Among the Missing

dscf5287There’s always this stretch of awkward silence at the beginning. I’m the only foreigner in a room full of people from a hundred other countries, an exile pinned to my seat watching a parade of expectant faces – all travelers on the final leg of a journey toward our own reinvention. We’re passengers and destination combined – come to unlock something. Anything. Everything. And this is the moment, without fail, when I look back at them all and feel my spirit deflate, convinced of having nothing of value to offer. Nothing to say or teach. No music, no wisdom, no heart. What would they say if they knew I was there for no one but myself? If they knew I come to take more than I can give back? I imagine how they’d laugh to discover this continual, near-desperate search for grace, even the accidental kind. Something to lift me off the ground and render me better. But then, as always, someone says something like hello and the moment shatters. We all become human again.

It’s like this even on Saturday afternoons sitting across a table from Neary and Lao at the Wat Buddhist Center of RI. Sometimes their daughter, Nara, is there, when her work schedule allows. It was Nara who convinced me to hold a class there in the first place. She was the first member of the family I’d met, three or four years before when she’d been my student in another program. She brought her mother, Neary, along to that class as a new arrival from Cambodia, already working and coming to class in the evenings to learn everything from the alphabet up.

Lao came along to the class at the temple about a year ago, also newly arrived. In those moments before we start every Saturday, he sits smiling silently across the table. I’ve met exceedingly few people with his ability to convey that much warmth and gentility without saying a word. But it’s usually up to me to break the silence. He reminds me of something out of Lao Tzu: “Those who speak don’t know. Those who know don’t speak.” But Lao has the uncanny ability to make you feel like the conversation has already started.

dscf5078Most weeks, Lao and Neary’s granddaughters, Madeline and Norin, are there too. Although born in Cambodia, the two teenagers are honor students and speak English like natives. By all appearances, they’re typical American schoolkids, if not much better mannered than average, until you see them participating in the traditional dance class often running on the other side of the room. Their straight-spined, square-shouldered focus would be a rare commodity among the adults I work with.

The dance teacher gives them instructions in Khmer, and it often seems to come down to the exact position of the pinky finger during some particular movement of the dance. The girls are immersed.dscf7171

The juxtaposition is quietly stunning: a kindly pair of grandparents chipping away at the monolith of North American English while the kids are across the room focusing every cell of their beings on a deep, old-country tradition.

So maybe you can travel from Point A to B, but journeys are never linear. And in those awkward silences at the beginning of class, my attention is always drawn to Lao most of all. I study his warm yet impassive face, fully aware of how a Cambodian of his generation has, one way or another, been touched by one the great atrocities in all of human history.

It’s the first thing you want to ask, and the last thing you can.

One day we were going around the table talking about daily routines. I had to invent mine just to make an example: I wake up at seven, get up at 7:15 … and so on.

Nara gets up at three in the morning and puts together food for the family’s dinner at the end of the day. By five, she’s on her way to work. Neary gets up at six and heads off to her own job. Lao gets up at five to make lunch for Madeline and Norin to take to school.

He punctuated hidscf7187s confession with that smile that always seems to quietly insist that everything in the universe that falls, falls to wherever it belongs. Then there was also whatever measure of amused astonishment I couldn’t hide. I could see him standing at the kitchen counter, Oxford shirt buttoned to the neck, hair neatly combed – just as he always looks in class – putting together those lunches. I was trying to draw a line between that early morning moment in my vision with everything else I didn’t know about him.

Everything’s connected – war, ghosts and the rice a pair of teenage girls eat for lunch in an American public school – even if only for the accidental circumstance of the same life having passed by it all.

History is a tree you walk by on your way to school every morning. Revelation is how spring turns its branches from bare lace into a rustling of leaves.

A week or two after our daily routine conversation, I ran into Norin and Madeline in the temple kitchen. I had to ask if their grandfather really got up at five in the morning to make them lunch. It wasn’t as if I doubted Lao, I really only wanted to see what they thought about it. They nodded and giggled slightly, as if being loved that much was beautiful enough to be embarrassing.

Although the girls have lived half their lives in the US, they think of themselves as Cambodian. If you ask them, they’ll answer without a second’s hesitation. They speak English at school and with each other, both claiming it’s easier, but speak Khmer at home with their family.

The food Lao prepares for them runs the gamut between sandwiches and more traditional fare. But this was where Norin and Madeline also explained how their grandfather not only makes them lunch, he walks them to school. He carries Norin’s backpack as she’s the younger and smaller of the two. At the end of their day, he goes back to walk them home, carrying Norin’s backpack again.

dsc_2760The girls are barely aware, if at all, of how their grandfather once carried their year-old mother on his back out of Phnom Penh to Takoe Province. Neary was carrying Nara’s twin brother the same way while Khmer Rouge soldiers forced rivers of people out of their home city.

The march took a week, each parent carrying one of the twins, wading along in the current of a stream they could see neither the beginning nor end of. People got sick and died on the road, but the soldiers were always close, and the procession was never allowed to stop for the dead, only long enough to cook and eat some rice, then get up and keep on. Soldiers ordered the mournful to stop crying and keep walking. Only the dead were allowed to fall. At the end of a day’s march, Lao, Neary and their twins lay down and slept on the road alongside the untended dead.

