Thank you for coming

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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.

 

 

44 thoughts on “Thank you for coming

  1. Teacher and students are partners in the most exquisite adventure there is… and the learning experience bridges people from all backgrounds and cultures. I loved your short story. And it reminded of some of my own experiences in the profession.

  2. It’s so nice to be reminded that people come to our country because they want a better life. There’s a lot of grumbling these days about the state of America, but we are still very fortunate to be here.

    I taught fifth grade American History the last seven years of my career, and it was such an exciting subject to teach. I learned so much myself, and the students loved the adventure and sweeping themes of American History. I can imagine your citizenship students are very much as spell bound as my inner city immigrant children were.

    • Teaching is a wonderful profession; it sounds like you enjoyed your years with your young students.

      For all its flaws, America is still a land of hope for my adult ELL students and almost all of them nurture hopes and dreams of a better life.

  3. Jack and Mary, (and their son), remind us that we live in a country where dreams sit on the shelf, waiting for someone to come along and choose them as their own. Even though it must be exhausting at times to be teaching from morning until evening, I’m glad you can recognize and appreciate Jack and Mary, and allow their stories to carry you through your days and nights. Thanks for sharing this story, and for weaving in the gentle reminders of how our reality doesn’t always align with another person’s story, and especially, of the possibilities. Nicely done.

    • Thank you for your comment. The immigrants I work with are by and large grateful and they come to class to learn. That is energizing. The international students that I teach are almost without exception respectful and that too helps me through my long days.

      They help me see again that the US is still a land of possibilities.

  4. Talk to me...I'm your Mother

    I admire you. You write beautifully. And your experiences reflect a person I would enjoy knowing. Thanks for letting me know you through your blog.

    • You understand the immigrant experience firsthand. My father’s family came from Ireland several generations ago, but through my students I think I understand it better.

  5. What a moving piece, thanks for writing it. You sound like a wonderful teacher and I too am glad that Jack and Mary have you to guide them.

    My adopted son was born overseas and it was a moving experience for my husband and I when he (at ~18 months) became a citizen.

    Several colleagues in my multicultural office have recently gotten their citizenship. The look on their faces when it is granted, and whenever they look back on it, shows that there is still magic in that U.S. citizenship paper. Sometimes we forget.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    • When my students pass the citizenship test and then receive their naturalization document at the swearing-in ceremony, they are ecstatic. I share that joy.

      One of our children was adopted from overseas, too. I remember the citizenship process.

  6. Powerfully simple and poignant. Native born Americans, say ‘thank-you’ to those who remind us of how fortunate we are – as a people – all of us, here – now.

  7. millodello

    I have always admired John and Mary and how much they share of what they have. I admire too that you can give back to them.

  8. Wow. As always, your writing is sparingly perfect. I can’t imagine an editor ever having you cut anything out of your stories. It’s all so perfectly necessary to the whole.
    It’s no accident that your stories are uplifting. You obviously have a good many to choose from among, but you do so well at lifting out these absolutely precious bits from life.
    Thank you for sharing these glimpses.

  9. A lovely sensitive account of two immigrants eager to learn and thrive and yet retaining deep in their hearts, all the love and memories they carried with them from their island home.

    As always your beautiful writing style captures a moment so perfectly, I am in awe. Like this …

    “English sounds don’t fit well in Jack’s mouth, so he tries to reshape them into the familiar sounds of his childhood.”

    What better way to describe the difficulties learning a foreign language …. perfect. Just perfect!

  10. Thanks, YS, for this beautiful story. I too have taught English to immigrants and it gave me a new perspective on our problems with immigration (both legal and illegal). Knowing these people gives me a new appreciation for being an American, and a reminder that most of our forebears came here from other places, too!

  11. What is sad to me is that most Americans wouldn’t be able to pass citizenship classes. Most have no idea what the three branches of government are, and we’ve long forgotten any US history we may have learned in school. I think more people can recognize a picture of Snooki than can recognize a picture of our vice President. *shudder* Many Americans give a rats ass about politics and voting and take for granted that which immigrants are so eagerly coming over here for.

    I think immigration helps keep our country strong and our American dreams alive.

  12. This piece brings my own grandfather to mind and I think about the possibilities that swam in his head, a 17 year old on Ellis Island. This is achingly beautiful and I have to just thank you for sharing your talent.

  13. There are hardly any among us in this country anymore whose ancestors didn’t start off somewhere else and come here, whether by force or by choice. It’s a great gift that you give, not only in making the transition easier for some of the ‘newbies’ but also in reminding us ‘lifers’ of the coarse-yet-refined tapestry that is our land’s history, and how we might fit into that and add to it. I am grateful for such a gift!

    • Many of the people I work with came by choice, but a good number were forced out of their homelands. They enrich our country in so many ways and I count it a privilege to be part of the journey toward citizenship.

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