Archive for the ‘relationship’ Category

empty name tagTHIRD in a series about teaching English to refugees. Here, a major hurdle right off the bat.
* * *

We get a new student and nobody knows her name.

New students are usually brought in by the Director and introduced, but this one slips in. She and her husband wander around upstairs, lost and unsure where to go, until at last they spot someone.

“Class? English?” the man asks. The wife is escorted here.

We greet her warmly and want her to feel welcome, but she is unable to answer the most basic questions, like “What is your name?” and “Where are you from?”

Most students arrive able to give at least that much information. Some even have their information memorized like a speech. You greet them with “Hello” or “Nice to meet you,” and out it comes:

“My name ….
I from…..
Two childrens.”

They say it the same way a soldier gives name, rank and serial number, like it’s the 500th time they’ve said it. Perhaps it is.

I sometimes feel like I’m standing on the dock at Ellis Island, my hair in a bun, a clipboard in hand, and they hope if they say the right words, I’ll let them off the boat. I’ll grant access.

But access has already been granted. Our job here is to help them step into it.

About half the new students recite a little speech. The rest just give their name. Not this student, though. This student says nothing. She looks at whoever is speaking, but no response comes.

I make three attempts. I come at it three different ways. No luck. All she does is nod at me. I get her going on some alphabet work

* * *

Names are very important. Once I have a name, I will use it, and often.

Please sit, _______.
Here’s a pencil for you, ______.
Here’s a notebook for you, _____.
Do you know A-B-C, _____?
Let’s practice, _____.
Here is “A,” _____.
Say “A,” _____.
Practice making an “A” here, _____.
Good job, ______.
“A” is for apple, _____. (show picture). “_____, say “apple.”
See you tomorrow, _____.

I may say her name 30-40 times before noon.

Saying students’ names aloud is important for more reasons than I can list, but just from a selfish standpoint, all this repetition helps me remember. That’s IF I learn the name.

Someone is sent off to find the Director, to ask.

* * *

At break time, we are still in the dark.

Muka arrives. She is late due to a doctor’s appointment. Muka has been a student for two months. She is a challenge. Nothing sticks. Newer students, starting at the lowest level, have come in and surpassed her. Her sporadic attendance does not help matters. Then one day a couple of weeks ago, when I had just about given up all hope, she signed in, printing her full name all by herself!

There is something about the nameless student than reminds of Muka. Muka used to give me that same wordless nod when she first arrived. Have they come out of the same culture?

An idea comes. I wonder if Muka can get the new student to say her name. It’s a long shot, I know. Muka’s native tongue is Kinyarwanda. Only 0.15% of the world speaks it.

I ask Muka to ask the new student her name. Muka’s English is very limited, so this is how this goes:

I say to Muka, “My name, Marilyn. Your name, Muka. What is her name?” There’s a lot of pointing that goes along with this, first at myself and my name tag, then at Muka, then at the new student. Pointing is a big part of teaching English. Forget everything you learned about it not being polite. We are talking survival here.

I make the request twice.

My name, Marilyn.
Your name, Muka.
What is HER name?

Muka strains to understand what I want, seems to, but isn’t sure.

“In Kinyarwandan!” I say.
That unlocks the door.

Muka utters something to the new student.
The new student brightens, smiles and responds to Muka.

The other students – from Nepal, Burundi, Syria – all smile and clap.

We have a name! SUCCESS!
Half-a-morning’s work, this.

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boarding the bus
It’s been on my mind to write about working with the refugees. This is FIRST in a short series. Here, while dressing and driving, I imagine what the refugees are doing.

* * *

8:35. plenty of time.
I fix my bedhead and think of them, hurrying to catch their first bus.

While I walked my dog through the neighborhood so he’d sleep the morning away, they were getting older ones off to school, strapping babies on their backs, taking younger ones by the hand, pulling shut their front doors and heading out.

I consider my bare face in the mirror and a sense of emergency sweeps over me, the need for mascara. I apply it, then I wipe off the excess a more stylish person could get away with. Next time I’m buying a less gloppy mascara.

I have my brief daily lament over not being more stylish and wonder if any of them think about these things.

I think of stuff I want to do when I get home later, the stuff I could do right now if I was staying home – the letter I could finish writing, the chapter I could finish reading, the airline tickets I need to buy. I set a reminder about the airline tickets on my phone.

I think of them, riding along, stopping every few blocks. I wonder what things are on their afternoon lists.

Downtown, they are making connections, getting on the bus that will bring them out to the highlands and drop them.

