Come and See

person holding green leaf
Photo by shyam mishra on Pexels.com

One of the first things that amazed me about ESL: realizing how big the grocery store is. I hear my students in their native language thinking–

Why is this place so big? Why are there so many options for milk? Have I ever seen so many eggs at once? Are the cows and pigs and chickens in the back? What about the fields? What is an “aisle” and why are there more than I can count? You mean you have to compare set prices instead of bartering your way to the ideal price? What’s a scanner? What’s a coupon? What’s a sale? What’ a Pop-Tart and does it grow in a field?

I usually dread my own weekly shopping, because if I’m honest with myself, I get overwhelmed by the options in the store and the stress of comparing products. I get the feeling my students can relate, since it’s highly unlike Kroger exists in the mountains of Myanmar or the tents of Africa.

Add all that to the language barrier, and you have a totally relevant English lesson.

A few months ago, I went through a grocery store lesson series with the Burmese wife and mother I work with. We learned where to find items in the store, how to ask for help, and practiced some conversations to have with the cashier.

At the end of the several weeks practice, we went on a scavenger hunt for some items at Walmart. She laughed when I told her about our field trip, and the morning I picked her up, she was unusually quiet. Although I assured her she could do it, I could tell she was nervous.

I think that’s the most compelling thing about ESL– the fact that little, mundane things become difficult and stressful, but ESL provides the mortar to build confidence in those places.

As we walked around the store, marking things off our list, I realized that I hadn’t thought of a plan to practice a conversation with a cashier. I immediately thought of buying a fun treat to reward Sing’s hard work and for the sake of practicing more language. I mean, who doesn’t want chocolate after spending a couple hours in Walmart?

But I thought back to the common thread in all of my training and experience: sustainability not handouts. At the core of my work philosophy is a desire to help my students by giving them the tools they need to be successful. I’m in the fight to help them, yes, but I’m ultimately in this to give them something that will last and multiply. It would be too easy to give them everything without the price of working toward it and making it their own. And in the end, it’s only more hurtful to them to not use every interaction together as a chance to work toward strengthening their foundation together.

“Brianna—it’s only a chocolate. Give ‘em a break,” you might say. But everything I’ve witnessed here has led me to believe that every interaction should mean something. It should last longer and be more thoughtful than the time it would take to consume a candy bar. That’s only a short-lived pleasure that doesn’t usually make us much better in the end. However, a skill that can be mastered and used as a tool that can be pulled out when confusion and struggling are threatening to take over—that’s invaluable.

I led Sing over to the department with the most accurate images of self-sustainability: gardening. We looked at the plants and talked about which ones we liked. I picked up a lavender plant and told her I wanted to buy it.

“Sing, choose one. I’ll buy it. This is my gift to you. You’ve worked hard,” I told her. She laughed, probably surprised by my offer, and began her search. She examined the plants, comparing the green leaves and sounding out the words on the advertisements. Finally, she chose a collard green.

“To cook,” she said, showing me her find. I handed her a few dollars in cash, and then we headed over to the cashier. She practiced the same English we had gone over in class and paid for our plants. The customers in line asked what we were doing, and I encouraged Sing that she had done well. We laughed as we left the store, and a sense of accomplishment and relief filled our space.

I wondered what she’d do with the plant, and if she wanted it as much as I hoped she would. She thanked me several times, and then carried the plant inside as I dropped her off at home and promised to return the following week.

 

 

I haven’t thought about that plant since April. If Sing’s luck with plants is anything like mine (which it isn’t), then it probably died or started growing a little crooked by mid-April.

Last week, as I packed my bags after another lesson gathered around Sing’s living room table, she motioned to her back porch. “Teacher, come. See,” she said, opening the back door and waving for me to follow. I stepped out onto the deck under the sun as Sing walked over to the green, plant-filled side of her deck. She pointed to a specific patch of soft green leaves, and said, “Teacher, the plant. Big now.”

