The Giving and the Thanks: Teaching English to Adults From Other Countries

I made an elderly woman cry today. I made a 71 year-old El Salvadorian woman named Maria cry today. Maria is my student. I am her 33 year-old English teacher. My classroom is an old Boys and Girls Club multi-purpose room attached to a child and infant daycare center. The room is big and open with high ceilings and blinds on the windows that I pull up every morning when I enter. Maria has been in this classroom for way longer than I have. Probably eight or nine years. The multi-level ESL class is located in a neighborhood most Bay Area folks have never heard of: Bayshore, located just over the San Francisco city line in Daly City. This is my third year teaching English to adults, ranging in age from 20 to 71. When I received my teaching credential in 2007, I expected to be teaching high school English. After an assortment of short-term teaching assignments, a highly forgettable stretch of substitute teaching, and no full-time teaching opportunities, I taught high school English—as a second language—for a semester. It was brutal and I was in over my head, but I loved it. Teenagers who are new to the United States are not from the same universe as teenagers who have been jaded and emotionally malnourished by their lives in the U.S. The new students are an eclectic crew: kinder and more naïve, gentler and misplaced, joyous and terrified, curious and boisterous, inattentive and ashamed, nervous and confused. Overall, the word that most ESL teachers seem to come back to is this: appreciative. Public high schools in California may be less-than-stellar, but they are offer much more than those in rural Central America, the farming villages of Yemen, and the fishing villages of the Philippines.

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I was applying for numerous full-time positions in English as a first language. I received a flier for a part-time ESL teaching position. I had one phone interview with a unique school that was part-independent study high-school and part-work/adult life preparation program. I was intrigued. It sounded like demanding and intimate work. Part-teacher, part-mentor. The hours were longer than any other high school job I’d come across. I thought the phone interview went well. I waited. I wasn’t offered the job. I responded to the flier. One month later, I had a job. An actual teaching job. It was part-time, but it was long-term.

I tutor the adolescents in the afternoons and early evenings. I clean my friend’s AirBandB apartment in the Mission a couple times each month. I do the laundry. I come home and do my laundry. I take our dog for a walk in the mid-afternoon. I carve out time to write. Now in my third year, the morning job means I need other jobs, but it also means I have flexibility. The teaching assistant who shared the duties with me for the first two years is now at another school site. It is my room now. Most days, it feels really good.

Maria is the joker. Bromista, I’ve learned. Spanish is coming to me at a sloth’s pace, but I’m incorporating more of it into our classroom this year. The box of Rosetta Stone Spanish that my aunt sent sits next to the desk, beckoning and taunting. Maria strolls into class after everyone else. There are no bells in this room. It was one of the first things I noticed. I loved it. The institutional horns and the reverb-drenched PA systems. They don’t exist in this room. It also means that the students can show up whenever they want. Most mornings, I open the door at 9am. The majority of the students are settled in by 930. Maria saunters in at 10, with her daily proclamation, “Good Morning!” regardless of the lesson at hand. Maria may be there only for the break-time. At 1030, we take a short break, and the students gather for coffee or tea, sometimes sharing fruit or pastries. Some students come up to my desk with questions. I do attendance. Check emails. Read the rest of that piece I’d started at breakfast.

I read and write about the NBA, searching for deeper meaning from the games of my youth. I listen to interviews with authors, and read endless internet articles. Pieces and posts. Tabs always waiting for a spare stretch of fifteen minutes. A book of essays on writing personal essays. Lorrie Moore’s Paris Review Interview. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Spanish stays foreign. El Comodin. Some days it seems hypocritical for me to expect my students to learn English. Half of them speak Spanish. Some speak Arabic. Mandarin. Vietnamese. Cambodian. Samoan. They all speak beautifully when I ask them for the translation of a given word in their native language. I have to plead with Maria to repeat English words with the rest of the class.

Today was our last class before Thanksgiving.  Most holidays aren’t all that important to me, though the ESL tradition is to pass on some understanding of the holiday, something of the American experience. The signs and ads promoting Holiday shopping feel like shows of American abundance and materialism.  The culture of mass consumption is less effective on those with close to zero expendable income.  But back to class.  I always make it a point to tell my class what I am grateful for and give them an opportunity to share something themselves.  The word “Thanksgiving” in on the board.  “Thankful” and “To give thanks.” Maria, who walked in only ten minutes ago, is talking to Obdulia.  Both are seated in the front row.  She is making Obdulia laugh.  Obdulia is catching her breath.  I am asking for their attention.  I am waiting.  Maria will not look at me.  I wait.  I explain why it is important we all listen to each other during this discussion.  I am making the act of being thankful important.  Why else should we bother to share the food that we’ve all brought in?  Why else should I have stopped for the mashed potatoes, the roast turkey and the rolls?  I am insisting we listen to each other for these twenty minutes.  The giving of the thanks.

I ask Maria if she understands.  She ignores me.  I ask another student to help me translate into Spanish.  Maria glances at me and seems to be waiting me out.  I ask her if she understands.  “Entiende?”  She doesn’t respond.  I say if she doesn’t understand, maybe she shouldn’t stay in class.  I can’t believe I’m telling a little old grandmother who loves to joke that she better listen up.  But I am.  Finally, she responds quietly, “Okay.”  We are giving thanks now.  I tell them how much my wife means to me.  How much my family means to me.  How lucky I am to be their teacher.  I see Maria’s head is on the desk.  She is crying.  I bring the tissue box over to her.  How much the adolescent students I tutor affect me.  How much my friends mean.  My life with a furry creature who makes strange and comforting noises and keeps us company on the couch.  How lucky I am to have made an elderly lady cry today.  I want to give Maria a hug after the party.  After the food is reduced to scraps.  I want to reach out to her.  But she’s not looking me in the eye.  I give her space.  The reconciliation will have to wait until Monday.

Jonah Hall writes about all kinds of things at The Darko Index.

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