Lao had to keep secret the fact that he’d been a teacher up until a few years before. If the soldiers had learned of his education he would most likely have been murdered like most of a generation of educated Cambodians. Many people were brutally killed simply for wearing glasses and looking bookish.

In Takoe, Lao and Neary carried dirt on their backs – like they’d carried their children, like Lao carries Norin’s backpack – to build a reservoir. Lao’s three brothers and sister, along with their families, were with them, but Neary’s ten brothers and two sisters had been sent to other camps. In the first two weeks, one of Lao’s brothers and his entire family were killed.

After a couple of months in Takoe, Lao, Neary and Lao’s remaining relatives were sent to Batambong where they were forced into the same form of labor – carrying dirt on their backs to build a reservoir. There was still no sign of any of Neary’s family until a man showed up from another camp where he’d met her father. The man had met Neary’s father three days before he was killed. In Batambong, another of Lao’s brothers and his family were killed.

Neary never heard anything more about any of her dozen siblings throughout the rest of the war. After, she spent her time searching anywhere she could think of to find one of her siblings alive. She wandered in and out of train stations and hospitals, but never found anyone.

When I think of Neary walking into a train station to study the faces of strangers, I imagine the same look in her eye that I saw when she was still a fresh arrival in America – a fresh arrival in my classroom – eyes open wide with hunger for something familiar enough to grasp in the odd marks of ink on the paper in front of her. Tiny fish swimming in the ocean of a new language.

It’s my only reference, and as wrong as it’s likely to be, I have this inexplicable need to see her there. And I need to dream what she can’t afford – that someone who loved her was out there looking for her, fearing her to be among the missing, heartbroken but alive.

Nowadays, I walk down streets wondering how many of the people I see are thought of by someone as missing.

Lao and Neary don’t talk to their grandchildren about the war. It’s nothing they need to spend much time remembering themselves, and it’s too much tragedy to bear at their ages. They say if the girls are ever curious enough to ask they will tell them. In the meantime, it’s enough they spend their time being walked to school and back, living lives free of toxic fears, learning a sweeter life, pursuing their creative talent for dance.

Now, when I sit across the table from Neary and Lao, our moments of silence are informed by secrets that aren’t really secret anymore. Sometimes, Neary leans her weight against her husband’s arm, gazing off in another direction, patiently waiting for her teacher to decide whether or not he has anything of value to say. Again.

These are the people who tell me English is scary.

Lao stares straight ahead until I catch his eye. He looks at me without turning his head. Most of the time he cracks that subtle smile and, as always, it feels like the conversation has already begun.

Everything in the universe that falls, falls wherever it belongs. Even when it’s us who fall, here, together, among the missing.

dscf9687

~~~~~

Heartfelt thanks to the entire Ith family for their trust, gentility and beauty. And to Sochettra Yieng and all the monks at Wat Buddhist Center of RI. To learn more about the story of people like Neary and Lao, watch the film, The Killing Fields, or read the excellent memoir, First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung.

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The Best I Can Send You

#17

With the greatest leader above them

people barely know one exists.

The second-best are praised and revered.

The next, merely respected.

Then the despised.

When trust is unattainable,

there is no sufficiency.

Trust the cautious sage

whose words are most carefully chosen.

With all we accomplish, we can say

only that we did what comes naturally.

Lao Tzu

~~~

“On the day after the election, I walked the same path that I walk every day to go to the library. But, something was different. I looked at the people on the street and thought that they hate me because I am from a Latin American country. I came to United States because I got a scholarship to study at Brown University, but I will go back to Brazil in a couple of months. Even knowing that I won’t be affected directly by Trump’s politics, I am worried about the rise of hate and anger. I took a bus to go to the market and an old lady was screaming at another guy: “This is America. Speak English. Don’t speak Spanish!” The man wasn’t afraid and replied that he, at least, could speak another language. It was an awkward situation because people here are very serious and focused on their own lives. I have never seen an attitude like this before, and I couldn’t imagine this would happen in a country proud to be a place of freedom. The problem is that it is happening everywhere, including my own country. I really do not know what we can do.”