And I realized: those are the collard greens I bought her all those months ago. They had spread so wide and grown so tall, they were unrecognizable until she pointed them out to me. She’s taken care of them, and they’ve grown so beautifully.

I asked her if she eats them, and she nodded. “Yes, eat. Give my friends,” she continued. We admired the plant for a few minutes, and as she described the scene of her friends coming to her small garden, I could see it.

I could picture her coming outside to pick the greens and bringing them to her kitchen to add to the rice.

I could picture her friends coming over, admiring the plants and filling a bag with their own load.

I could picture the moment when Sing realized the collard greens had outgrown their small plastic pot, and I could picture the afternoon when she worked with her bare hands to dig a hole to transplant the greens.

And even though she spoke to me in broken English, I could picture her tending to this plant almost every day and being able to watch it multiply into a gift for her family and something she could share.

This moment stuck with me. The sense of accomplishment and pride in her voice was something that I don’t always hear in my line of work. It takes time to reach that point of sustainability, but when we do arrive, it’s special. Especially when they reach a point where they can freely give and share what they have—it’s beautiful.

I’m here for these small moments of victories, gathering around a collard green. That tangible act of restoring dignity to a robbed people by giving them the necessary tools for self-sustainability is a long-going process that fuels the heart of my work.

And that’s the reason why if I have the choice to buy a candy bar or a green collard plant, I’ll choose the plant.

Advertisements

Superlatives, elementary kids, and elderly folks.

Our class is the best thing in the whole world.

My higher-level class and I spent a few days studying superlatives. This is when we say words like best, worst, highest, biggest, smallest, etc. Although they already knew the basic form of these words, I wanted to stretch them to use the words more naturally in conversation. Almost any student of English can sit and read out some words. But to be able to use the language orally, without the help of a paper or time to plan out what to say, is the crucial element of making the language useful.

Our method of speaking practice? A couple of dice with a different talking point on each side. For a good chunk of our class, we took our chances of not knowing which question that awaited us or if we’d know how to answer it. We’d hold our breath as the dice stopped on a question about the best song we’ve ever or the most embarrassing moment in our life. The paper somewhat caved into itself, but the blue washi tape held on as we tried again, again, and again.

It was a hard exercise. We had nothing to lean on but the skills we had been practicing and that bold, black and white question staring at us. But, we were there to encourage and cheer, to help our classmates and hope they would succeed.

As we worked, they came up with some great answers. They might seem simple, but we worked hard to craft them and repeat them. And the message communicated within them is beautiful. Here are a few (with my added commentary):

 

“’Thriller’ is the worst song I’ve ever heard.”

LOL.

 

“Home mortgages are the worst thing about living in America.”

Something I’ve only recently learned: the American money system is confusing. My refugee friends don’t come from lands of credit cards, utility bills, and monthly rent. They don’t know about debt that reaches into the thousands of dollars, and the role the bank plays in buying a house. Our system is confusing, full of ridiculous lingo, and oftentimes, unfair.

But some of my students—the ones who have been here for 4, 5 years—have worked hard enough to learn this crazy system. They’ve committed to working overtime just to purchase a home for their family. They’ve taken up that bill, and can now agree with the rest of us: this is a proud, but yet incredibly difficult, moment. And it’s the coolest act of self-sustainability for these once vulnerable people. What a victory that is, to say you bought a home, especially when you were once forced to leave yours.

 

“’Highway to Hell’ is the worst song I’ve ever heard.”

Considering this is coming from a conservative Christian man from a modest culture that doesn’t have the time to make light of real problems… Probably true.

 

“Shaming is the worst thing about learning English.”

In Asia, an important part of the culture is the idea of “saving face.” They value social standing and reputation and call it “face.” A big thing you don’t do is embarrass people when they’re wrong, or even call them out for it. You don’t cause a scene or draw attention to yourself or others in public. You don’t laugh at them or make them feel ashamed. And if do—you’ve caused that person to “lose face.”

