Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Saying Goodbye to English — as a Second Language

OK, I'm going cornball on this post, so if you hate sad saps, stop reading now.

Yesterday was my last tutoring session in Highland. I didn't want to go because I didn't want to say goodbye to the three women who have added so much to my life. When I arrived though, hardly any students were there, including any of the original three I had worked with.

So, I was paired up with a new woman who lived fifty years in Shanghai, China, and the last four in the states. Since it was my last day, I just wanted to spend some of my time getting to know her. For the blog purpose, her name will be Kim.

When Kim arrived in the states, she could speak no English. Yesterday, she chatted away about her past job working as a photographer for a modeling company before she moved here. This hip woman looks about thirty-five and is a size four. She's pulled together, and made me wish desperately that I had worn some lipstick. She's a world traveler: England, Italy, Morocco, France. Next on her list is Egypt.

"I want to know everything!" She said. "I want three jobs."

Motivation and enthusiasm oozed out of her. After learning a bit more about her family, we tackled her workbook. The selection focused on music.

"I love Mariah Carey! And Michael Bolton!"

She also saw Justin Timberlake with  her son in Australia. Then she threw out Lady Gaga, who she hasn't seen, but her son has.

"She's pretty out there," I said.

"Yes, but she's so giving."

This is when I learned that we were soul sisters. Kim started talking about how we need to give back, and not just focus on money. In China, I have the feeling she was the life of the party. She even brought egg rolls for all of us to enjoy last night. She said she always wants to meet new people so she can speak and learn English.

Not being able to speak English fluently has held her back, but with her personality, I doubt she'll have to worry for long. She invited me to Chinese New Year, and I want to go. I want to know more about this woman and see her previous work. I wish I could have met her earlier, but I think I would've felt this way about meeting any of the other students. Not being a world traveler, yet, this is my free passport to learn about another culture on a miniscule scale.

During the break, I talked with another man from South Korea who is my age. He's a student at Oakland Community College, who wants to attend the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, but he has a language test in two weeks. And he was sweating. He's already taken the test before and did not pass. He's trying again. I threw out every cliche in the book. Everything my mother has told me.

"Eat a good breakfast. Take three deep breaths before you begin. If you fail, try again — nothing easy is worth getting."

We ended on a fist bump. I had to throw in some semi-original flavor.

If I've learned anything from these students, it's that they are not wimps and they don't give up. Out of all of my volunteer stints these past nine months, this has been my longest tenure. The class will continue next semester, but I will be trying new adventures and meeting new people. After this year-long experiment is over, I would like to volunteer with ESL again next fall, but without documenting it.

For anyone who wants to get involved, I strongly encourage it. You'll get more out of it then you give. For those who are interested in helping out in the Highland area, please call the Adult Education office at (248) 676-8398 or email

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