I puzzle over whether to wear the teal shirt or the red stripe. I favor the teal, but did I just wear that last Thursday? If so, will anyone care, except me? Maybe I’ll go with the red stripe. Ooo, wait a minute. Here’s the black. I forgot that one was clean.

I pack up my alphabet handouts, my props. Today’s letter is “B.” Ball. Banana.
Baseball bat (a miniature one from the Slugger Museum tour). Book. Bags (4 types). Bus, bed, broom, bicycle (pictures of these).

We will nail down “B” and probably spent a good deal of time differentiating it from “D,” which, in lower case, looks a lot the same.

b and d

D is for dog. They are all afraid of dogs. I learned this the last time we did a walk-and-talk through the park. What have dogs represented to them in the past? I wonder.

9 AM.
I push the button that opens the garage door.
I put my stuff in the back. I fasten my seal belt, set temperature controls, turn on my audiobook. Backing out, I pause in the driveway to survey the gardens.

I drive in comfort past the little airfield where flying lessons are given, through the upscale restaurant district and into the historic neighborhood with its tree-lined streets and big, old homes. The Baptist church on the corner there allows classroom space 3 days a week for the teaching of English to refugees. Three days a week I park my car at the curb and walk 50 feet to the church door to teach and again discover how much I don’t know about English.

It is the most satisfying work of my life. I have no explanation for this.

I wonder how much flak the Baptists have taken for drawing refugees here. I think about that at least once a week, especially when I spot some students coming up the sidewalk from the other direction, children in tow, all manner of dress and hijab. They are a sight, coming up from where the #23 bus leaves them off a few blocks away.

I haven’t a clue how to ride a city bus.

Nine months into this, I no longer see them as a block of people, but as individuals whose names I know.

They do not seem to know mine. My name is difficult for them. I have taken to wearing a name tag. Still, when they have a question or need assistance, they call me what they call all the English-speaking adults in the room: “Tee-cha!” But I’m the one learning a lot, seeing my routines and thought patterns in a new light.

* * *
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Watching for Her

circle of chairs
In church
I glance over my right shoulder
to where I think I saw her once,
back row, far left.
right next to the side door,
where a person can slip in, slip out,

There was just that one night she came to group,
ended up sitting next to me.
Turned out we had a lot in common,
including that we belonged to the same church.

Group ran long that night.
Before it was over,
she was gone.
But I had jotted my name and number
on a slip of paper
and passed it to her.
I don’t do that with everyone,
but when I heard her say,
“It’s just been a very lonely two years,”
I was pretty sure I knew what she meant by that.

I’ve not heard a word.
She’s not been back to group.
I don’t think it’s because of me,
I conclude every time I get to wondering.

When you care about people,
it’s hard to know sometimes
when to act,
when to refrain.

Maybe she’s lost the paper.
Maybe she hasn’t.
Maybe she’s shy.
Maybe I should go sit over there
and when she comes in,
there I am,
what a coincidence!


There was just that one night,
but I look for her.
Every week
I’m watching.

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at the refugee picnic

HOW DO YOU TEACH English to someone when the ABCs won’t stick
and no matter what letter you point to, she answers “K?”
because K is the first letter of her name,
though, if asked to spell her name,
she doesn’t know the names of any of the other letters,
though we’ve been through the alphabet together many times?

She isn’t the first student I’ve had to show how to hold a pencil.

Some come with university degrees.
Some have secondary school diplomas.
Most have at least enough schooling to know the basics.
But some few,
you can’t help but wonder
if they’ve ever had any schooling at all.

What will I do with this mother
whose preschooler is surpassing her already?
I am near the bottom of my bag of tricks.
More will come to me, I know.
I am not easily turned away from a challenge.

I think of my ancestors
who came at different times
with their Dutch and Irish and Welsh and Russian and Yiddish,
and sat, awkward, and tried.
Who sat and helped them?
Someone. Many someones.

Maybe tomorrow
I’ll find the magic key
and together we’ll open the door.

* * *
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Censored mailTruth is, if someone had asked me that last day in Nebraska what my takeaway from the retreat was, there was one thing clear.

I feel free to stop writing for publication.” Sounds strange, I know. Most people come away from a writer’s retreat inspired about a new project or renewed in their commitment to an ongoing one.

But a stop sign is also direction.

Nobody asked and I was glad. I wasn’t ready to say it aloud. Once I returned home, once I unpacked and settled, once I processed and considered, surely I’d go the other way with it.

I swear, I must have been absent from school the day they covered gut feelings and how to go with them.

* * *

Tammy writes about “Living the Small Creases of Your Life.”

There are times you live in the hidden nooks-n-crannies of your life, as if it were a shrinking back. But that’s not entirely true. It’s really a folding into your life. One that’s necessary and truer.