Aline M, Brazil

~~~

Originally from Rio, Aline is here for a year as a PhD student in comparative literature with an interest in its visceral power.  I hope she goes on to trigger a whole new academic movement that honors great work for what it feels like over what it says.  I hope (and believe she will) inspire her students to read the likes of Neruda and Allende and weep for this bittersweet condition we all find ourselves in.  I hope she lives to be a hundred, and will one day lean down over her knees toward a circle of rapt great-grandchildren gathered around her chair, and tell them: “Once upon a time I lived far away in a land of great enchantment.  A land of miracles and heartbreak, full of heroes and monsters.  I tell you I have never seen such a thing in all my days when this land of conquerors became so lost in a wave of its own fear the people couldn’t see who were the heroes and who were the monsters.”

Aline’s remarks about her feelings the morning after election day resonated deeply with me because I felt the same way.  Like an unwanted traveler in a hostile country.  It was far from the first time I’ve felt unwelcome in my native country, but it’s probably the most unwelcome I’ve ever felt.  Watching the returns on the news that Tuesday night was like watching The World Trade Center come down all over again, except this time the wound was self-inflicted.

For the next two or three weeks, I spent night after night talking about the aftermath with the working taxpayers who attend my ESL and citizenship classes.  Everyone expressed feelings like Aline’s.  Like mine.  People who often feel marginalized even under better circumstances.  I listened to stories about children getting heckled in their schools by adrenaline-pumped wannbe bullies.  One father told me his young sons woke up Wednesday morning believing they, too, were going to be deported to Central America despite being born on US soil.

The first few days, I managed to respond with patriotic platitudes.  We still have a constitution.  We still have The Bill of Rights.  We still have a congress and checks and balances to protect us from narcissistic lunatics.  I even tried explaining that The Electoral College was created to protect our elections from foreign interference.  In the end, I was no more convinced than anyone else.

I kept hearing a refrain in the back of my mind – a line out of W. M. Thackeray: “My poor child, the best thing I can send you is a little misfortune.”

We endured months of cavalier lying, possibly the most obvious and profound collapse in journalistic credibility in my lifetime, an orgiastic celebration of violence, racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia and pure mean-spiritedness not openly displayed in an American election since the fifties.  Even the biggest, fattest, loudest wolf-crier himself, Donald Trump, spent most of his campaign believing it would all be over on election day.  But in the end, a modest but clear minority of American voters said all of this was acceptable.  They said it was acceptable to tolerate a presidential wannabe with no more tangible a platform than hate-laced, riot-inciting, bumper-sticker rhetoric, who conducted an entire campaign predicated on lies and fear-mongering.

Michael Moore suggested that those of us in the majority of the voting public have underestimated the frustration and anger of a huge portion of America’s population.  But we really haven’t.  For the past eight years, we’ve watched our own congress behave in an unconscionable manner toward President Obama, with careless disregard for the law or how their actions affect the people who employ them.

So no, we haven’t underestimated America’s capacity for arrogance, hatred or violence.  We’ve been staring it in the face like an incurable skin disease since before Baby Trump soiled his first diaper.  What we underestimated was America’s reckless irresponsibility.  It’s like this: if you wanted to send a lying, billionaire nazi to The White House, you might have bothered choosing one with a big enough attention span to read Mein Kampf.

Trump’s election is nothing but a freak accident of circumstances.  The perfect shitstorm.  So if I were going to tell my students the truth about my response, I’d have to confess shock, fear, heartbreak and a profound hunger for human decency.

“It is here that we remember that even when hatred burns hottest, even when the tug of tribalism is at its most primal, we must resist the urge to turn inward.  We must resist the urge to demonize those who are different.”  This was President Obama speaking at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese Prime Minister’s recent visit to commemorate the anniversary of yet another war no one needs to keep fighting.

Aline’s going to break my heart and go back to Brazil.  She’s going to bring all that education and healing spirit back to her native country.  They need everything she has to offer just as much as America does.  But I’m going to hope what she really remembers years from now are the friends she made, the professors who stimulated her mind … the people who wanted her here … the people who were enriched by her being here.

So for the foreseeable future, you can find me here on the losing side, spending as much of my time with Aline and others like her as possible.  People who remind me there’s still something beautiful about being here.  Who help me remember the many things America is really made of – Edward Hopper, Elizabeth Bishop, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Astor Piazzolla (born in NYC), Anita O’Day, Miles Davis, Etheridge Knight, deep fried turkey, The First Amendment, Etta James, Cole Porter, John Berryman, Rosa Parks, Marvin Gaye, Kurt Vonnegut, George Carlin, The Paul Boyer Museum of Animated Carvings, Cesar Chavez ….  These are my stars and stripes.

I’ll spend my nights among people who I can laugh with as we struggle to pronounce each others’ names – who remind me America is more than the sum total of its own atrocities, that it’s still about the kind of courage and creativity it takes to invent exciting new ways to make a life.  But it’s no big thing.  No statement of anything except this is my daily life.  This is my community.  These are my neighbors and friends.  And I am with them, one way or another, making our way through a little misfortune.

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Only Us

Central Falls

I see her here

now

smiling at the late day sun

brightly

as all the laughing caramel girls

bursting

out the bodega doorways

onto the sidewalk

laughing and oblivious

up out of cracked cement

dark flowers

blow kisses at the sky

~~~~

One day I spotted Evelin on the sidewalk.  I was in my car and she didn’t see me.  She was walking with her head down – the way I do most of the time – in jeans and a dark blue T shirt she’d probably worn to work that day.  It was mid-spring in the smallest city in the world, and the sun was shining like it was having a love affair with the sky.  But Evelin seemed tired, pensive, worn down by a day of mundane labor.  She was moving like one of the multitude of nameless cliches who offend the sensibilities of senseless bigots masquerading as patriots.  Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…and we will kick them when they’re down.

It’s 2016 and the world has let go of everything, including the distinction between indignation and the toxic sludge of a defective spirit.

But walking down the street in the smallest city in the world, an immigrant from the land of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Evenlin’s cocoon of nameless peace envelops me too.  It was enough to make you believe that somewhere actual angels weep for the knowledge that everyone is exactly where they are.  But if I were ready to believe in angels, they wouldn’t be wearing pristine robes in the clouds.  They’d be wearing jeans and dark blue T shirts, walking down the sidewalk in the smallest city in the world.

It’s not really the smallest in the world.  It just feels that way, covering its paltry 1.3 square miles, and containing a claustrophobic tangle of twenty-three miles of rutted streets and fissured sidewalks.  The Vatican claims to be the smallest, but it’s daunting to think of the Vatican as being a tiny city vs a huge corporation.

