Emilita L.H. Poling, ESOL teacher at Patterson High, dies

Emilita L.H. Poling, who taught English for Speakers of Other Languages at Patterson High School and helped children from Syria, Mexico and other lands adjust to American life, died Feb. 25 at the University of Maryland Medical Center from a streptococcus infection.

The Hampden resident was 43.

”Emilita was a wonderful, warm, loving, all-inclusive, dynamic and empathetic person with whom you immediately took to heart,” said Margot L. Harris, former chair of the ESOL department at Patterson High.

Ms. Harris, now an ESOL teacher in the Achievement Academy at Digital Harbor High School, previously headed the SPIRIT initiative at Patterson — formally known as Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together. At the time of her death, Ms. Poling was leading that program, which got assistance from Casa de Maryland.

“Patterson is the largest immigrant school in the city, and there were tensions,” said Ms. Harris. “SPIRIT is like a club and its mission was to bring diverse groups together. It was just getting started under Emilita’s leadership when she became ill.”

Kathryn “Kate” Donovan of Union City, N.J., a former United Nations press officer, knew Ms. Poling from a time when she lived in New York.

”I first met Emilita when she was pregnant with her first child in 2006,” Ms. Donovan said. “Emilita was a very spiritual person who was the light that lit up a room. She had an enormous laugh and was always a big presence even though she was very small.”

She recalled that Ms. Poling once “picked up and moved to China so she could learn Chinese. She was a person who always followed her instincts.”

Emilita Lisyl Huston was born in Jackson, Miss., the daughter of the Rev. Ervin Huston, a Church of the Brethren pastor, and Joan Huston, a registered nurse.

She moved with her family to a home in Gwynn Oak Junction in 1975, then in 1980 to Twin Falls, Idaho, where she graduated from Twin Falls High School.

In 1996 Ms. Poling was a cum laude graduate of McPherson College in McPherson, Kan., and received a bachelor’s degree in multicultural studies.

From 1999 to 2000, she was an ESOL teacher at the Ethnic Minority Boarding School in Hoa Binh, Vietnam.

She also taught English language arts and social studies to an ESOL class at Angelo Patri Middle School in the Bronx, N.Y., for two years. While there, she obtained a master’s degree in teaching in 2014 from New York University.

From 2007 to 2013, she volunteered as an English teacher for refugees from Bosnia and Vietnam at the Mid-Manhattan Adult Learning Center. She also taught Spanish at Laurens Central School in Laurens, N.Y.

She came to Baltimore on 2016, joining the faculty of Patterson High School.

“I hired her sight unseen because she came to us highly recommended,” Ms. Harris said. “I could tell by our conversation over the phone that she’d be a perfect fit for us at Patterson. I could hear exuberance and experience in her voice. She had what we wanted.”

“The Baltimore public school system was very lucky to have her,” Ms. Donovan said. “Her students from Syria and Mexico had seen some very tough things and they adored her and called her ‘Mama.’”

In a 2016 opinion piece in The Baltimore Sun, Ms. Poling wrote she felt her mission in teaching children from other countries was to help them “make meaning of the chaos they have left and the chaos they have brought with them,” and to help them “navigate the chaos of their new language.”

“We, as the community of Baltimore (city, county and beyond), have a job of helping them make sense of their new land,” she wrote. “We Americans have the privilege of stability. We have the warmth and the wealth of our region and a nation to welcome the tired and the poor.”

She added: “The greatest thing I can do... is to suit up and show up and care for the charges that Baltimore City Public Schools has entrusted to me. I am not being naive. The threat of poverty, low-wage work and incarceration/deportation is a reality. I can be the greatest teacher in the world, but I can’t change the world, its laws or the way my students are perceived.

“I am grateful for the reminders from my students that show up and let me know how good I have it. It is not pity. It is joy.”

Abid Aslam, a close friend of Ms. Poling, said: “Those of us who knew her have suffered a terrible loss, but we enjoyed a much greater life having known her. It outweighs our grief.”

“I can’t help but think of the school children who came from Syria and other places to a strange place and she welcomed them,” said Mr. Abid, a former U.N. journalist and researcher who is married to Ms. Donovan. “Emilita met them as refugees and they bonded with her. She helped them put down roots. She was one of those people who change lives.”

“Ms. Poling’s family and friends remember a loving, vivacious and tenacious woman who nurtured all her children: those to whom she was a beloved teacher and those to whom she was mother and rock,” wrote Ms. Donovan in a biographical profile of Ms. Poling.

She also wrote that Ms. Poling was an avid cook and gardener who loved reading to children and “took great joy in extending a hand to people struggling with addiction.”

Ms. Poling liked studying languages, especially Chinese and Vietnamese, said her mother, Joan Huston of Elizabethtown, Pa.

She also enjoyed singing, salsa dancing and spending time with family and friends.

Ms. Poling was a member of St. Andrew Orthodox Church in East Baltimore, where funeral services were held March 2.

Ms. Donovan said many of her students came to her viewing and “covered her casket in notes.”

“She had been their bridge to American society,” she said.

In addition to her mother, she is survived by two sons, Elias Poling, 12, and John Poling, 5; a daughter, Mariam Poling, 7, all of Hampden; her father, the Rev. Ervin Poling of Elizabethtown, Pa.; and two sisters, Rosita N’ dikwe of Elizabethtown and Sarah Brenneman of Hershey, Pa. Her marriage ended in divorce.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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