Every Wednesday evening, Jack and Mary walk into the classroom together. They greet the other students and then sit down at one of the round tables to study. They share a book because textbooks are expensive. When we read about the U.S. Civil War, a student from Somalia tells of her escape from that civil war. She has no hope of union for her country. Two more students speak up; they also fled their homelands because of political turmoil.
Not Jack and Mary. Our country is a good place to live, they tell me. They grew up on an island in Southeast Asia. Jack reads a short story he wrote about the clear ocean water he swam in as a child and the sea cucumbers the villagers gathered from the sea. Mary reads a story about her family’s cows. When she was young, she tended them. She would pick a cow, climb atop it, and spend the afternoon playing her flute or reading a book while the cows fed on sweet grass.
We talk about slavery and freedom. The topic veers when a student from Central America tells us how her government punishes those who speak against it or who dare to protest. Everyone agrees that we should be free to speak our mind, even if we disagree with the government. Mary breaks in and says, We have freedom in my country; it’s a good place.
Both Jack and Mary try to hide their homesickness when they talk about their island home. We came here for our son, they say. Many of the students I teach come to America for their children. They have simple dreams for their sons and daughters: safety, education, and jobs. Jack and Mary are no different. They want their son to get an education and a job, to be a productive member of society. This son, their only child, was born with mental disabilities.
Jack and Mary must be in their mid to late fifties now; Mary bore her son late. Neither one has enough English yet to do anything other than menial jobs. English sounds don’t fit well in Jack’s mouth, so he tries to reshape them into the familiar sounds of his childhood. When he asks me what Emancipation Proclamation means, it takes a minute before I understand what he is saying.
After class last week we talked about the opportunities available for their son. I mentioned the local packaging company that trains and hires people with disabilities. That’s what we want for our son, Jack said. Mary nodded. Our son wants to work, she said. They see his limitations, but they also see his possibilities. All three of them want to contribute, to be part of their new homeland.
Jack and Mary have another two years before they are eligible to apply for citizenship, but they want to be ready, so they come each week to the citizenship class. We talk about Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president, and practice saying ‘Emancipation Proclamation.”
Last night we talked about more recent history: the Great Depression, the two World Wars, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Mary takes careful notes and asks a lot of questions. She wants to get it right. Jack and Mary listen carefully to the mottled stories of victory, failure, glory, shame, courage, and hope that we call U.S. history, and that they are learning to call, our history.
The citizenship class ends at 8 p.m. My day started with a class at 8:30 a.m., so I’m tired. Jack and Mary are the last to leave. They thank me for the class, and I thank them for coming. I mean it both ways: coming to class and coming to America. I don’t explain it; I just smile and say goodnight. I watch them walk down the hall, heads together, talking, just the way you would expect old lovers to do. I imagine them talking of all the possibilities.