Central Falls is a minuscule vortex of pure, urban grit.  It’s not where you go for a second chance.  It’s where you go for a last chance.

While the overall Latino population in the US stands at about seventeen percent, Central Falls’ Latin population is around sixty.  The city is the poorest in the area, and went bankrupt just a few years ago.  There’s no such thing as a high ticket tax payer here, and the most valuable property is abandoned and crumbling.  It has a reputation well beyond its topographical size for crime and violence, but it’s the kind of place where somebody knows somebody knows somebody who knows where’s there’s work for someone who doesn’t read or write much in any language.

For the past two and a half years, the school department has been working with Rhode Island College and The RI Family Literacy Initiative (my employer) on the Parent College program, providing free evening classes to parents of kids in the local schools.  The classes are held in the Calcutt Middle School.  I’ve been there since the first night, when thirty people showed up for the single ESOL class being offered. We’d planned to create a beginning class, but no one was turned away.

That first night, I sat down in front of three young sisters from Honduras who looked frightened when I said hello.  They didn’t last long, unfortunately.  Sometimes the newness and immensity of something like a foreign language can make you feel like you’re drowning in a sea of impossibility..

There were also a few who spoke so much and so well I encouraged them to sign up for classes at one of the area colleges, but they all said the same thing, something I hear pretty often: “No, please.  I need this.”

One of the people who said that to me that first night was a bright, beautiful, good-humored young woman from Puerto Rico.  After talking to Milagros for a few minutes, I told her she knew enough to teach the class.  She laughed and thought I was kidding.  Fortunately, she stuck around as long as she did and generously helped as a classroom assistant, helping teach others.  But within a couple of months, she was hired by the school department.  I missed working with her.  I missed the honeyed glaze of her accent and easy laughter.  But mostly, I missed being able to nod in her direction amid a roomful of people who could survive the brutalities of Latin-American poverty yet be frightened by something so harmless as words, as if to say, “There.  She is the light at the end of all your tunnels.”

One night, later that first winter, a woman in my class spoke out in the fifth grade room we were squatting in when she suddenly realized the desk she was sitting behind was her own daughter’s during the day.  I don’t remember if she tried to say it in English, but it doesn’t matter.  Sometimes the lessons we come to learn aren’t the lessons we came to learn.

Not long after this I started coming to eat the free meals provided to the families by the program – simple school meals that recall the Reagan concept of ketchup as a vegetable.  I wasn’t really hungry.  It was just a good excuse to spend a little relaxed time with my students and their kids.  Food is the great equalizer, however basic, and I began to blend into the cinder block and become less of a novelty.  Over such meals, I began hearing unguarded stories of desperation and desire, of dangerous journeys and the promise of uneasy dreams in the smallest city in the world.

This is where I got to know Jordy and his big brother, Jonathan, both well-mannered kids with blocky builds like their Guatemalan father.

Jonathan is the reserved one.  He’s much tougher to get to know, with his seemingly painful inability to make eye contact.  He likely possesses some level of Asperger’s, along with a voracious IQ.

Jordy’s the talkative, curious one.

One evening in the cafeteria, I was eating with Jordy, Jonathan and their parents.  As always, the boys had been to school earlier that day in the same building.  Now they were back after a couple of hours at home to hang out with a few friends while their parents were there to further educations barely started back in Guatemala and El Salvador.

“What grade are my parents in?” Jordy asked out of the blue.

I wanted to laugh, and almost did, but Jordy looked dead serious.  The question was obviously important to him.  There were his mother and father going to class at the same school, cramming their adult bodies into the same sets of chairs and desks.  Of course they would have to be in a “grade”.

“They’re in college,” I told him.  This seemed to satisfy him, and he wheeled away to go play with the other kids whose parents were waiting for their classes to begin.

Nights I go to Central Falls, I sit in my car a while in a parking lot that’s half paved and half gravel.  There’s a notebook stashed under the driver’s seat, and sometimes I write scattered images in it.  But days on which my mind remains blank – and there are many of those – I read a few pages of Lao Tzu and watch the rats play under the dumpsters.

Back then, the hinge spring to the gas cap cover on my car wouldn’t stay closed.  It just flapped back and forth like a hand waving hello and goodbye at the same time.  And every time Jordy came walking into the building with his his family, his chunky little face would appear at my passenger window.

“Did you know the thing on your car is broke?”

Every time.  And every time he’d look as serious as he did that day he asked what grade his parents were in.

“Is it really?” I’d say.  Every time.

“Want me to fix it for you?”

“That’d be great, Jordy, thanks.”

The flap never closed all the way, but Jordy would walk to rear of the car and push it as far as it would go.

He was my wake-up call.  My reminder to quit daydreaming of rats and ancient Chinese philosophy.  It was time to go talk to somebody.

I wonder what it’s like for kids to watch their parents go to school.  I took my own parents’ educations for granted.  It was just a chunk of personal history that got stuck in its expected place long before I came into being.  I never learned to look at that aspect of their lives with the same curious admiration I see in kids like Jordy and Jonathan.

