The little boy refused to speak to Sonja Selenica in Albanian or English. But Selenica, the Albanian bilingual teacher for Chase Elementary School in Waterbury, did her best to draw him out as she has done with hundreds of children for more than 20 years. When he finally came around, he stunned her with what he had to say.
“I don’t want to be here,” she recalled the little boy saying. “I don’t want to learn English. I didn’t want to come here.”
He told her he wanted to return to Albania where his grandparents still lived. He wanted no parts of a new life in the United States where everything was different.
“They wanted to come here,” the boy said of his parents. “Let them learn English.”
Selenica understood the boy’s resistance. She had seen some version of it in other students she’d worked with over the years. One boy had trouble staying in his classroom because it faced a cemetery, reminding him of the war in Kosovo. Selenica shudders to think what he had seen.
And there was the curious case of the academically capable little girl who was struggling to keep up in second grade. It turned out that she was bothered that her dad worked three jobs to support her family in their new country.
“She was carrying that burden of what the family was going through,” Selenica said. “I told her my husband had two jobs and I understand. But it’s not forever.”
Selenica said she sees her role as a bridge between the children adjusting to the rhythms of their new country, language and school environment. She also tries to be a bridge for them between home and school because she knows that their parents are often counting on them to learn English and take up the role of translator in matters often beyond their years of understanding.
First of all, before I am a teacher, I am a parent and a human being and I want to understand people on that level.
She tries to make sure her students don’t feel isolated and alienated by these new roles. She advocates for them to be placed in classes where they aren’t the only Albanian students. She said she wants them to know that they don’t have to choose their new home over their old one. She didn’t.
Selenica came to the United States willingly as a new bride to a husband who had won a chance to come to the United States and obtain a green card through a lottery. But even when emigrating freely, it’s still hard to leave everything you’ve ever known.
“I was just in love with him and followed,” she said of her husband. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”
She said coming to the United States was a culture shock to say the least. Having been raised in a tight knit family back in Albania, she said leaving home to start her life with her husband in a different country felt like being uprooted.
“You leave everything familiar that you’ve known to start everything again from scratch,” she said. “You have to prove your skills. It’s hard. People don’t give you a chance to find out what you’re capable of doing.”
Unlike her students, Selenica said she had the benefit of not only being an adult but of understanding how to read and write in English and having a degree in finance and accounting. None of that, however, made finding a job easier. She remembered being told she was overqualified to be a bank teller but not to work for minimum wage at Filene’s in the mall.
She studied for the GMAT so she could pursue a masters of business administration. Selenica ultimately scored in the top 25th percentile and was accepted to Southern Connecticut State University. It was then that she learned that a bilingual teaching position was opening in Waterbury to work with refugees from Kosovo. She took the Praxis and got certified to teach right away and the rest is pretty much history. She and her husband raised two children. She earned two more degrees.
On paper, she said her siblings are probably more financially successful than she is “but they dread Mondays.”
I love spending time with my students. I really sometimes feel like I’m a kid in my heart and enjoy being around kids more than being around adults because they are so sincere.
Selenica said she didn’t grow up religious but her work as a teacher is what she was put on earth to do.
“I think working with all the families and the students, I feel like it's kind of my duty to my ancestors,” she said. “There have been so many difficult moments in my job but it has been a blessing.”