ESL Is About Getting Involved in Individuals’ Stories

by Linda Moffett (submitted by Andrea Bailey)

I cried after class yesterday.
No, I am not a middle school or high school teacher.
No, I didn’t have a classroom full of unruly students.
No, I didn’t fail to follow my lesson plan nor did I feel my students were confused or bored.

Quite the contrary. My classroom is populated by some of the most interesting, engaging, fun-loving, hard-working, generous people you will ever meet. Weekly I am inspired by their bravery and their intelligence. Most speak at least two languages; some three or four. They are smarter than me, braver than me, more generous than me.

You see, I teach an ESL class for immigrants. And last night, I started class by talking about hospitality and friendship. When I asked them about hospitality in their own countries, the class lit up. Yes, in their countries, the stranger was invited in. There was always enough rice or soup or stew. Yes, a plate was set for the newcomer (whether they agreed to stay right away or not!) No, there was no planning ahead, no worry about what was served or the condition of their homes. There was just joy in welcoming a guest to their table.

There was silence when I asked them what hospitality was like in America. You see, they didn’t really know.

Why is it, I asked them, why is it that many Americans are inhospitable? Again silence. Finally Joseline spoke up.

“It’s because they don’t believe in us.”

They don’t believe in us. What did she mean, I thought. Others joined in. “Trust” was the word they decided on … Americans did not trust them.

No wonder they feel that way. Our current political climate cannot be called welcoming by any means. And the utter lack of hospitality they experience supports that idea that they are mistrusted, unwanted, even intruders.

My class is a Level Three English class which I team-teach with another volunteer, Bethany, on Wednesday nights. Eleven students (out of a possible 20 or so) showed up for the evening’s class. Only two of the students have been here for a year or less, the other nine have been here anywhere from two to 16 years.

So I asked them a question: How many of them had an American friend?

We discussed the difference between a “friend” and an “acquaintance” before they answered. Most were not familiar with the word “acquaintance” but soon understood. You say hi to an acquaintance; you wave at them; you might have small conversations with them. A friend you spend time with; laugh with; eat with. One student raised her hand. One student had an American friend.

So I asked how many had been in an American home. Again, one student raised her hand. Just one. In a class of eleven, most of whom had lived in America for years, ONE person had been invited into the home of an American.

I would like to say I was stunned, but truthfully I was just very sad. I am guilty of not opening my home, of not making time, of not being hospitable. Of course I have excuses. Three children getting married in a span of five years; a major surgery; working and job transitions; new grandchildren arriving; some health challenges in my extended family. But these “excuses” are really just life – it’s what happens. When will I not be living my life?

During our normal break time that night, the students had planned and prepared on their own initiative an amazing surprise baby shower for my pregnant co-teacher Bethany. They brought dishes from their own countries – delicious, labor-intensive dishes. Bison meat-stuffed empanadas; delicate little coconut treats, and little cups of maria mole. There were generous gifts, too. A gift card, sweet clothing for the expected baby girl, diapers, little shoes, even a handmade sweater from Colombia. Their generosity was truly overwhelming.

These students – not shown hospitality nor invited into the homes of others – showed enormous hospitality that night.

So later that night I cried. I cried for the times I have not shown hospitality or friendship. And I asked God to help me be a little more like my students: Gracious. Generous. Hospitable.