These are the people who say never say never even when they don’t know the words.  Something in their lives depends on all of this.  Maybe almost everything.  I give dog-paddling lessons in an ocean formerly know as the Land of the Brave.  They give me back lessons in the belief that human beings are made of better things than fear and anger.

Three times now I’ve seen Jordy and Jonathan’s parents put on graduation gowns to accept certificates acknowledging another year of learning, investment and trust.  They pose for selfies in their shiny, blue gowns, standing beside their kids or other parents.

The experience is gently profound and boldly incomplete.  When you’re dog paddling, you just gotta keep on swimming.

The graduations are…well…graduations, one of those events human beings share with other human beings, like weddings and funerals, or Monday holidays commemorating events no one remembers.

I finally got the gas cap cover on my car fixed.  Sometimes I wish I hadn’t.  It made the car easier to spot from a distance in large parking lots, but it got tiring to drive around with people continually honking their horns or yelling and pointing to let me know it was flapping around.  You can’t stop and explain to random strangers how having something minor wrong with your car gave this blocky-faced little kid an excuse to stop at my window and talk to me as if I were sitting there.

Jordy stopped pausing at my window, and his parents moved on to the next class.  The next level.  The next everything there is that comes next.

They keep swimming.  I keep waving from the shore.

That day last spring, Evelin came to class with her hair neatly brushed back and gathered into a tight ponytail, wearing a bright yellow blouse that reflected a sorely needed change of seasons.  She smiled and said hello before reaching her usual seat.  I didn’t talk about seeing her on the sidewalk a couple of hours earlier, or how she’d changed into something brighter and sweeter than the T shirt she wore to work.  I kept that meaningless secret and pretended to focus on the evening’s material.  More people come in.  America’s under-educated, who talk to me about Pablo Neruda and Garcia Marquez, and even know all the titles of their books.

All the sidewalk angels had come out to stretch their tired wings.  Who would ever remember our being there but us?

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Milk

The flute speaks.

If I could only pass

Through Damascus like the echo.

Silk sleeps at her shore,

Curves in cries

That die before I reach them.

Distance falls

Like tears.

(from The Flute Speaks by  Mahmoud Darweesh)

****

Sometimes it’s only about what it feels like, and anything you think you can teach or learn dries up and petrifies like gum that got stuck on the underside of your chair sometime while other wars were being waged.  So when I walk into the room on a typical Monday morning, morose and spiteful over giving up the first, crystalline hours of the day to anything other than my own Herculean penchant for dreaming, Nahla’s eyes settle on me and widen.  Her smile breaks open over a sigh while her hands clasp together in front.  She calls me a name – no, a title – I don’t truly deserve.  She has more to teach me than I have for her.

Nahla has a singular talent for making certain moments feel like an entire springtime.  It’s in the way she hugs the Cambodian Buddhist who sits beside her in class.  Or the Christian woman from Syria, her own homeland.  It’s in the way she treats every one of us as something valuable and beautiful about her day.

As a baby, she was nursed by a Christian wet nurse, a neighbor whom Nahla’s mother loved like family, and for all of her young life, the two families lived as such.  But that was the Syria we barely paid attention to: a Syria in which Muslims and Christians shared mother’s milk.

Then, three months after getting married, her husband confessed he was Shiite.  Nahla is Sunni, and as she was already pregnant, her husband wanted to give her the chance to change her mind and leave the marriage before it got any deeper.  But it didn’t matter.  What mattered was that she loved him enough to spend the next thirty-five years with him, and have six children together.  He was a civil engineer, and his career brought them to Saudi Arabia, where they spent twenty-seven years hiding the fact that he was Shiite.

After his passing, Nahla went back to Syria, but her eldest son, a dentist in Massachusetts, sponsored her for a green card.  It’s almost as if her entire life had been grooming her for life in the US.  All that selfless kindness toward others.  Religious tolerance.  And the experience of living another way.

She is neither refugee nor seeker of political asylum.  She’s simply an amiable immigrant in a simple, white hijab who shares the warmth of an enviable heart.

A couple of years ago, she went back to Syria for a visit.  She had to fly to Beirut and drive to Damascus.  I don’t want to think of her having to pass through some arbitrary checkpoint manned by murderous ISIS sociopaths, or the fragile delicacy of that moment in which the wrong answer to a question could snuff out the kind of life that nourishes all those it touches.

The other day, she said she wanted to show me the Syria she knew before it was ravaged by psychopathic bullies who’ve flocked there from all over the region on a blood-soaked adrenaline rush.  She seems as much mystified as heartbroken over the surreal wave of brutality that has swept over her home.  “Son kill father,” she says.  “Father kill son.  Why?”

Sitting across a table from Nahla in our classroom at Hall Library in a city as obscure as Cranston is enough to remind you how violence is the worst kind of failure of the human spirit.  Her air of peace and openness radiate like a kind of wisdom that strains to rise above the terrible weight of it all.

To repay this debt, I have nothing but words in a language that may make her life a little easier in the post office or supermarket, but will never ease her heart the way her native language can.  So I tell her shokran tir.

Thanks a bunch.

But there’s this: maybe it wasn’t Nahla who was being groomed for life in the land of the free and the brave after all, but America being groomed to be a suitable home for someone like her.  It’s far from perfect, and probably even far from okay, but at least we have cops and soldiers we can trust…most of the time.  And we’re still capable sometimes of offering comfort and freedom to someone who deserves these things as much as she, even when we offer it kicking and screaming like privileged brats in a sandbox.

