On April 13 of 2006, Adrian Flores sat wide-awake at a terminal in the Mexico City International Airport. It was the middle of the night. Although his aunt and uncle, and he, had left early that morning for Mexico City, they didn’t arrive at the airport until one hour before their 2 o’clock flight. Stuck behind long lines, they were forced to wait for the next flight at seven in the morning the next day. Flores’ luggage, however, was already on its way to Dallas, Texas.
Sitting in the airport terminal, all his belongings nearly 930 miles away, he had a lot to think about.
“I never thought I would be coming back,” said Flores. “You have no idea how mad I was. I didn’t want to leave my friends. I didn’t want to leave my family.”
Even though he was born in Dallas, Flores didn’t grow up there. He went to Mexico when he was just a year old to live with his grandparents. It wasn’t until he was 15 that he was told he had to go back because of behavioral problems.
Flores’ life changed almost as soon as he got off the plane.
“When I came here, everything was different,” said Flores. “I wasn’t in Mexico anymore. You can tell the difference between the airport in Mexico and the airport here. You hear a lot of people speaking English. You see a lot of people walking too fast.”
At the time, Flores didn’t speak more than a few words of English, and in his first weeks at school, he was exposed to the realities of being an English language learner.
When he enrolled in school at Thomas Jefferson High School for his freshman year they gave him a placement test written all in English. He could only understand the first few questions. Even the students who were in his ESL classes were able to understand and speak at least a little English. As the new student, he could see that he was the only one who didn’t speak English at all. To ask permission to go to the bathroom, he would have to ask one of his classmates to help him ask the teacher.
“For me to feel incapable to ask a little thing, it was hard for me,” said Flores. “When I used to live in Mexico, I had a lot of independence because I knew the language.”
Nevertheless, this didn’t hold him back. Instead, it was his motivation. After a year and a half at Thomas Jefferson, Flores started school at Faith Family Academy Charter. Three years later he was to graduate as the valedictorian of his class and give a speech at commencement all in English.
“I know a couple of my friends they have five or six years here, and they don’t speak English at all,” said Flores. “They are able to understand it, but they cannot speak at all. Because they were shy, they weren’t able to fight for what they wanted.”
Flores, on the other hand, learned in one year, what most students learn in three years of English. After his first year at Faith Family he asked to be placed in the general education classes that native speakers attend.
“He had the wisdom that most 18-19 year old kids don’t have,” said Ms. Cindy Johnson, Flores’ general education English teacher. “He would share things about novels because we would happen to be discussing them, and it was like, ‘Yeah, Adrian, you got it!’ ”
During Flores’ valedictorian speech, Ms. Johnson expressed the same kind of excitement. They worked on the speech together several times prior to the ceremony: writing it and rehearsing it.
“He wanted to get a certain message across, and he knew what he wanted the message to be,” said Ms. Johnson. “But he also was very nervous, because he was concerned that people wouldn’t be able to understand him because he has a thick accent.”
Self-conscious of his accent in those first few months at Faith Family, Flores used to have a hard time expressing himself. A lot of the students had become accustomed to making fun of the way he spoke.
“It was hard, it was rude, I’m not going to lie about that,” said Flores. “But at the same time, I learned that there is people like that. I know that in the future, there is going to be people like that who are not ready or they never were with a person that was different than them [sic].”
These experiences and life lessons, explained Flores, have separated him from the rest of the students he came to know since arriving in Dallas.
Now 19 years old and four years since he sat angry in a Mexico City airport terminal, Flores says that he never thought he would be able to do a five-minute speech in front of more than 200 people on his graduation day, let alone be the valedictorian of his class, enroll at the University of North Texas and receive a state scholarship.
“It showed me that anybody can do it,” said Flores. “If I did it, then I think that anybody that is learning English can do it too. You have to know that it is hard, but it’s not impossible. Nothing is impossible.”