I’ll be totally transparent: I’ve never thought about how much the American classroom can disrupt that mentality. Obviously, I don’t seek opportunities to embarrass my students, but this does make me wonder how gentle or appropriate I am in my interactions with them—whether it be in usual conversation or in error correcting during class. How often have I caused them to “lose face?” How many times have I furthered the gap between their learning American culture, and being overwhelmed by the huge differences? When learning English across culture, it’s not just a matter of learning the language. It’s a matter of learning an entire culture.  

 

“McDonald’s is the most expensive restaurant I’ve ever been to.”

The next time I’m tempted to believe I deserve more than I’ve earned, the next time I want what I can’t afford, the next time I want to believe that the things of this earth are the best I’ll ever experience—I’ll think back on this moment. And it’ll resonate so loudly: contentment, contentment, contentment.

 

– – –

 

Respect Your Elders

 

At the beginning of summer, I started helping with another branch of ministry at one of my jobs. This ministry specifically reaches out to the elderly refugees in our community. The people whose bodies have been worn from the years and move slowly, the people who are beyond the years for learning language quickly, the people who have gone their entire 60, 70, 80 years of life without ever belonging to a country that wanted them—these are the people the ministry reaches.

So, one morning a week, I pick these elderly Nepali refugees up from their homes and drive them to a class at the ministry’s office. They have a time to meet with others who often can’t leave home or are unable to drive. It’s designed to be a time of community and learning of basic skills for them. Honestly, this ministry is necessary and invaluable. I’m so glad that someone had the awareness to create it and the courage to follow through.

The last few weeks, our elders class has met at a church in the west side of town. This church generously donates art supplies, and opens up the doors for my elderly friends to come in and learn a new craft.

One class offered is painting. On the first day we arrived, the teacher had hoped to teach how to paint sunflowers in a vase, set on a linen-clothed table beside a glass of white wine in the natural window light from the background of the picture. Albeit it was beautiful, but it was not a picture my friends were interested in.

The reality: these people had never held a paintbrush before. Furthermore, most (if not all) are pre-literate. This means they can’t even read or write in their native language. And needless to say, they weren’t particularly interested in painting sunflowers next to wine.

We turned it into a time of free paint. Although we tried to teach them how to mix the paints to create more colors, they didn’t seem interested. And that’s okay. There was a peace in watching them learn how to move the brush in the direction they wanted, stroking color after color on their blank canvas.

I saw friends and mountains, gardens and skies. I watched as images of the farmlands of Nepal and the small homes they left behind were marked in messy brush strokes.

You could have looked at it and easily dismissed the crafts as mistakes or a mess. But I saw something more: I saw a people who have fought to survive their whole lives get the chance to do something that uses their imagination. I watched them get permission to dream and create. I witnessed the realization that they are allowed to do something for fun and pure joy, and not out of necessity. I got to encourage them that it’s okay to rest now. 

And if that’s not a picture of the joy for life and rest in our weariness that the Gospel offers, then I’ve never seen it. If that’s not an image of the messes of our life that God calls beautiful, then this blog is in vain.

The next week, we joined our friends at the church once more for another day of crafts. This time, I chose to take a break from painting. Instead, I headed over to the basket weaving station. I pulled the wet reed from the water bucket and pulled up a chair to the work table.

I had watched a few of the other men work on these baskets for a few weeks. They crafted beautiful, flawless baskets in record time. Their dark-skinned, aged hands worked intentionally. They made it look so easy, but when I gave it a try, I was in for a lesson of humility.

At the beginning, my goal was a small basket to hold some flowers on my porch. And then it turned into an American-girl sized mini basket for my sister. And then it became an even smaller ring dish for my husband. As hard as I tried to braid and weave, I couldn’t get the reed to bend like I wanted. My braids were failed, and after nearly two hours of furrowing my brow and collecting reed chips on my fingers, all I had was a mess that fit in the palm of my hand.

The elders across the table kept glancing at me and smiling. They knew the secret, what I didn’t know: this craft requires skill and careful attention. It’s difficult and can’t be done without practice and patience. And since we’re friends here, I’ll admit that this is lesson that the Lord is repeating to me over and over again this summer. I’ll never joke about basket-weaving again.