It’s here where I come to understand a little more about freedom and kindness, sitting at the table facing a woman with a voice like a silk scarf, happy to speak of anything we please.

****

And shokran tir to Adrienne Gallo at Hall Library, and everyone at The Rhode Island Family Literacy Initiative.  Without them, there’d be no table at which to sit with Nahla.

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Accidents Happen

“A traveler in a foreign land best learns names of people and places, how to express ideas, ways to carry on a conversation by moving around in the culture, participating as fully as he can, making mistakes, saying things half right, blushing, then being encouraged by a friendly native speaker to try again.  He’ll pick up the details of grammar and usage as he goes along.  What he must not do is hold back from the teeming flow of life, must not sit in his hotel room and drill himself on all possible gaffes before entering the streets.  He’d never leave the room.”  – Mike Rose from Lives on the Boundary

***

The first time I met Ring was in a classroom at Johnson and Wales University.  Downtown Providence, within eyeshot of The Superman Building.  Like pretty much everyplace downtown.

She’s tall, even sitting down, and maybe seems taller for being as slender as she is.  She sat that day as she would so many others, displaying this unnerving way of avoiding eye contact, but still giving you the feeling she was even listening to the pauses.

Her voice made me think of porcelain.  Fine.  A little too thin.  Breakable.  She’d been in the US all of a couple of weeks by the time we met.  It was a course in Oral Communication, and that delicate teacup of a voice was like a curtain between a beautifully curious mind and half or so of what she came here from China to accomplish.  But she had that vibe you sense in people now and then – the kind that tells you no, you’re wrong…that the peaceful spirit really does prevail.

Around the same time, I met Xinhui, also from China, but somewhere in the Cantonese speaking region.  She joined the evening class I teach at the Auburn Branch of The Cranston Library under the aegis of the Rhode Island Family Literacy Intiative, and she seemed so adrift I’m not sure how she managed to find her way to us.  She’d been in the US for several months at least, yet still looked confused when anyone said hello.  Usually, people catch on to a few basics after an hour or two of sitting in the first class listening to the same questions and answers pinging back and forth across the table.

Few people remember how language comes in at the ear, and Xinhui seemed to remain adrift for weeks.  I can’t imagine how it must have been for her sitting in class night after night, feeling disconnected from everything and everyone around her.  She had as tenuous a handle on the Roman alphabet as I’ve ever witnessed, so I put her together with a small group of Cambodian students working on alphabetics with one of Auburn’s long term stable of volunteers.  This seemed to help her sense of belonging, but that’s not much better than a safe guess.  Even asking other of her classmates from China to help us communicate with her didn’t help.  They managed to speak with each other, but the feedback I got from the other students was in conflict.  We couldn’t manage to find out which dialect she spoke, or to help her catch on to the way her classmates were learning how to listen.

One night, Xinhui’s husband showed up, and he stood behind her chair translating everything she was hearing and reading.  Linguistically, she was much more in her comfort zone now, and learning nothing at a much faster pace.  Anything anyone had to tell her in English was now much easier to understand, and to then dispose of.  The quiet man speaking in hushed tones behind his wife was a surreal presence, and after the second time I asked him to leave.

It was hard not to think of Ring and Xinhui at the same time, coming from different parts of China to the same, seemingly unassuming city with wildly disparate ambitions.  In China, Providence would be considered a village.  Meanwhile, Ring is working to earn a master’s degree in business at JWU.  Xinhui seems like so many people who come to America believing the tall dream-country tales that never quite came true.  At the risk of sounding fatalistic, I tend to think Xinhui will work her way toward a low paying job, maybe somewhere enough of her coworkers will be Chinese that she can live as much of her life within that comfort zone as she can.

We are not a melting pot, and the overall force of human nature is against us becoming one.  When I’ve lived outside the US, I’ve found myself avoiding other Americans, and the only domestic idioms I truly missed were musical.  Ring came to America to build the foundation for a life she envisions with a sense of hope, while Xinhui came here to transform hers into something wholly different from whatever it was before.  Most of the people I meet who come here to live astonish me for any number of reasons, not the least of which is a profound lack of curiosity about their adopted homeland.  Then again, overwhelmingly, they don’t come from the traditions of conquerors, but of the conquered.

Ring plans to leave America with something she can touch, while Xinhui wanders through an ether of promise and heartbreak.

Which is exactly why I thought they needed to meet.

Oral Communication students at JWU are required to engage in conversational activities outside their classrooms.  When I asked my group if anyone was interested in fulfilling this requirement as a volunteer at my Auburn class, two spoke up.  Fortunately for both Xinhui and me, Ring was one of them.   She and a classmate visited my evening class three times, and the moment I got her into the same room with Xinhui, I sat them down together and let Ring spend the entire two hours with her.

Later, Ring was able to give me much more information about Xinhui than anyone else.  The difference between Ring and Xinhui’s classmates is that Ring was genuinely more curious about Chinese immigrants in America.  I suppose when you are one, there’s not much you need to be curious about.

The next time Ring came to volunteer, she beelined for Xinhui, but I waved her back over to the main group, where she sat down and helped Syrians, Dominicans, Guatemalans, Haitians and Cambodians learn a little new vocabulary.

