“OK, I’m going to ask you to do some writing,” I say to the Chinese woman sitting across from me. “Can you write the words ‘in,’ ‘on,’ ‘the’?”
The woman smiles – that is easy.
“OK, now two more words: ‘was,’ ‘the,’” I say.
Again, the response is a smile as the woman writes the words on the piece of paper in front of her.
“Now, here are some harder words,” I say. “Can you spell ‘American Indians’?”
The woman’s eyes get big as she hears the words, and then she covers her mouth and laughs a beautiful laugh. “Oh no!” she yells out, shaking her head. “I didn’t go to school. My English is horrible!” she says in perfect English.
“You can do it. Just give it a try,” I say.
“I never went to school a day in my life!” she says, laughing.
“It’s okay,” I say, returning her smile. “That is why you are here. You are here to learn!”
This conversation took place last Saturday morning as LSS English teachers gathered at the Center for New Americans (CNA) to test the English level of refugees and immigrants who are on the path to U.S. Citizenship.
Yes, we teach English here at the CNA, but we also teach Citizenship Classes – U.S. history and government – to more than 200 Sioux Falls residents every year.
Students gather at the Center for New Americans to be placed in a Citizenship Class.
For many in Sioux Falls, Saturday mornings are for sleeping in and enjoying a hearty breakfast, but for these refugees and immigrants, Saturday mornings mean only one thing: citizenship classes.
For two Saturdays in March, we tested hopeful U.S. citizens to get them ready for the next wave of citizenship classes. Some can speak and write quite well. Others are only just learning this strange foreign language that resembles nothing from their childhood tongue – in writing or sound.
What I enjoy most about the testing process is the kindness and eagerness of the students.
After they are tested, I tell them their level and I say, “Come back next Saturday to start your class. You will come every Saturday through May.”
“Only on Saturday?” they ask. “Only once a week? Not more?”
“No,” I say. “Only once a week. Only on Saturday morning. 9 a.m. to noon.”
“Ok, thank you,” they say, but I know they are disappointed. They would like to come every day!
As I interview the students, I learn bits and pieces of their lives. This one was in a refugee camp for 19 years. This one hasn’t seen her mother for a decade. This one has four children at home and she never gets to sleep. : ) (I know what that’s like!) This one works every day in construction, but he will ask off for Saturday mornings so he can attend citizenship class. This one supports two children by herself with a nightshift job. She also comes to English classes and now, citizenship classes. The stories go on as different students sit in front of me for five or ten minutes, and I am lucky enough to get a glimpse of their lives.
I always make sure to look into their eyes, and there, I often feel, I glimpse not only the individual, but all of humanity. I see trust, kindness, openness, a willingness to learn, gratitude, and hope.
Two blogs ago, I wrote about the words of philosopher Emmanual Levinas: “the Face of the Other calls us into an ethical relationship.”
Those faces on Saturday mornings call me to an ethical relationship not only with that person, but with all of humanity.
Welcome to the U.S., soon-to-be new citizens! We are glad you have come to bring us your joy and hope!
I only hope that we can return the favor.
Posted by Julie Boutwell-Peterson