Honestly, I picked this up for fun. The craft was offered to these people for fun. But the truth is, these people have known what it means to weave baskets for survival. Before they came here, this skill was necessary for gathering their food, storing it, carrying items across a long distance. I know because one of the larger baskets had a handle on it that I hadn’t noticed before. One of the women said, “In Nepal,” and modeled carrying the funny-handled shaped basket behind her head. I had never seen a basket like that before. But then again, I’ve never had to carry crops and necessities down long trails and valleys.

I get the feeling there isn’t a Walmart in the mountains they farmed. They had to make what they needed. As it turns out, offering a basket-weaving “class” for these folks allowed them to pick up a familiar skill. One that they have spent countless hours of their life working on, and probably haven’t touched since they arrived in the land of buy-what-you-need-right-now some time ago.

I showed one of the women my “basket” after I tried. Translation: I showed her my pile of splintered sticks. She smiled, held it in her hand. “Good. Next time good,” she said in broken, but oh so kind, English. We chuckled, and I believed she was telling me to keep at it. To try again. And again. I believe there was a sense of pride of recognizing this “normal” skill is so difficult for others.

But, she encouraged me to keep going. She knows that at the end of this practice and intentional effort is a basket useful for helping carry the load. I have no doubt that she understands the power of persistence and waiting more than most. I believe her.

 

– – –

 

Follow Me

Back in the spring, I told you a lot about some of my middle school students in the after-school program. Jumping into the world of youth refugee work was everything, yet nothing, I expected and has been a necessary learning curve. The compassion and understanding I have for the families I work with has only been magnified.

What I didn’t know when I started with the youth program was that this summer, I would be given the choice to work with middle school students or elementary students. And ultimately, I would be asked to work with the elementary students.

And just like that, I work with middle-aged adults one-on-one most mornings and then serve a class of 14 Congolese students from Kindergarten to 4th grade in the afternoons. Now that, my friends, is a learning curve.

There are so many stories that I cannot wait to share with you about these students. But for today, I’ll start at the beginning: when I picked them up for the first time.

I pulled into the apartment complex, and a few dozen children waited under the shade of the trees off to the side. As soon as they saw our caravan of two white mini buses and that 12-passenger van, they sprinted toward us flooding the pathway. We crept along the road slowly, as the kids surrounded our vehicles.

Glancing in my mirrors constantly to make sure no one was in the line of my tires, I noticed that several of the kids had placed their hands on the side of the bus and were walking alongside us. As soon as the bus was in park, they were pushing and shoving to get on at the door. And as soon as I pulled the level to open the door, the flood gates were open. They came rushing in.

I assumed this would only happen the first few days. I was wrong. This is our daily routine, and I love how excited they are to see us every single day. Although part of me wants to believe they enjoy hanging out with their teachers, I think an even greater part of me believes they are just happy for a chance to get away from their apartment. For many of them, their families don’t have cars and most likely can’t afford a greater than a field trip than a walk to the Kroger in front of the complex.

No joke, one of the boys just asked me yesterday, “Ms. Brianna, can we go to Kroger?”

It’s a good reminder to show up and serve with a joyful heart. If they’re so eager to come with us just to practice their reading and English skills, how much more eager should I be to give it to them? And if they can show up to put in some hard work on their summer “vacation” and still be excited about it—I am too.

Babies, immigration, prayer.

IMG_9805.jpg

I’ve held American babies– but never Asian babies.

Back in March, I asked friends to help gather baby items for a couple of my expecting students. I have more to say about that experience—but suffice to say for today: I was overwhelmed with help from some truly kind and genuine people.

In late April, when we learned that the expected twins would be coming sooner than we anticipated, we were able to deliver a load of things to one of the mothers, Leanne. We brought newborn diapers, teeny-tiny clothes, a beautiful wooden crib. We carried wash cloths, bottles, and paired socks inside the small apartment. A dear friend who took this project upon herself too showed us how to use a double-seated stroller.

