Yesterday I volunteered as an aide for a class of immigrants intent on learning to read English. My town, like lots of towns around the country, has a relatively new group of Hispanic immigrants, and we have several programs in the area to help them learn English.
The program I will be working with is funded by a grant, and it focuses on people with young children. In fact, you have to have a child in order to participate. The children are in one room and the parents in another all working at different levels. Sometimes, though, the levels are similar because learning to read a language you don't fully speak requires you to start with small words like what you find in children's books.
I showed up yesterday having no idea what to expect except I was told these people are eager to learn and are hard working. They have a lot at stake here. They know what kind of life they have left behind, and they know what kind of future they want for their families, and this class is just one step along the way, one of many.
The teacher had each student introduce herself to me—all but one is a woman. They gave me their names, told me about their children, and told me how long they have lived in this country. Some of them have been here for as long as five years. There were a few people from Mexico, a married couple from Puerto Rico, a woman from Spain, and several women from Guatemala. In many cases, the only thing they had in common was Spanish, a language neither the teacher nor I could speak, unfortunately. There was another aide who did speak Spanish, and she focused her attentions on the woman newest to the program and with the least command of English.
When the whole group was together, we read through a children's book and then worked our way through a mailing piece from the Book of the Month Club. It's the kind of mailer that lures you into a club with four books for $2, but then you have to buy four more books at regular prices. And then there's the fine print about how you get the featured book automatically every month unless you return a postcard. Some of these reading exercises become lessons on something practical like how to make your way through marketing in America.
Then I was put in a separate room with four of the students, and we read through a newspaper written for adults who are new to reading English. The subject was politics, of course, and our assignment was to read through a chart that spelled out what Obama and McCain each thinks about immigration. After reading the bullet points, we discussed the difficult words and talked about what the sentences were actually saying. Then the people at the table had to open up their journals and write out—in English—what they thought about immigration and which candidate they agreed with most.
At this table were the Puerto Rican couple, a Guatemalan woman, and a Mexican woman. We had an interesting and insightful discussion on the proposed wall that would separate the U.S. from Mexico. And we talked about taxes and the prospect of developing the economy in Mexico so that fewer Mexicans would want to leave their own country for a new one.
A nursery worker brought a fussy baby in, the most beautiful four-month-old girl with a black pony tail on the top of her head. She belonged to the Mexican woman, and she was hungry. Later when it was time for them to write in their journals, I took the baby and amused her while her mother worked. I'm not a baby person, I have to confess, and I typically am not one to offer to hold one, cute or not. But this kid was a treat, a smiley, happy, sweet-smelling treat.
I can't wait to go back to this class. I had intended to go only on Tuesdays, but now I am seriously thinking about volunteering on Thursday mornings as well.