Wednesday, June 22, 2011

I Hope I Can Help Them

For the past four years I have been volunteering at the local elementary school, helping third-graders negotiate their way through the mazes of reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic. Third grade today is much more difficult than it was way back when I was eight years old. Children are expected to learn skills that I wasn't confronted with until I was in junior high. But I sit with the ones who are having trouble, and together we muddle through the muddy waters.
When this school session ended last week, I thought I was through for the summer. But on the last day, the principal took me aside and asked if I would like a "summer project." Before I could say, "No thanks,"she told me about a little boy whose family had recently emigrated here, as refugees, from Africa. He is eight years old and has been here for almost a year. He spoke no English at all when school started, but was placed in a third grade class ("immersion," I think they call it) and, with no special treatment, was expected to learn the same lessons as rest of the class. He has made remarkable progress, but is still way behind the other kids. In spite of that, he is being sent to fourth grade in the fall. Ms. Principal asked if I would like to visit his home once a week during the summer and help him with language and reading. She then introduced me to him and I was a goner. He is the sweetest little guy you could ever hope to meet. So of course, I agreed. Ms. Principal then mentioned that the boy's mother, who works nights as a cleaning woman, and speaks almost no English, might want to sit in on the lessons. That was fine with me.
We had our first session this morning. The little boy, Jamali, greeted me at the door. He was all smiles and very eager to get started. The mother, Tunza, came into the room, shy and smiling, and we introduced ourselves. I asked if she would like to sit with Jamali and me while we had our lesson and she eagerly accepted. So the three of us sat at their dining room table and began to discuss the alphabet (which Jamali knew fairly well, but Tunza did not), the sounds the letters make, and how to spell some simple words. Ms. Principal had provided me with some teaching materials from the school, which helped. I also had bought a tablet with bright colored paper and a mechanical pencil for Jamali, which pleased him. After about 1/2 hour of "lesson," I looked up and saw a girl a little older than Jamali, who was watching us. Jamali said, "That's my sister, Xani. She's in eighth grade." I invited her to sit with us, and she accepted...all smiles. So we continued with the lesson, which now had three students. When one or more of them did not understand something I said, one of the others would translate, as best as he/she could. Their language was completely unfamiliar to me. It sounded like bees buzzing, with occasional hiccups. A few minutes later, another girl appeared, looking just as eager and sweet as her sister. Jamali introduced me to her and said she would be in 10th grade. She spoke even less English than Jamali. I felt so sympathetic towards these children. How on earth could they keep up with their classes, if they could not understand the words the teacher and their textbooks used? But then I reminded myself that the U.S. is a country of immigrants! Few of them (except the ones from the British Isles) were fluent in English when they first got off the boats. But human beings have amazing brains and can learn things amazingly fast and well, when they are motivated. My grandparents didn't speak one word of English when they arrived on Ellis Island, from Norway, back in 1913. But they worked hard and learned what they needed to know to be successful and to raise 9 kids who were all successful. So I'm sure Jamali and his sisters and their mother will work hard and be successful too. And they will appreciate whatever I can do to help them and will make me feel like a queen!