It was an afternoon of joy and thankfulness as we helped a sister feel more prepared for this next season, and in return she gifted us sushi rolls her husband had prepared. She told me thank you so many times I lost count during those few weeks.

A few days later, just before the twins were expected to make their arrival, I stopped by the apartment to visit Leanne. Because I knew that I wouldn’t be in town to welcome the babies at the hospital, I wanted to set aside a time to pray over my friend. I had no clue how awkward it would feel, or if she’d appreciate the gesture. But it gnawed on my heart, and I wanted to do it.

On my commute from one job to the next, on what was my “lunch break,” I swung into that apartment complex on the hill. I had told her I wanted to stop by for a short visit, so I didn’t knock on the door to the home for very long before she answered.

I stepped inside, and asked how she was feeling. She told me about the last hospital where her toddler was born in Malaysia. “The doctors care in America. It’s very good,” she said, as I reassured her that the delivery in the Nashville hospital would be safe, clean, and nothing to worry about. A reassurance like that feels necessary knowing some of the places my students have been in. Health, cleanliness, accurate medical attention—these are luxuries of the first-world lifestyle that my third and second-world friends are not used to.

My friend is a believer. In fact, that’s why her tribe was forced to flee their home: they are refugees because they claim Christ when others tell them to change or leave. They choose to leave.

I’m on this earth for two reasons: to tell people about Jesus with love and kindness, and to take care of those who already know about Him. And as much as I love to show the love of Christ to those people in my circles who don’t know Him, I also love to love on my sisters who have met Him, loved Him, and sacrificed for Him.

When the conversation got quiet, I asked her, “Leanne, can I pray for you?” She nodded.  And there, with the woven rug beneath my feet and the images of these coming twins in my mind, I lifted this family. I asked that they come safely, and that Leanne would heal. I asked that He guide and love this family in special ways. And at the end, I thanked Him for guiding them here. For giving me the chance to know them. For keeping them safe.

I only stayed for about 20 minutes, but the “amen” we said together before we hugged goodbye assured me the time wasn’t wasted. My love for this student, and my hopes for her family were deepened in that moment. I left, and the only thing I could think was: I’m a fool for not doing this sooner.

I’ve stayed up late lesson planning, and I’ve woken up early to print lessons. I’ve driven across town to meet with students who weren’t ready for class that day, and knocked on doors that were never answered. I’ve taught, retaught, taught again. I’ve made sacrifices on the altar of a successful ESL experience for my students. But nothing the works of my own hands have made compare to getting to pray on behalf of them. Nothing is more important than getting to speak their names in prayer to a God who knows the wrongs that have been done to them, and longs to fill their voids with peace and hope. 

Thankfully, the babies did come. And on their second week of being on this planet, I got to meet them. I stepped into that same apartment, and held each of these sweet 5 pound babies. Their heads were full of thick hair, and their eyes closed as I rocked them. As we sat together in that living room with the woven rug beneath our feet, I thought about how many beautiful moments I don’t deserve—including this one.

Why would this woman allow me to hold her babies, pray over them, step into their home? Why should I be given the opportunity to witness such miracles of His hand?

I have no answer. But my God has filled my life with these beautiful moments, and it’s all I can do to love in them to the fullest.

– – –

Forgive them, they know not what they do (or ask.)

When I arrived at my Burmese student, Sarah’s, home there weren’t any cars in the driveway. This usually makes me nervous, because showing up at the door of a student who doesn’t want or isn’t able to have class that day is not unheard of. I knocked on the door, and waited. No one came. My worry increased. I texted Sarah, and just a moment later, the door opened and she invited me in.

She apologized. From what I gathered, her husband was out of town and she had overslept because the baby had kept her up all night. She got a glass of water, grabbed her English folder, and came to sit around the living room coffee table. God bless her for allowing me to be her alarm clock, and still being dedicated to English class.

