As many of you know, I volunteer weekly at the International Institute as a citizenship literacy tutor. I have done this for over a year now. In the past year of volunteering, I often would call in when school got busy or take a month off volunteering around finals. This semester, in late September, I made a commitment to myself, instead, not to miss a single night of my once-a-week two-hour session with the citizenship literacy students. On this particular night in early December, I was at the end of stressful day. Earlier in the afternoon, I had even picked up the phone to call the Institute and say I could not make it. I let it ring once before I hung up.
Tonight, there are three tutors and over thirty students. On a typical evening, there is a ratio of 2-3 students per tutor plus the teacher, a Citizenship Project Specialist, who teaches the lesson and supports the tutors. This time, even the teacher is sitting in the back with students tutoring, in between making copies of worksheets and answering questions.
With a table of ten or so students, I am going through the activities and lesson review. There is one new student at my table, and she speaks English very well. She tells me she is here to practice for the citizenship test. I feel her command of the language is strong, so I am not supervising her as closely and offering as much help as to the students I know are at a lower level. The new student glances at her first worksheet rather skeptically and does not take her hands out of her pockets to work on it. I assume it is because it is too easy for her. The lesson was probably about something she had already studied, and this was the easiest worksheet to complete. Granted, she had almost passed the test once, and my worst fear is insulting the intelligence of my refugee and immigrant students. I do not let a class go by without telling them they are smarter than I am – I know many of them probably have degrees and careers before they came here. I just say, “You are smarter than I am. I just know English.”
So, with my assumption, I give the new student an apologetic look and do not urge her to work on the simple worksheet as I push through it with the students who are asking for more help. With ten students, it is easy to be pulled in many directions, and typically, on these busy nights, the stronger students tend to seize the opportunity to work without much help. There are also so many levels of language skill in these classes that, at this point, I have gotten fairly good at quickly gathering a language skill level and adjusting my teaching as necessary to each student throughout the lesson. It is like ping ponging around the room, one skill set to the next. But when you know the students well, you know what they are capable of, you know their strengths, and the job becomes easy.
I am two sentences into the first worksheet with the group when the teacher walks by and throws a smile and raises an eyebrow at the new student who has her hands in her pockets. “You came here for help!” he protests. At that moment, she shrugs, sighs, and pulls her hands out of her pockets begrudgingly. She begins the worksheet. I see she is copying her answers very slowly. In seconds it becomes clear she is having trouble. I correct her letter “w,” which did not look like a letter at all. She asks me how to write a lower case “g.” Through three or four more worksheets, the group moves and with each one, she is slow-working and her letters belabored.
When the students break for fifteen minutes halfway through class, she asks to work through the break. She points to the “w” and “g” on her paper and says, “You taught me how to write these tonight.” I am floored – as I swallow my own, false assumptions. I had poorly judged that because she could speak the language so well, she would not be far behind in writing skills. At least, I assumed she would know the alphabet. I ask about her country and what alphabet they use and we talk about it (it’s not like she does not know letters—just not ours), and by then, it’s halfway through the break but I say, “Take out your notebook.” For the rest of the time, we work together through the entire alphabet. Upper and lower case, she copies each letter diligently. “Oh, that’s a ‘k’!” she exclaims when she learns a new letter. When the students come back from break, I tell her, “Practice at home.” I taught her the letter “w,” the letter “k,” a lower case “g”—an alphabet—and it feels like the most important thing I’ve done in weeks.
In that instance, I remember that there is always a different moment—always, without fail—each week where a student fills me with gratitude or joy. It could be as simple as one student saying something that makes me laugh, and I rejoice in just being there with them. Tonight, it is being overwhelmed with the things I know, the habits I am capable of (writing a note, updating a status, penning a poem). To think I gave someone the alphabet. It feels like the thing I can be most proud of in the whole world. As small as it was, she needed it, and all it took was for me to show up.
I cannot even begin to imagine the differences I can make every day that I show up for others. I look ahead and see my future as opportunities to be present. It costs me nothing, and yet, both others and I gain so much. Think of what is possible every time we follow through on a commitment to help, show our face, trace out words that matter.
“I tell you, the day I learned how to read A, B, C, D—it was truly a liberty. I had the impression of participating in a world, entering into a world, understanding otherwise… Me, I tell you, a woman even if she is sixty years old, she must not be ashamed to learn how to write because it is a liberty given once in our life.” –Dairyatou Bah