PCHS student overcomes language barrier to find bright future
February 23, 2016
Among those who know him, there is no debate about this: Jairo Talavera is on the precipice of a boundless future. A senior at Park City High School, he recently gained admission into the Honors College at the University of Utah. He harbors dreams of becoming an immigration lawyer because he wants to change people’s lives.
But sitting in the office of a school counselor on a recent weekday, it is clear that the past is still with him. He is pulled back to experiences that few can understand without having gone through them. In an instant, the jovial demeanor and bubbly personality are replaced by the painful memories. He recounts them aloud.
It was kindergarten at McPolin Elementary School. Talavera, who is Hispanic, wasn’t like many of the other students in his class. He couldn’t speak their language. In the classroom, nothing came easily — understanding even the simplest concepts was a struggle.
His mother got the notice in the mail. Talavera’s teacher had requested a meeting to discuss the fact he had fallen far behind his peers.
Talavera couldn’t understand the words as his teacher spoke to his parents, but her tone and body language divulged her message. His parents confirmed it later: She wanted to put him in special education. But Talavera and his parents knew that he didn’t have a learning problem. He was smart, fully capable of progressing as well as the other students in his class; it was the language barrier, not a disability, that was setting him back. How could the teacher be so blind?
Years later, back in the school counselor’s office, Talavera still feels betrayed. He still feels that his teacher abandoned him when she should have fought for him. The emotions seem to catch him off-guard.
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"It was my first year of school, and this teacher was supposed to be there to help motivate me," he said through tears. "Instead, she tried pulling me down just because English is my second language. I felt really bad after that. My parents called me in and said, ‘We believe in you. We know that you can actually do this. The teacher is wrong and she doesn’t know what you’ve been through.’ I said I was going to prove that teacher wrong."
Clearly, Talavera and his parents were not misguided. Beneath the language barrier, he was smart and eager to learn. But overcoming it was a long path. It wasn’t until eighth grade that he knew that he had thrown the burden of not being a native English speaker off his back for good.
For years, he did anything he could to learn the language that the other students and the teachers spoke so easily. The backs of the cards in his Pokémon collection featured boxes with words translated to English. He’d pore over them, again and again until he had stamped the words into memory. When he had free time, he’d devour the children’s book series’ "Captain Underpants" and "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," reading to study the language on their pages as much as he was doing it for pleasure.
Despite the progress he was making, keeping up in class remained difficult. He felt ashamed that he couldn’t read and write as well as everyone else. The shame made him guarded, kept him wrapped inside his own shell.
"I would always be put with the people that need the most help," he said. "Growing up, it was really hard. I would have to constantly ask questions so I could get what the teacher was saying. And when we would read, I was always the slowest one. Every time I read, I would always get nervous and my hands would get sweaty. I didn’t want the others to make fun of me just because I couldn’t read as fast. That was my goal: I wanted to read as fast as the rest of the students."
He was in ESL classes until middle school. Then one day, it all clicked. As he tells it, he was one of only four students to receive a high mark of 4 on his eighth-grade English core test. Like that, his life changed. No longer was he the Hispanic student who struggled to read and write. He was Jairo Talavera, best in his class.
"I felt extremely great," he said. "It definitely gave me self-confidence. I was way shy back then, I think due to the fact I wasn’t able to communicate effectively. Ever since that day, I gained a lot of confidence. You can ask anyone: I’m not shy anymore."
One person you could ask is Heather Briley. She is Park City High School’s scholarship adviser and has gotten to know Talavera well this year. He has come to her office nearly every day since school began last fall, looking for scholarships or filling out college applications before the University of Utah’s honors college accepted him.
To Briley, Talavera’s story is one of unyielding resolve.
"Students like Jairo make me love my job," she said. "He’s so hard-working and determined. He’s always trying to better himself educationally. I think that’s incredible. He’s worked really hard and he deserves this. I think the University of Utah is really lucky to have him."
Anna Williams, too, marvels at Talavera’s doggedness. The school’s Latinos in Action adviser, she is most proud that he has loaded his class schedules with difficult courses, turning up his nose at the easy road when it would have been so much more convenient.
Williams sees him as a beacon of hope for all the other Hispanic students who face challenging circumstances. She sees him as a guiding light in a world that for many students can be difficult to navigate.
"I’m most excited about the fact that Jairo is paving the way for those who follow," she said. "We need a pioneer, and he will be a pioneer for us. We can continue to move forward without fear because we know that Jairo will come back and tell us what it’s all about. That’s what we always wait for."
Talavera looks down at his hands, perhaps slightly embarrassed, as Briley and Williams praise him. But his face once again brightens when the topic of his future is broached. He has big plans and can’t wait to make them reality.
At the University of Utah, he hopes to study law and become an immigration lawyer. Talavera knows he has a chance to be a leader in the Hispanic community. And nothing would make the hard work to get to this point more meaningful than giving others the chance to go after their dreams, too.
"I want to give Hispanics the life they deserve, without them being afraid," he said. "I want them to come out of the shadows. I feel like being Hispanic myself, it definitely helps me. Most Latino people trust each other. So maybe me becoming a lawyer means people can come to me with their problems and let me help them so that can live the life they deserve here."
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