About halfway through class, the phone rang. Her husband. Sarah answered, spoke some things in Burmese, and then passed me the phone. After the initial hello and greetings, he asked, “Today DirecTV is coming. In 15 minutes he will be there to set up the cable. Can you help my wife understand the questions since I’m not there?” I told him sure, no problem.

We hung up the phone, and continued on with class. Sure enough, 15 minutes later, the DirecTV van pulled up in the driveway. I greeted the technician at the door, and immediately explained the situation.  He seemed somewhat taken aback, but went on to inspect his work.

A few minutes later, he came to explain what would need to be done to make the cable hookup possible. At this point, I had answered as many questions as possible and pointed to every direction in the home. But this time, it involved holes in the wall, a wire in the garage, moving some things around. I told him it would be best to call the husband, just to make sure it was okay.

The technician called and explained the situation, and then passed the phone to Sarah so that she could learn about the situation in her language. While they talked in Burmese, I apologized to the technician.

“I’m sorry I can’t translate for you. I actually don’t speak their language, and I didn’t want to be the final judge for any big decisions,” I told him.

“Eh, it’s no problem,” he hesitated for a minute, and then continued, “So like—what do you do? Is this, like, real? Is this your job? Like what you get paid to do?”

Oh, the number of times I’ve laid this out. I smiled as I explained that I have a degree and certification to do this. I told him, yes, this is my job and yes, I do get paid. I explained that I work with a branch of nonprofits to make English class accessible.

“Oh, so do you teach, like, only Spanish people or what?” he asked more.

Honestly, you’d be surprised at the number of times I’ve answered this question too. I explained that I only teach one Spanish-speaking couple from Cuba. His jaw dropped, and I continued. All the others speak languages many have never heard of. I told him about my Congolese students that speak Swahili, and the Tanzanian students who speak French. I told him about my Iraqi students who speak Kurdish, and my Sudanese students who speak Arabic.

“This family,” I said, motioning to the living room we sat in, “is of a tribe from Myanmar. They speak a specific dialect of that language.”

His eyes filled with amazement. “That’s so cool. But, like, how can you do this?” he said.

“Honestly,” I continued, “I don’t need to know their language to teach them English. It’s actually better that I don’t, because it’s a full immersion experience for them. Language doesn’t translate too well anyway. I use a lot of pictures and hand motions, and use a proven lesson planning technique. But above all, I’m patient and speak slowly. That’s all my students really need: someone willing to have slow conversations with them.

Sarah came back with the phone at this point, and I was honestly disappointed because I think our conversation could have continued. I left a few minutes later, and the man told me thanks and to have a good one.

I was shocked the first time I had an encounter like this. My mind raced– People really think I only teach Spanish-speakers from Mexico? Are you unaware of the refugee crisis and where they come from? Come on. Have you ever even heard of Myanmar and Tanzania?

Now, I glory in them. I love when they come up. I love getting to tell people about the richness of the world around us, and broaden their understanding. These conversations are always well-received, and I love watching the look of amazement on the faces of those I get to speak with.

Sure, we have a lot more to learn. There’s a lot of things we should burdened by, and as you can probably gather, refugee and immigrant work is that burden for me. But, I don’t get discouraged or saddened by these conversations anymore; instead, I use them to show grace. After all, I had to start learning from somewhere too.

– – –

It’s her party, and she’ll bring an African dish if she wants to.

In honor of two new or expecting mothers in my group class, we had a celebration after class one day. I brought blue and green cupcakes and cookies, and my dear friend Rachel brought a cantaloupe. We set up our humble spread on a table at the front of the room, and realized we didn’t have proper serving utensils. We cleaned and used a toy cooking pot as a serving spoon, placed it in the fruit dish, and invited everyone to fill their plate. It was a scene that only my students would have the grace to accept.

