 20 boxes of Valentine’s Day cards for her students. Other years, she’s bought as many as five dozen.
For Franke Park’s nearly 100 English as a second language students, some who have never celebrated Valentine’s Day, the valentine exchange is incomprehensible. Enter Taylor, who buys cards for those children to hand out until they get the hang of the elementary school version of the lovers’ holiday.
A handful of kids give her a dollar for a box, under cost. She thought about letting the students handle Valentine’s Day on their own this year, but a couple of fifth-graders begged her to buy cards again.
“I’m like the valentine store,” she laughs, waving the half-eaten, heart-shaped sucker in her hand for emphasis.
She gives away some boxes, to the kids whose parents can’t afford valentines, don’t know where to buy them or don’t even know what Valentine’s Day is.
Taylor’s been doing it since she first taught adult non-English speakers 16 years ago. Inspiration came in part from time she spent living in Taiwan, where bright red Chinese New Year’s decorations mystified her.
Her bewilderment mirrored the expression she saw on the faces of her new students from Mexico, Sudan, Somalia, Chad, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and others.
The quiet of Franke Park’s hallways gives way to excited chatter in classrooms Thursday afternoon.
Student Ulisses Gomez shows Taylor a smile stained bright pink from candy – his favorite part of the holiday.
Ulisses, a Mexican student in his second year at Franke Park, already has handed out valentines that he got from Taylor’s assistant. He picked Power Rangers because “they’re my best,” he says.
Last year, he didn’t really understand what was happening, but he remembers the cards and, especially, the candy.
“It was my first day of Valentine’s Day, and it was very great,” he says now.
The first year of school in a new language often passes in a fog – “La-la Land,” as Taylor describes it. She points out a girl, quietly sorting through a pile of valentines.
The girl, a native of Mexico, cried last year for weeks when she first started school at Franke Park, Taylor remembers.
Even if the children come from cultures where Valentine’s Day is celebrated, they can still be overwhelmed by the chaotic rush to pass out tiny papers. SpongeBob SquarePants, Harry Potter – foreign cartoons decorated with foreign words – are passed out by children chattering excitedly in a new English language the student doesn’t understand.
The introduction to the holiday is far from fifth-grader Chan Sawn’s mind Thursday as she shows off the paper sack she’s decorated to collect valentines, but Chan, from Mon state in Myanmar, remembers the feeling.
“I didn’t know what they meant,” she said.
But as Ulisses and Chan demonstrate, children are masters of adaptation.
“This is his first year, I think, of coherency,” Taylor says, watching Ulisses hurry back into his classroom to scamper amid a sea of red, pink and white paper.
Years of observation have allowed Taylor to quantify the valentine effect, she says.
Ten. That’s about how many valentines need to be pressed into little hands before understanding, however murky, dawns.
And by the second year, it’s routine.
Taylor believes English instruction is more than teaching language, it’s teaching assimilation.
“A lot of these kids, we’ve basically grown them,” she says, and is then interrupted by a boy who offers her a heart-shaped sucker, which she turns down with a smile.
“I’ve had enough of those,” Taylor says, laughing.