Being an aide in a classroom full of immigrants learning English is going well, I think. I now do this Tuesdays and Thursdays for two hours at a time, and the experience has become one of my favorite parts of the week.
Sometimes I read with people from Guatemala who are working through a language book. They read short stories about things like lady bugs or dust or sloths and then answer questions about what they've read. Sometimes I read a similar book with a Mexican woman, and sometimes I work through a news article with a group a little more advanced in reading English than the others in the class. The other day we discussed the disparity in wages between men and women and read that on average women in the US earn 80% of what men earn for equal work.
There is a woman from Spain who reads well but is hesitant to speak, and we read through an advanced workbook with several grammar exercises per story. Last week after giving a spelling test to six or seven people, I sat with the Spanish woman to practice conversation. We traded questions about each other—our likes and dislikes about food and weather and TV. We talked about our kids and our interests. She told me about her job in Spain and how she hates greasy American food but loves hamburgers. She noted that even the cats in America are fat, and given my two beasts at home, I could only agree.
After that, I sat with a woman whose preschool-aged son is reading a Dr. Seuss book. Parents are given the same book as their children so they can feel comfortable reading at home with them. At first I was eager because I am a big Seuss fan and still have all the books I read to my kids when they were little, but I never read Seuss with someone just learning English. "One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish" is fine, but "I have a wocket in my pocket," is just silly. Try explaining what a wocket is to someone from a remote village in Guatemala. Try telling her why the camel has seven humps instead of two and why the bizarre creature hiding in the cabinet has four arms and a spiral sticking out of its head. It's possible the woman understood in the end because she was giggling as much as I was. Maybe she was thinking we're all nuts.
I can only imagine how difficult it would be to move to a country where you don't know the language and you don't get the jokes. You aren't just visiting for a week or two where you can fake your way through restaurants with a miniature dictionary stuffed in your pocket. This is your new life, and you have to make it work. You have to succeed for the sake of your children who will most likely learn faster than you, and you can't be too shy about it.
After talking about his grandparents immigrating to the States, Chris Matthews said last week, "Always remember the newcomer because they wanted to become one of us." These people I am getting to know in the English class do want to become one of us, Americans with access to all the opportunities native-born citizens have. They want fair wages and safe homes and bright futures for their children. Every day I sit with them while they read elementary stories and spell three-letter words, I have more respect for them than I did the day before.
From Dr. Seuss's The Sneetches:
But McBean was quite wrong, I'm quite happy to say,
the Sneetches got quite a bit smarter that day.
That day, they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches,
and no kind of Sneetch is the BEST on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars,
and whether they had one or not upon thars.