Last week, I finished my second year of teaching ESL to adults. I shepherded a group of 23 Spanish-speaking women through our green textbook. Together, we lamented that the English language has 42 exceptions to every grammar rule. Together, we braved the cruel, cruel world of the past tense and prepositions of time.
One of the things I like most about working with adults is that they’re motivated and want to be there. Behavior problems are rare. This class, however, particularly in the last six weeks just wouldn’t shut up. They had full on conversations across the room while I was trying to teach. Even the giant poster of a white man with piercing green eyes whom we called “The Gringo” stopped having an effect. (Previously, I would snatch “El Gringo” off my shelf and slap him down in front of someone and I would warn, “El Gringo is watching you!” That worked for a while, actually. They would pretend to kiss him and say that he was their boyfriend but they shut up for a bit.) At the tail end of the year, I took to taking off my shoe and (playfully) launching it at the loudest offender to get their attention.
So, I was tired this year- ready for a break, ready to talk without people trying to talk over me.
Many of these women did not know one another at the beginning of the year. On the first day of class, they shuffle in and tentatively take a seat, eyeing each newcomer with suspicion. In those first few weeks, my dreaded purple cup that has popsicle sticks with their names on it must strike deep terror in their hearts, as I call on them and their eyes go as wide as saucers. I find that, generally, they are terrified of making mistakes. I make it my mission in the first two weeks to normalize mistakes.
“If you already knew English, you wouldn’t be here. The only way you’ll really get it is from practicing. You’re at a disadvantage because you never have to practice English outside of this classroom. Almost everywhere you go, you can find a Spanish speaker. So, practice here. This is a safe place.”
Slowly, but surely, they get it. They get more comfortable with one another and with me. I see their faces start to relax, their grips on their pencils loosen. When they start to crack jokes in their broken English, that’s when I know that we’ve achieved an optimum level of comfort.
On the last day, we had a party and six of them got together and made tamales for the whole class. They pooled their money and bought me a beautiful, embroidered traditional Mexican dress. I cried as I told them that I admired their strength and resilience. I told them that their children needed them to continue to pursue their dreams. I told them that they are part of what makes American beautiful.
Several of them tearfully hugged me before they left. Susana, my shy Colombian, slipped a note into my hand. Thank you, Beth…for being so simple, friendly, and fun person…you are the first American person that has allowed me to do without fear of being rejected.
Our second to last day was our Restaurant day. I split the students into groups and they create a restaurant, plan the menu, design a sign, and find pictures online of items on their menu. On the day of, the groups take turns being the restaurant du jour and everyone else are the patrons. I was on kitchen duty. My job responsibilities included listening to the waiters tell me how many of which entree and dessert they needed and then finding those food pictures and slapping them on a plate.
The original plan was for the patrons to enter in small groups so that the hostess had a chance to ask how many where in their party. By the end of the day, though, the whole class had hatched the plan that they were at the restaurant for a birthday party and they all needed to sit together.
At one point, I just sat back and watched. I watched as they screamed with laughter when Ana put a hair on her plate and argued with the manager about getting her meal for free. I watched as they sang happy birthday to a student whose birthday is in February and clapped one another on the back as they celebrated with fake cake. I watched as Susana, who first came to class with a furrowed brow and white knuckles as she gripped her pencil, laughed and joked with the waiters about the changes she wanted to make to her order.
These women come into my classroom with a minefield of difficult life circumstances. A few with controlling husbands, kids with behavior and medical issues, financial woes, immigration problems, issues that stem from living in a country that both hates them and exploits them. On top of all those, they’re adults with outside responsibilities who have committed to learning English for 12 hours a week.
There are times where I look out onto this field and think to myself, “How are we going to accomplish all of this? Their lives are so hard, they have so much going on. This is going to be a fruitless endeavor. This field will lay barren.”
But sometime throughout the year, we find it. We find the pearl of great price. Even amidst all of the shit that they and I have to deal with throughout the year, we uncover something magical buried within that minefield of hardship and suffering. The students learn to love one another and they learn to love me. We share tears and happiness. We swap stories and phone numbers. We share pictures of kids’ birthday parties and deceased abuelas.
This pearl of great price looks like women finding community, some of whom came to this country knowing no one, isolated with their kids inside their apartments. It looks like scared immigrants gaining confidence through field trips to Kroger where they are forced to ask an employee for the location of the toothpicks. It looks like a group who were strangers 8 months ago roaring with laughter around a fake restaurant table on the penultimate day of class.
It makes me verklempt. I can’t even talk about it without tears pooling in my eyes, goosebumps on my arms.
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. (Matthew 13)
This is it.
This is the kingdom of heaven.
This is where I find God- in making the lonely not lonely anymore, in making the scared and uncomfortable feel loved and worthy.
It is worth the selling of this field, forsaking everything that the world tells me is valuable. It is worth looking like a fool or an idiot to pursue this and only this for the rest of my days.
To see and be seen.
To welcome and be welcomed.
To love and be loved.
I just want to do this the rest of my life.
I want to participate in the kingdom wherever it’s happening- in my home, at an LGBT+ pride parade, in an ESL classroom, in a coffee shop, in an aisle at Target.
Wherever heaven is manifesting in love on Earth, I want to be there.