One thing I have noticed about being very old, is that people are always kind of anticipating your demise. Maybe you don't answer the phone for awhile because you are sick and tired of wrong numbers and telemarketers, or maybe you are in the shower when the door bell rings. The mixture of apprehension and relief when you finally do pick up the phone or answer the door can border on the comical. This is perfectly understandable and don't think I am not grateful. Old people do die and I am an old person. But I do not feel quite ready yet. Except for the sass I get from some of my joints, I am in good health and spirits. Of course, I am no spring chicken and I certainly don't want to give the impression that I am functioning at the level of even a few years ago. A lot of things that I once took for granted are no longer easy or even possible. And who knows what lies around the corner? But for the moment, I am doing just fine. And I do thank you, all you dear people who love and care enough about me to be glad that I can still answer the door.
I spent some time, back in the 90's, as an ESL teacher. This was a community volunteer program and to qualify we had several sessions of training at one of the local churches which was coordinating the service. The slogan for the program was, "Each one teach one." This was a one-on-one plan, where we worked individually with immigrants eager to learn the language.
It was a rewarding and eye-opening experience.
One of my students was Norma, a lovely little person from Colombia. She lived with her husband and two children, and another couple with one child, in a small apartment in Concord. She was a gifted seamstress. Her workroom was the tiny living-dining-kitchen area of the apartment. Here she fed her family, provided space for the children to do their homework, and did the cutting, sewing, and ironing required for her work as a seamstress. She was always cheerful and welcoming. Every Mother's Day she presented me with a small gift. Eventually, she got a position in a local dry-cleaners and was not able to continue her lessons.
Then there was a Chinese family from Shanghai. They were sponsored by a Catholic organization and were devout Catholics. They were known, not by their euphonious Chinese names, but as Maria and Joseph. Joseph was a cook at a local Chinese restaurant and Maria was a stay-at-home mom, with two small daughters. The first time I visited their apartment, as I made my way into the front room, I heard a voice calling urgently behind me, 'Teacher, teacher." When I turned, Maria was waving the slippers that she kept by the front door which everyone was expected to wear after removing their shoes. I had not removed my shoes. I was very embarrassed, but we had a good relationship, and I was invited to several family occasions at local Chinese restaurants and watched the girls grow into grammar school.
The family I remember most vividly were Muslims from Afghanistan. They had lived in Pakistan before coming to the U.S. and came, as most immigrants have, in the hopes of a better life for themselves and their children. There were four children ranging from about three to thirteen years in age, two boys and two girls. The mother, Mahooba, was my student. On my first visit, the father was careful to lay out some basics, explaining that they did not eat pork or drink alcohol and so on. The children were bright and beautiful and doing well in school, especially the older boy, whose favorite subject was math. They all lived in a small apartment with donated furniture and they owned a beat-up old sedan. They were among the most generous and open-hearted people I had ever met. Once, I admired a painting on the wall. The next week when I arrived for the lesson, they had carefully wrapped it and presented it to me. I was often invited to share their lunch and one time they prepared an entire meal which the husband and sons delivered to our home. Chicken and rice, a lamb dish, salad. It was delicious, and I understood that in this way they were sharing some of their culture with me.
During Ramadan, Mahooba suffered from terrible migraines, brought on, she thought, from fasting all day. She struggled with English. "Is prob-lem!" she would say, shaking her head. I think she longed for home and I wonder if she ever really adapted, although her children were rapidly assimilating into American life. They eventually moved out of the area and I lost track of them. After 9/11, when anti-Muslim sentiment was high, I tried to contact them, but without success. I think of them sometimes and hope that they have found their American dream. I hope Hakim found employment in his trade as an electrician. I hope Ashraf realized his ambitions in math. I hope Zarlasht became the beauty she promised to be at 13, and I hope that 3-year-old Faresthta's smile recovered from the loss of her front teeth, knocked out in a scuffle with her brother. And I do hope Mahooba got help with her headaches and found a niche in our society.
One student from Mexico, the mother of several small children, once arrived at my door to bring me a present for Christmas. I still have it. She had moved to Oakland from Concord and this trip involved taking a bus from Oakland and a half-mile walk from the station, herding her kids, and with a fat baby whom she was tending for a friend, on her hip. I was touched beyond words. I found this gratefulness in almost every student that I had.
I hope ALL of them have found their American dream.