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I was only half an altruist.
I was seized with a sudden urge to Do Something Good. And I also wanted to improve my crumbling Spanish. Why couldn't I do both at the same time?
So in the summer of 2006, I signed up to become an English tutor through the Catholic Diocese of Richmond's office of Refugee and Immigration Services. I spoke English. I was a writer. Surely I was qualified.
I listened intently in orientation. I pored over the stacks of grainy Xeroxed lesson plans. I learned a multitude of methods: phonics, audio-lingual, total physical response. All that remained was for the program coordinator to assign me a family. There were plenty of Spanish-speaking clients. There was also, she said, an Afghan woman who spoke almost no English.
Afghanistan! The country had always occupied a romantic place in my mind, next to other mysterious lands like Easter Island and Outer Mongolia.
The rational kernel in my mind said, "Spanish! ¨Recuerde?"
My hand shot up. "I'll take her," I said.
A few weeks later I found myself standing outside her apartment door, clutching my Xeroxes and a small album of wedding photos (a good conversation starter, the coordinator had assured me).
My fears of sitting mutely on the sofa evaporated as soon as I was ushered into my student's immaculate living room. The mother of two teenagers and a 9-year-old, my student had deep coffee-colored eyes and an unabashed laugh. She pronounced everything "beautiful." It was her favorite word.
So once a week, I drove down to Chesterfield County and spread my books and flashcards and worksheets across her spotless glass coffee table. We started with writing letters and reading the alphabet. After a while, that felt too kindergartenish, so we moved on. I taught the parts of the body, the names of colors, how to read road signs. When she briefly took a job at Wendy's, I made flashcards to help her read the menu: "mustard," "mayo," "home-style chicken."
I gamely tackled phonics. "G makes a 'guh' sound," I explained, "except sometimes, when it sounds like 'juh,' like a J." She gave my unsteady efforts her rapt attention, furrowing her forehead while she concentrated.
As the weeks became months, I looked forward to each visit more and more. She taught me snippets of Dari Persian, though the only words I could remember reliably were "maza-daar" and"baanjaan-e rumi": "delicious" and "tomato." She made me orange pekoe tea and rice dishes fragrant with spices I couldn't name. She presented me with a pair of brilliant red flowing pants from Pakistan. She was an eager student. We glided right through the ESL book.
"OK, let's review," I said one bright fall day. "Write your name and address."
She put pen to paper and printed a W. Then she looked at me with questioning eyes.
I gave her a hint. "A," I said. Her hesitant pen traced an E.
I had failed. I had moved on relentlessly from lesson to lesson without remembering to review. And now, after more than a year of lessons, she could not write her name.
I'd betrayed her. How would she get a better job, a driver's license, her long-awaited citizenship if she couldn't even write her name? I wasn't a real teacher. But I had to try to be one.
The next week, we started again. Right back to A-B-C-D. ...
We go slow now, she and I. She writes her name again and again, so never to lose it. She likes pro wrestling, so we practice writing the names of WWE stars: J-o-h-n C-e-n-a. S-t-o-n-e C-o-l-d. And she's learning to read, one vowel, one word at a time.
Recently, she put her pen to a blank space on a worksheet and neatly lettered a word I'd never taught her: d-o-n-e.
"What is ... ?" she asked me.
"Done!" I said. "Done! Like, finished. Over," I said, illustrating the idea with a chop of the hand. "Done."
She had memorized four still-foreign squiggles and brought them to me. A new word, her own word. She could tell from my smile I was proud.
We're still a long way from done. But that's just fine.