She said everyone’s life was like a mountain. Then she drew the shape of a mountain on the table with her finger. “No one can stay at the top all the time.” Her classmates were in their room watching a movie. Something rented from a chain store. It was Friday afternoon, and everyone was up to their necks with mountain climbing. Except Sokkeang.
I was filling in for a couple of days for the GED teacher at an adult ed. program in Providence, RI, the only city in America that lights fires across the top of a river every few weeks, just a few blocks east of the Superman building, the one George Reeves flew over at the beginning of every episode right up until the year I was born. From there, if you walk straight across Kennedy Plaza to Burnside Park, there are Civil War era canons, one of which rumor says has a ball and a load of powder inside, even though the barrel’s been plugged with cement. Then, across from the park is The RI Foundation, where the train station used to be.
That’s how we know our landmarks in Providence – we know everything by what it used to be. I’m looking for a city that gives you landmarks according to what they’re going to become.
Sokkeang’s classmates were mostly young adults who’d been marginalized, voluntarily or otherwise, by institutions intended to provide them education and a sense of belonging. I have to resist leaping up to blame our schools or government or society, but the last time I was inside an American high school the entire building gave me the sense of being lost within a vast, maze-like rest room.
Around the middle of my first day with this group, one of the students ask if I liked them. The question confused me, at first. I was a temp. Why would anyone care? So what else do you do when there’s a sub in your class? We closed the book and started talking about school, teachers, students, mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters. I finally asked if anyone knew what the word anguish means. Lots of frowns and knit brows, and few pretty close guesses. So I told the class to come back the next day with a personal definition of anguish. It wasn’t remotely related to what they were there for, so it wasn’t surprising only one student bothered. A young Afro-Latino man came in the next day with a torn slip of paper and read the most beautiful definition of anguish I’ve ever heard. He said anguish was like a bag you don’t want to carry. I wanted to kneel down in front of the class and weep, but instead – for a change – I decided to do what I was getting paid for and just smiled and nodded my head in approval.
So it was Friday afternoon when the regular teacher routinely allowed the class to kick back and watch a movie. The students insisted I chill and watch the movie with them. I was going to love it, they said. It had Martin Lawrence playing a big, old lady in drag. I started laughing the minute he appeared when I realized the Martin Lawrence character was the lady who lives on the first floor of my building.
The tall, quiet Asian girl sitting off to the side was ignoring the movie. She’d been sitting like that for the last couple of days: silent, seemingly aloof, with her head bowed into the open palms of a book. I was curious and offered to go out in the hall with her and try to answer any questions she had about her reading material. She read aloud for me a little, and when I made suggestions to her for pronunciation, she seemed to enter this misty zone of concentration and put her mouth silently around the words as if she were rolling hard candies around in her mouth.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m speaking upside down,” she said. In the couple of days I’d spent with her, she’d barely said much of anything. She’d gone to the program having heard it was a good place to learn English, and when she was tested, her score was too high to allow placement in an ESL class, so she was placed in GED. No one bothered to ask her enough questions to find out she’d already had three years of university education in Cambodia. No one had time.
The practice of kicking back on a Friday afternoon to hang with your classmates and watch a movie was an inconvenience Sokkeang quietly tolerated. Back in Phnom Penh, six twelve hour days a week is a normal working routine. She didn’t understand her classmates’ innate sense of tedium with anything academic. She had this whole new life in America to catapult, while the majority of her classmates were slow dancing their way to the next level of mediocrity.
When Sokkeang brought up the mountain analogy, it brought home that she was quietly power walking up one side while I was pratfalling toward the bottom of the other. I never wanted to teach anyone where I live before, but when she asked, I started thinking she might help break my fall if I said yes. So I said yes, and that was almost how I ended up teaching a small group of Cambodians every week in my apartment. It was entirely how Sokkeang set about becoming a highly valued member of the family.
This was about three and a half years ago, and late this spring, I was an undeservedly honored guest at Sokkeang’s wedding. This was one of several milestone occasions we’ve celebrated among this little part time community that’s evolved and somehow thrived at my kitchen table because one day, I met this quietly remarkable young woman who just wanted to be able to read and speak a little better.
As a human being, I dislike being a teacher. As a teacher, I dislike “classes”. As an inveterately stubborn, unashamedly irresponsible feral child at play in the fields of human aspiration, I only want to experience the joys and anguish of learning, teaching and belonging with people who can show me how to be better than I am.