Words With Blood Enter
The people in my English as a Second Language (ESL) class always showed up early. No matter how late I made it into class they were already there. Their books were propped open; they were practicing their lessons on their own; and as soon as I walked in they greeted me with the warmest of welcomes. In unison, all of their varying accents would shower me with good evening Mr. Alanis.
To which I’d reply good evening class.
On days when I had waited too long to leave the office and showed up more than 15 minutes late their smiling faces made me feel especially guilty. Here were my students, all of who had either just come off their more than eight hour shifts or were just getting ready to start one after class, sitting so eagerly and ready to learn and I was barely strolling in because I hadn’t planned accordingly. On top of that, I knew their work required actual hands on muscle and sweat. They had to be tired and ready to go home after cleaning so many restrooms and patient areas, but here they were waiting.
Immediately we’d commence into the lesson because that was the only way I could think of to make up for my tardiness.
My students were adults. They were all employees of the Texas Medical Center. Some were from Africa. The rest were from Latin America, mostly Mexico. Some were in their late forties and fifties. Others were very young, probably in their early twenties or thirties. They all wore uniforms of two different tones. The darker blue tops most of them wore signified they belonged to the entry level maintenance crew. The lighter blue shirts, which only two or three wore, meant they were one step above entry level. They were supervisors to the janitors and housekeepers.
In class, however, these distinctions did not exist. They all worked as one trading phrases like we’re all in this together, if you don’t try you’re not going to learn, take your time you will get it. My African students joked in Spanish with my Latin American pupils, and vice versa. Everything was a new experience for them. And what I learned later was that it was for me as well.
Their determination impressed me. Women older than my mother, with grandchildren my age, learned more and more each time we met. The sheepishly quiet Mexican kid who clearly lacked confidence more than knowledge slowly grew more secure. Wanda, the lone Puerto Rican and only high school graduate in the group, became the leader of the pack. And my Africans, oh how they amazed me – we did not have the benefit of sharing a native language, and yet they thrived exceptionally well.
Baharia and Kasahun would always interpret my sign language to the other African students in the class. When we couldn’t understand each other at all, they would take my markers and draw pictures on the whiteboard. Eventually somebody in the classroom would figure it out and we would move forward.
When time came for our sessions to finally end they graced me with a dinner fit for a king. Each student prepared a specialty dish from their native country and brought more than enough for everyone to eat. We sat around the tables we had spent the past 14 weeks learning on and shared our final moments together. Before the 8:00 p.m. class came in for their last session, each of my students embraced me and humbly thanked me for my time and efforts.
I should have been the one thanking them.
Driving home that evening, and many times since then, my thoughts were drawn around each one of those students in my ESL class. They were never paid for attending my class. Instead, many of them had to cut back on their own hours to make it. Sometimes they were called out in the middle of class to go back to work. We weren’t really teaching them complete English lessons. The intention of the class was to teach them just enough to be able to communicate on a basic level with the people they had to interact with on a daily basis. They earned less in a day than what I got paid for the two hours of teaching, and despite all of this, they were resolved to learn whatever they could.
That they learned a great deal I do not doubt, but the lesson they taught me was very valuable as well. That when you really want something, you go for it! You don’t test the waters and quit if is too hard. You make a decision, take steps – no matter how small – towards your goal, and you never give up. You fight for it against all odds, and deal with the hardships as they come. Even if you are in your late fifties and you’re just starting out, nothing is impossible if you’re willing to do the work – especially when education and self-empowerment are your ultimate goals.
La letra con sangre entra.