There it is again. Permission. What seems like shrinking back is really a folding in.

Ideas pop, and against the too-long-blank canvas of my mind, they splash like fireworks. An old voice pitches to me. Write an article. Write a series. Query today. They will love it!

But I have this other investment I’m making, see? My peak creative time is spoken for.

* * *

NEXT MORNING again, before sunrise, I start a letter.

When the sun comes over the roof of the house across the street, I pull the curtain a bit, to keep the blinding ray at bay. Just 5 more minutes. That’s all I need and I’ll be done. Always the same, every day.  Just 5 more minutes, please.

The dog lies tucked in beside me in the upholstered chair, tight. I sometimes imagine he is sending me sentences, but pay no mind to that. It’s the least of my insanities, but I have changed chairs since rescuing him, so he has a place.

He’ll not stir until the printer prints. I get up for coffee or a sweater and he doesn’t lift an eyelid. But he knows when he hears that printer, his breakfast is not far off.

I pick up a pen,
I sign,
I fold the paper into thirds. These are the small creases into which I am tucking my everyday life, a mixed bag of a ramble, all so much nothing that turns out to be something to someone else.

* * *

SHE’S GONE DOWNTOWN and surrendered herself. Five days after I’m back from JT, she goes – just as instructed, just as she needed to do, just as arranged for in her plea agreement. We won’t be meeting at Panera again, not for a very long time.

Today I got a response from her, stamped on the back that it had been seen by the censors first. My postman’s gotten used to this, the regular influx of screened mail.

It’s arrival means my first letter got there okay! I’m happy for that.

“You never told me that story!” she writes. “I’ve read it three times so far.”

It’s crazy math, I know, but one letter read 3 times means more to me than one article seen by thousands.


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pencils at the ready

been thinking it a while –
but is it one more step away from writing?
Or toward it?

I admitted to these very thoughts
while riding to church a few weeks ago
and wouldn’t you know it?
The morning’s passage included
immediately they left their nets.”
I like that.
(Long before Nike’s “just do it”
were the first disciples.
They were more cutting-edge than me.)

So what’s the hold-up?

I will miss the friends I’ve met in cyberspace,
not that I won’t be in cyberspace,
but I think I’ll feel only half-in.
Now that I see that in print,
I realize my thinking on that is wrong.
This hadn’t struck me before.
(This is one reason writers write, says Joan Didion,
to find out what they are thinking.)

I’ve been blogging over a decade, so it’s a hard break,
like parting with a old sweater,
too tattery to be seen in
but there are so many memories attached.
Okay, my blog isn’t that tattered.
Still, sentimentality is often the obstacle to the uncluttered life, is it not?

But mostly the hold-up
is the cry of the platform-builders,
“You must blog.”
Must I?
Did anyone actually say that
or is that how it got twisted in my mind?

I wish to say something fabulously acceptable,
such as,
I’m working on my doctorate
or going to do third-world orphanage work
or donating all my writing parts to a needy person
and so – apologies, apologies – I no longer can blog.

But I don’t have a noble cause to give as excuse.
And my faithful readers do not require it of me.

It is enough to say
I have nothing to say,
that what I have to say,
the topic closest to me right now,
the one I dedicate my peak writing time to,
which is as it should be,
doesn’t belong here,
and I belong where it is.

You are nodding. I know it.

A few times in my life I wondered how to explain to a friend a decision I made, only to discover no explanation was necessary.

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chair and pillows
not that we can’t hear each other
from where we are,
but just because.

And I leave the chair like that
even after she goes –
the whole day long –
so that every time I pass through the living room
I remember our conversation.

Having everything in order, just where it belongs, is highly overrated. :-)

SHE LET ME make her breakfast.
and said yes to the Clementines I pulled from the drawer.
We sat there peeling them,
the smell of oranges filling the room.
I liked that.

I made more coffee than was necessary,
I was pretty sure,
considering half the time she comes in, announcing,
“None for me. I’ve given it up.”
Surely, I’d be dumping most of it afterward.
I turned the coffeemaker on
a few minutes before she was due because
there’s just something about the sound and smell of coffee brewing
when a morning visitor comes through the door.
This might just be a thing I think.

We catch up on her recent trip
and my finally taking a class
and our various church stuff.
We are knee-deep into her wondering what to do
about the most negative person she’s ever known
when my phone rings.

I decline the call,
but when it rings again,
she says, “You need to take that”
and she’s right.

She slips out.

after she goes
and after the call,
I wander through.

Dirty plates are piled high with orange peels,
the furniture is askew
and the coffee pot is empty.

You can’t buy this kind of happiness.

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