I made a 71-year-old woman named Maria cry today. Maria, who’s from El Salvador, is my student. I’m 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. Maria’s been in the classroom a lot longer than me, probably eight or nine years. The multi-level ESL class is located in a neighborhood most Bay Area residents 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 teach high school English. After an assortment of short-term assignments, a highly forgettable stretch of substitute jobs, and no full-time opportunities, I taught high school English—as a second language—for a semester. It was brutal and, although over my head, I loved it. Teenagers who are new to the United States are not from the same universe as teens who’ve 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, misplaced and boisterous, inattentive and ashamed, nervous and confused.
Overall, the word that most ESL teachers seem to come back to is appreciative. Public high schools in California may be less than stellar, but they offer much more than those in rural Central America, the farming villages of Yemen, and the fishing villages of the Philippines. 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. It sounded like demanding and intimate work. The hours were longer than any other high school job I’d come across. I thought the phone interview went well, and I waited, but wasn’t offered the job. I responded to the flier. One month later, I had a job. It was part-time, but long-term.
I tutor the adolescents in the afternoons and early evenings, and clean my friend’s AirBandB apartment in the Mission a couple of times each month. I do the laundry, take our dog for a walk in the mid-afternoon, and write. The job means I need other work, but I have flexibility. The teaching assistant who shared the duties with me for the first two years is now at another school site, so it’s my room now and most days, it feels really good.
Maria is the joker. I’m learning Spanish at a sloth’s pace, but have incorporated more of it into our classroom this year. Maria strolls into class after everyone else. There are no bells in this room, one of the first things I noticed. It also means that the students can show up whenever they want. Most mornings, I open the door at nine a.m. The majority of the students are settled in by 9:30. 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 10:30, 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 take attendance, check emails, and 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. 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, or Samoan. They all speak beautifully when I ask 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 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 demonstrations of American abundance and materialism. The culture of mass consumption is less effective on those with close to zero expendable income.
I 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 is on the board, also “Thankful” and “To give thanks.” Maria, who walked in only 10 minutes ago, is talking to Obdulia. Both are seated in the front row. She’s making Obdulia laugh. I’m asking for their attention, and waiting. Maria won’t look at me. I explain why it’s important we all listen to each other during this discussion. I’m making the act of being thankful important. Why else should we bother to share the food that we’ve all brought in? Why should I have stopped for the mashed potatoes, the roast turkey and the rolls? I’m insisting we listen to each other for these 20 minutes.
I ask Maria if she understands. She ignores me. I ask another student to help me translate into Spanish. I ask 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. Finally, she responds quietly, “Okay.” We are giving thanks now. I tell them how much my wife and family mean to me. How lucky I am to be their teacher. I see Maria’s head is on the desk, and she’s crying. I bring the tissue box over to her. I want to give Maria a hug after the party. 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 (www.darkoindex.com).