Now, when Xinhui arrives for class, she greets everyone with a bright smile and says hello, even though she still gets lost somewhere in the next few phrases.  Xinhui could end up being part of my life for a few more weeks or a few more years.  Life for adult ed ESL students is about as predictable as a frog race.

Ring was in my life for eleven weeks.  A few days ago, I messaged her a phone picture I took one afternoon in a cafe when we escaped the classroom to work on a project in a more relaxed atmosphere.  Got back: “Thank you, professor!  I like it.  And I still remember how I spilled the coffee.”

She sure had.  Full cup.  Everything stopped.  We all had to pick up our books and papers while one of the cafe employees came out with a mop.  We stood in a circle holding our things and waited.  The whole class were looking at each other and trying to keep from laughing.  It had been close quarters.  It could’ve been any one of us, and Ring was painfully embarrassed.  It was the only clumsy thing I ever saw her do.

I sent her back one of those little yellow smiley faces that make me cringe.  I told her that sometimes…accidents can be the best part of the whole experience.

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The Names of Things

It’s not a bad day when you discover there are students in your class who have more to teach you than you have to teach them.  It gives you the sense of being able to set down your luggage when you’ve been carrying too much around.  I’ve tried confessing this to students on a few occasions, but they usually laugh.

How can you keep it all sorted out when someone with horrific memories of Khmer Rouge concentration camps can sit in your classroom and say learning English is hard?  Define hard.  Survival?  Or learning new names for almost everything?  Including your grandmother.

I once worked briefly with a young man who walked to the U.S. from Guatemala.  Rolling over the geography of that experience in my mind, I remember being the native citizen of a country in which millions of my neighbors believe it’s normal to buy sodium laced delicacies through the window of a car.  So a person like that Guatemalan man walks in and out of your life with an inadvertent lesson in strength while I tell him an odd assortment of things about a language I’ve been speaking since before I knew how to chew gum, and we both walk away feeling we got the better end of the deal.

But I’ve been lucky.  Sometimes I think I got all the luck my students were deprived of.  In the past year I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to work with several people from The Philippines.  Gina was a member of a pronunciation class I taught last fall at CCRI’s Warwick campus.  She was one of those rare students who made everyone else feel good to be there.  She made everyone’s job easier.  She was our glue, and she held us together selflessly through the whole semester.

The final project was an oral presentation, and when the day finally came, Gina stood up and yanked us all around by the heartstrings with a beautiful story from her girlhood in The Philippines.  None of what she wrote in her second language, and subsequently read in a beautiful cadence to fifteen people from six other countries had anything to do with the precious little I was able to really teach her.

Once again, I think we both walked away believing we got the better end of the deal…but…either way, I want to thank her now, for sharing this beautiful story, as well as a valuable lesson in grace.

My Important Past Experience

by Gina G.

The most important and unforgettable experience in my life was an early engagement.  Although I never dated much, I do have a past.  I was engaged at 13!  Not many people can claim that on a resume.  I didn’t see it coming, so I was as surprised then as I’m sure you are now.  There was a boy in my class at school who I liked a lot.  His name was Jim.  I sat behind him and was fascinated by the way his dark hair curled on the collar of his school blazer.  I had an overwhelming urge on a daily basis to touch his curly locks, but I was a good catholic, so I suppressed my desire.

As Valentine’s Day approached that year, I wondered if I dared send a card expressing my admiration for his brown eyes and silken locks.  My allowance did not provide for the kind of card I wanted to give him, so I decided to make one.  I took an empty Corn Flakes box and cut it open to reveal the blank cardboard inside.  I glued the rooster sides together so that I now had clean slate on which to express myself.

There is nothing so full of possibility as a blank piece of paper.  Before I committed to the first stroke of the paintbrush or the first word, it was perfect – full of promise – but sadly for me it all went downhill from that point on.  In my head, I saw great beauty, but it never made it out onto the paper.  So I remained the only one who knew of my potential to become a master painter or recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature.  All I can honestly say for that occasion is I did my best.

The following day was February 14th, so I tucked the card inside my school bag.  It was a cold and rainy day, as would be normal between June, July and August of any given year in my province of The Philippines.  I crept into the classroom before the school bell rang and slipped the now sodden card into Jim’s desk.  As my classmates filed in, my heart was thumping in my chest.  I panicked and considered removing the card before he saw it, but it was too late.  I was sure he would laugh at me.  I thought of all the extravagant, expensive cards that I had poured over in the drug store.  Some were so thickly padded they looked as if they had been made by a mattress company.  My offering was pathetic.

When the teacher asked us to open our desks and take out our workbooks, I almost fainted.  Jim opened his desk, took out his book, and closed it again.  How could he have missed my soggy card?  Perhaps he saw it and was being kind enough to ignore it.  All day he said nothing.  When the school bell rang at four o’clock, I headed home with a heavy heart.

The following day, Jim approached me in the schoolyard before first bell and handed me a small package.  I opened it, and inside was the engagement ring.  It wasn’t a toy or cheap imitation; it was a gold band with sapphires and two diamonds.

As you can imagine, I was shocked.  I had no idea that one card could unlock such a floodgate.  I asked him where he got it, and he informed me that he had found it on the beach one day and had been saving it for the right girl and the right moment.  He was not a man of many words.  He simply looked at me and said, “This is it!”

