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In my fantasy life, I’m a good mentor. Truth be told, I’m not.

It’s National Mentoring Month. The words “Will you be my mentor?” or “Are you willing to mentor So-and-So?” always stop me in my tracks. I feel that in saying yes, the relationship is now doomed.

The problem is the formality of it all. The mantle of responsibility is too much for me to bear. I want to say, “Aw, c’mon. Can’t we just hang out and be good influences on each other? Do we have to make it an official thing?” I realize this is a lot like saying to someone you’ve dated a long time, “Let’s not ruin the relationship by getting married.” You know there’s a backstory there somewhere.

I wrote a short-ish post about my feelings, then held off publishing it because it wasn’t very encouraging. To potential mentors, I mean.

The problem is I lose track of my mentees. We meet. We do stuff together. We pursue goals. This goes on for a while, possibly a long while. Then life happens (usually college). Years pass. Next thing you know, I’m getting a wedding invitation and being introduced as an influencer. I don’t even know the groom’s name or what anyone majored in! Is this the right moment to tell them I feel like I failed? Nah, they might think it’s about how they turned out.

Okay, maybe the problem is I have a little perfectionism going on. Since the ultimate goal is not concrete and it’s unclear to me whether I’ve hit the target, no matter what I do, it never feels like enough. We don’t meet with enough frequency. We don’t have enough important conversations. We don’t have enough fun. (Suffice it to say anyone having me for mentor is not having fun. That’s a given. If they wanted a fun person, they should have asked someone else.)

Despite all this, today in Sunday School there was a discussion about mentoring, about being willing and available to empower someone else, to help them grow to their fullest potential, and I do think it’s important.

So I came back and wrote this medium-ish post because I was inspired and renewed in my thinking, and reinvigorated! (Still, this isn’t a very encouraging post. For potential mentors, mean.) But while the teacher was talking and drawing a graphic on the board and inviting thoughts, it struck me: The whole time I’m walking with someone else and they are being stretched and they are growing, I, too, am being stretched. I am growing.

Mentoring isn’t about resting on my laurels, disseminating wisdom from on high. I’m still learning. I’m still encountering faulty thinking on my part, ridiculous expectations and inner resistance tracing from who-knows-where.

In fact, if I ever start to think I AM a good mentor, that might be a red flag.

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Frazer:pear ornament

WE COVER VOCABULARY associated with family relationships – parent, grandparent, child, mother, father, son, daughter, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. For several days, we practice sentences:

I have ___ children, ___ son(s) and ___ daughter(s).
I have ___ brothers and ___ sisters.
My mother’s name is ____.

It’s high energy! Everyone works hard to learn each word – its meaning, its spelling, its pronounciation. The “th” in ‘mother,’ ‘father’ and ‘brother’ take practice. I OVERpronounce, pointing at how my tongue is against my upper teeth.

“Let’s say it together five times: Mother, mother, mother, mother, mother.”

We review, we speak, we write. No surprise, that in the quieter moments that follow, there are tears, scattered, muffled, heads bowed or looking the other way.

It’s because of those not seen anymore.
It’s because of those left behind.
It’s because of those lost and gone.

We feel bad for having brought up the topic, but the vocabulary is important. Perhaps getting some tears out in a safe place is a first step toward health.

* * *

YESTERDAY we moved on to the concept of “I like” and “I don’t like.” We make lists and share them, taking turns speaking. We like and don’t like various foods, activities and weather.

Nobody likes “baby sick.” Nods all around the table on that one.

A Syrian woman has on her DON’T LIKE list: “War.”
A Cuban woman has on her LIKE list: “Peace.”
“Thank you,” says the Syrian woman.

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A very quick post. Thanks for the emails and texts, inquiring about the refugees. 

* * *

The Governor-elect’s voice on the radio near put me off my breakfast.

“I recommend we close the door to Syrians….”

I understand the need to appear to be taking a strong stand. I wouldn’t want his job. It’s the ring of hate speech, though, that I can’t shake. I want to put my hands over the ears of everyone listening.

When I get to class and see Anisah’s eyes, cast down and circled red from much crying, I know some part of her has left, has gone somewhere. But where? To the roads and schools of her childhood, now vacant and bombed out? And who has she left behind, and where are they now?

I hear it in the news, every time there’s a bombing, a mass-shooting, etc….a Muslim leader saying how all Muslims hold their breath and pray, “Please don’t let it be a Muslim that did it.”

It is suggested to me that perhaps the students don’t know.
“Have you seen Anisah’s eyes? They know.”

I tell each one each day “I’m happy to see you,” but today I add, “I’m happy you are here.” What other antidote is there for what’s being broadcast?

We carry on, exploring the pressing mysteries of this world:

“Tee-cha! Knife is spelled with ‘k’?”
“Yes, like ‘knee.’ The ‘k’ is silent.”
“Knee is spelled with ‘k’, Tee-cha?”

There really are no words and I probably shouldn’t be posting, but I’m offloading impressions and appreciated all your questions.

 

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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.

8:40.
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.

8:45
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.

8:50.
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,
unnoticed.

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!

No.

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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“Nothing beats seeing that light in their faces.”

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