I shouldn’t be surprised, but one of the mothers of honor brought a salad and an African dish to her own party. The salad was self-explanatory. The sauce or vinaigrette mixture tasted only of lemon juice and salt, but somehow, it worked. That second dish on the other hand…

I don’t know what it was or how to say it. But, it was sweet and it was so good. If ESL has taught me anything, it’s to try whatever is set before you. All the doubts and worries aside, step into the moments when you don’t have the answers. There’s something so beautiful about that kind of trust and excitement to die to self and self’s desires. She tried to explain the dish to me as I ate, but the only English she really knew to say was “sugar.” And there was definitely more than sugar in that dish.

She kept saying it in Arabic. She wrote it on the board, and spoke it into her translator app over and over. When the app said, “Free Parking,” her smile widened, thinking it had translated the dish perfectly. I simply chuckled and shook my head. It was a classic translation-is-harder-than-you-think moment. Some things just don’t translate—such as humor and African dishes.

I took photos of the dish and of the Arabic word. I promised to take it to the market across the street, and ask them what it is and how to make it. Although I cannot even begin to scratch the surface of the fullness of the culture of my students, I love trying. I love asking questions. I love taking pictures. I will keep failing because what they a have to offer is rich and invaluable. But I will keep trying.

On next week’s agenda: take a trip to the market.

– – –

Difficult, important, good.

My large group class and I have been talking about immigration services lately. We’re learning some of the basic words and process of getting green cards and eventually, U.S. citizenship. Although I worried it would be a dry subject, we’ve made it fun. We’ve asked questions, played games, talked about our memories from the past and our hopes for the future. They’re invested in this subject, and honestly, as a teacher there’s nothing sweeter than teaching your students something they care about knowing.

We started a discussion centered on this idea: is immigration in America difficult?

My students chuckled and looked around. As if they couldn’t believe I would ask such a question. “Yes, of course,” they all murmured in agreement.

“Why?” I smiled, hoping they knew that I believed in them to communicate even pieces of such a complex thought. To simply say yes or no is too easy. As I like to tell them in almost every class: we’re learning good English.

They all had something to say, but one stuck out to me the most. A Sudanese woman spoke up and said, “Citizenship is hard. But it’s good. This is important. Only good people can stay here.”

A humble observation of a messy topic summed in simple sentences by a person seeking refuge in America. It stuck to me because I’ve never been forced to make a home overseas. I’ve never known what it’s like to have innumerable documents that have typed in a box a country of citizenship that has only pushed me out, hated me, hurt me, tore my home away from me. I can’t imagine the longing and the desire to be a part of a place that welcomes and loves me, after I’ve run for so long.

And still, this is the reality of my refugee student, Sarah, and her refugee classmates. And what’s more, they don’t expect it to just be given to them. None of them have landed in Nashville, Tennessee, expecting to be given the elite title of American citizenship. They want it. But they know it’s a process. They know it might not happen for them.

Newsflash: we agree with refugees when it comes to our opinion of immigration matters. This simple statement spoken by my student– who waited nearly 5 years to be given the opportunity to come to America– affirmed that for me. We believe, or should believe, it’s a hard, rigorous process. In fact, refugees are the most vetted travelers to come to America. It’s difficult for them, and I hate that they even have to understand why it’s difficult. But they do.

We agree, or should agree, that it’s important to be thorough in immigration matters. They know how important it is to make sure only authentic, honest people are coming to live in America as immigrants. Even if a large chunk of native-born American citizens are not honest or people of “good moral character” – which is an actual phrase used when discussing Naturalization and Citizenship standards for immigrants— they understand why it’s important for the USCIS to probe and prod into their life and history before making a final decision. They won’t argue that. Even in the midst of all their waiting and hurting, they won’t argue it. What grace.

And finally: we agree, or should agree, that immigration is good. In a land that boasts of freedom and happiness, dreaming and working, helping and being a person of “good moral character,” we should agree that welcoming other cultures into our space is a good thing. Especially when those people have been forced to flee from their homes. They have no choice, and nowhere to go. So yes, it’s a good thing. Let them come.

 

Small victories, big victories, and everything in the middle.

Well, my friends, I haven’t written in weeks. And although I’m sorry that I haven’t been faithful in telling you about the latest refugee stories in our corner of Southeast Nashville, they have continued on regardless of whether or not I’ve been faithful to document them.

