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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