I’ve been in Adult ESL for 11 years now. (That’s English as a Second Language, not Extra Sensory Perception, as I sometimes get.) I started as the front line office person for a bustling non-profit that had set up shop in the middle of the highest densely populated area of Dallas, right where all the refugee agencies sent their newly arrived immigrants out into the mean streets of America to figure life out.
We had students from 50 different countries, a bustling microcosm of the UN. I have so many funny stories about the kinds of miscommunications you have when you have a classroom of English, Spanish, Swahili, Telegu, Burmese, Nepalese. I was continually impressed at how… well adjusted these people were after having their lives upended by war and violence.
I remember one time my favorite elder couple from Bhutan invited me to come to their community garden. They could barely speak three coherent words of English but every volunteer and staff member knew about Chopra and Pema’s garden. One Friday, they invited me to come visit the garden and, through pantomime, I deciphered that they wanted me to drive. The problem was that I’d never been and they didn’t have the address. I reluctantly climbed in my car and was consistently amazed when we drove about 15 minutes away (and they knew every turn).
In our stilted car conversation, I gathered that they had been subsistent farmers in Bhutan. When I asked them if they grew food to sell at market, Pema laughed and said, “No market! Food- family- son daughter friend!” How they were able to move to Dallas and readjust to living in a small apartment in a kind of dangerous neighborhood still leaves me in awe.
Anyway, we pulled up to what looked like an abandoned overgrown lot. As I peered through the weathered chain link fence at the tall stalks of vegetables that I didn’t recognize, Chopra pulled a key from a necklace around her neck and unlocked the gate. They walked me around the garden and laughed at my poor pronunciations of Nepali words.
We sat on this elevated wooden platform that had been built in the middle of the garden. While Chopra, near 80, reclined on an elbow, Pema handed her a freshly picked vegetable and she happily bit into it. They looked around and smiled and I could just tell that they were at home here.
It makes me emotional just thinking about it now.
I loved them and wanted them to be successful in Dallas but it also made me immensely aware of the world, the home, the life they had left in Bhutan.
I left that job earlier than I wanted to because non-profit politics are usually fucked up and I couldn’t stand it any longer. Walking away from that community left a huge hole in my heart.
I stayed home with The Baby for about 6 months and was going completely insane so I applied for a job at our local school district on a whim. I had an interview on a Friday for an adult ESL teacher position and they hired me and said, “Can you start Monday?” It was a bit of a whirlwind weekend and I’m sure that my lessons sucked that week but I had a job and a class- 25 Spanish speaking adults (only one man- Juan).
I learned alot that first year. I thought I would hate being in the classroom but I actually loved it, especially since they were adults. I got wrapped up in the drama of their lives- the mother-in-law who overstayed their welcome, a shocking autism diagnosis for their kids, the joy of new pregnancies.
Most of the students who come to my job are stay-at-home moms, women who hide in their tiny apartments with tiny humans. They don’t speak English and so their world is very small- often further limited by the fact that they don’t drive. They only shop at the places where they know they won’t be hassled or embarrassed. Our center, while focused on parent education and ESL, functions as a community center too.
This is now my fifth year in the classroom. This year, I have 15 students- all Spanish speaking women, except for one 78 year old man from Vietnam. To put it bluntly, last year sucked. We were virtual most of the fall semester and then did very small classes two days a week in the Spring. It was hard to really get any classroom mojo going when people were in and out quarantining and we were scared to touch each other.
This year has been better. After 18 months of isolation, I find myself excited to battle the school zone crowd and wind my way through a Pre-K to a dilapidated portable, adorned with pennants bearing the names and faces of past students. Monday-Thursday, students trickle in- some eager to tell me how they practiced their English so they can add a sticker to their practice chart and get one step closer to having the teacher chair for a week.
These stay-at-home moms have been lonely- stuck at home doing virtual learning with kids or entertaining toddlers, wishing they could be physically present with their family still back in their home country. My students tell stories of being yelled at, of being scoffed at and ashamed of having an accent, or being in strange places and not knowing what to do or how to ask. They face so many challenges and I think many of them feel alone.
I get that. Covid kind of stopped whatever social momentum I had managed to garner when it came to keeping up with people. The Baby qualified for nursing, which has been wonderful, but it also means that I have another adult in my orbit every day and that person helps to drain my social batteries.
I’ve been terrible about keeping up at relationships and I can identify with being lonely, just like my students.
For three hours a day, four days a week, the 16 of us pile into a classroom and we talk and laugh and learn and cry and we build a family.
At our Christmas party a few weeks ago, the students continually told me how hungry they were until I begrudgingly told them it was time to stop learning and eat. They took a good 20 minutes setting up a food table, including the Vietnamese Pork Skin Cake (which my Vietnamese student brought with a note to emphasize that it did not, in fact, include pork) and I pulled up a youtube video of a crackling fire on my projector.
They always want me to get a plate first so when I was summoned, I had us stop and hold hands (COVID be damned!) I told them, “I know that this has been a difficult year with Covid and the freeze and all of the stress from the pandemic, but I am thankful for you. This class is a gift. You are my friends and family and I am thankful for you.” Misty-eyed, we squeezed hands and dug in. They pulled all the tables together so that we could sit next to one another and break brea…well, tamales together. The students tried to teach Xuan Spanish and laughed uproariously when he reproduced the sounds correctly. I took a second to sit back and observe and take it all in.
God, this is beautiful. All these lonely people finding their way to one another and stitching a family using gerunds and generosity and verb tenses and jokes and empathy and la chancla.
Finding community like this reminds me that I think God still exists. I don’t know how things like that could just happen.
My job has saved me this year in more ways than one and I am thankful for it.
In 2022, I hope that you are able to find a holy community where you felt seen and known and valued.
Happy new year, friends.