My mother didn’t see it that way, and that evening I had to take the ring to the police station and turn it in as lost property.  After six months, the ring was unclaimed and returned to me so that my engagement period could continue.  We smiled at each other at least twice a day.  Filipina teenagers didn’t date much when I was growing up, but I dated less than most.  I was fairly shy and uncomfortable with the woman I saw in the mirror.  I saw myself as chubby and awkward.  Other girls had pretty, feminine legs, but mine were a mass of bruises, cuts and scrapes.  Money was tight in our family, as Mom was raising six children by herself.  So whenever I had my hair cut, she wanted her money’s worth.  My bangs were so short it took about a month before I looked human again.  All in all, I was not an inspiring sight.  I didn’t have a dad to tell me that he thought I looked beautiful.

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The Goose Whisperer

Late summer and the geese are talking.  It’s what they do.   Like the way they deface our precious Roger Williams Park here in the modest city of the Superman Building with ubiquitous, acidic goose manure.  They’re loud, cantankerous and thoroughly self-absorbed.  They’re the reason I’m late for most places I have to be.  They’ll cross my way through the park in waddling rows of twenty or thirty at a time, loping at their own pace, more concerned with the fat little grubs there might be to eat in the grass on the other side of the road than whether we humans sitting tight in our idling automobiles are having good days or mediocre.

In the immortal words of Kenneth Mars’ landlady in Mel Brooks’ The Producers, “Filthy, disgustin’ boids!”

They’re decidedly cantankerous birds, following the pace of their own appetites as they waddle across the road and hold up traffic, but they’re the reason I take the long way through the park, even when I’m running late, knowing they could well make it worse if they happen to decide to cross my path.

I’m a good, American motorist, which means I save my sacred driving time to indulge all the spiritual and emotional sludge for which there never seems to be a better time to let free.  We call each other names and treat each other to single digit gestures most of us wouldn’t dream of making if we were looking at each other face to face, but we are the most cantankerous birds of all, and if anyone could teach the geese about being self-obsessed, irascible bastards, it’s us.

I was running late one sweet, summer day – even for me – and found myself sitting in a line of cars waiting.  Stuck.  Indignant over being chumped by a waddling queue of cantankerous birds.  I grew angry with the birds, of course, when I should have been angry with myself for poor time management.  I was angry with the other drivers for being in the same boat and making it rock too much.  I was angry over being stuck in a society that bandies phrases like “time management” in the first place.  It was a perfect day to be angry with pretty much any damn thing I pleased.

But then I found myself watching those filthy, disgustin’ boids and felt a sense of calm.  For a few minutes, it was almost like being part of the continuum in which they live.  The notion of being late and angry just didn’t make sense anymore.

When I got to where I was going that day, I walked in with a clear mind – clear of anger, at least – and no one really seemed to notice how late I was, or at least they chose to be too polite to point it out.

So I drive through the park, most especially when I’m running late, hoping the stupid geese will do their job and cross the road and calm me down once again.

A few months ago, I was stuck waiting for them to cross, and the line of idling internal combustion engines waiting for them kept getting longer.  Up ahead there was a couple on a motorcycle.  It was spring, and one of the first few days you could get out on a bike and ride free and feel the wind and all that goose manure.  I think the biker couple were the least patient of all.  A stocky woman with tattoos got off the back of the bike and started throwing bread crumbs off to the side of the road.  Obviously, the geese would hurry up for that.  But they didn’t.  They just kept waddling along at their pace, apparently unconcerned about this sudden windfall of bread crumbs.  The woman decided to help instruct the birds, waving her arms and moving toward the spray of crumbs at the side of the road.  Maybe she imagined herself to be like some kind of goose whisperer and could lead them to the Promised Side of the Road.  But the geese just got confused and broke rank.  Their organized formation descended into chaos and squawking, and it took two or three times longer than usual to make their way across.

They finally made it, though, and the woman got back on the bike and the couple took off to be on their merry way riding free and feeling the wind – or maybe just breaking some.

I need the geese.  I need to be late everywhere I have to be, and I need to remember their lessons in patience and behavior.  They’re more organized than we are.  They have a code of behavior we don’t seem to have time for.  We’re too much in love with all the psychic dissonance with which we fill our brains to make ourselves feel more vital.

Such wandering thoughts come at the beginning of a time of migration, after a long gap in writing anything.  I’ve spent much of the past year very much in the manner of those geese, squawking in chaos around a tattooed woman flailing her arms, trying to teach them how to be more like ignorant geese.  Or maybe I’ve been more like that woman than I care to confess.  Either way, migration time is upon us, and while the birds head south, I’ll be heading west.

I found another playground last year.  One of the best I could imagine playing in.  Yet I’ve spent so much time in classrooms this past year it has been impossible to think, write or talk about teaching or learning.  I briefly became a student, thanks to my very good friend, Sophi.  Her sister, Muni, who sleeps on the sofa in my apartment further down this page, has just this week completed her own work for her diploma through the National External Diploma Program.  We had to move our class out of my house since I started spending my Saturday mornings at the new playground.  It’s called The Socio-Economic Development Center for Southeast Asians, and it is a cradle of triumph and heartbreak.


In another week, I will leave it, but I’m counting on the possibility it won’t leave me.

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