Honestly, that is one of the sweetest lessons I’ve learned about Jesus: He is faithful to continue His work, even when I’m not. He doesn’t need to stop and rest. He doesn’t need to learn how to better manage time. He doesn’t need me to accomplish His plans, but He invites me along. That’s a pretty sweet invitation.

There have been new students to meet, babies to prepare for, trips to take, paperwork to fill out, curriculum to design, and breaks to take. A lot has been happening in this direction, and I’m grateful that you’re here to read about what’s happened when I wasn’t writing.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much I enjoy living it.

 

The Zomi girls who like to braid my hair

Although last week was spring break for the middle school program, we offered to take the 5th graders on their field trip for the year. The plan was to go the Adventure Science Center. My task was pretty simple: pick up the girls in the mini bus, get them to the Negley Boulevard, and help them have fun.

Once we arrived at the building with an enormous pyramid on the top of it—the one that overlooks downtown from a huge hill—we counted and split into teams. I was excited when my supervisor paired me with two of the Zomi girls who like to braid my hair. We were a team, and our job was to stick together during the trip. They were excited, and I was eager for our time together. They ran ahead, and I tried to keep up. We climbed a tower, played games against life-sized germs, took pictures with a dinosaur,  and gazed at huge models of the solar system.

Near the end of the trip, we were given an extra 15 minutes to look at one more thing we might have missed on the trip. The girls told me they wanted to play the brain game, and we ran with fingers crossed that the line had died down.

Thankfully, there was no line. We only needed to wait for the two current players to finish. The girls didn’t want to wait, a trend that I had noticed from the moment we got on I-65 to head to the science center, and I tried to encourage them to wait just another minute.

Finally, it paid off and we were up. Basically, the point of the game was to see which player of the two could “out-relax” the other. Both players sat and wore a gadget on their head that measured the activity in their brains. The goal was to be so calm, relaxed, and focused, that there would be a nearly flat line to show your brain movement. The higher the waves on your screen were, the less relaxed you were, and the more likely you were to lose.

I had watched the people before us. The waves on their screen had started off high, but eventually nearly evened out. Sure, there were mountains here and there, but on the whole—they were obviously calm.

I remembered that as I watched my refugee Zomi friends attempt to “out-relax” each other. Their brain waves were high and jumpy at first, and I was certain they would calm down.

They didn’t.

Throughout the entire 3 or so minute game, the girls sat. One sat with her hands cupped over her mouth, and the other closed her eyes. They looked somewhat relaxed and focused, but the waves on their screen proved otherwise.

“It’s broken,” I thought to myself about the machine. But then I was reminded of the traumatic psychology videos I had watched during my training. I realized, “It’s not broken. They are.”

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a dozen times: I’m not an expert. But, what I have learned is trauma impacts the entire wiring of a person’s brain. One of the effects is the forces the brain to surrender any still or calmness. The brain is always running on high, usually in an effort to be on guard in survival mode. Every time in the past that those girls thought, “I’m hungry. I’m scared. I’m cold,” and those needs were not met, contributed to the rewiring of their brains.

They came as refugees and a lineage persecuted for their faith. I’ll never know all they’ve seen or gone through.

They learned to be on guard, instead of receiving comfort. They learned to experience hurt and fear, when they should have been experiencing safety and love. They learned to always be on guard, when they should have been able to trust that they were safe. They learned how to uproot and resettle in a place they didn’t get to choose—Nashville, TN—when they should have been able to seek refuge and safety in the place of their ancestors.

But, the world isn’t perfect. And with that, I have to remember that sometimes my students act out not because they don’t want to be better, but because they literally don’t know how to. In steps the high, yet humble, task of the teacher: to teach the right way with grace and kindness.

 

– – –

 

Shelby

I pick the middle schoolers up from school 3 out of 4 times a week. Some days they’re ready to listen, and other times, it takes some time to get them settled. During the bus rides, I often hear a wide range of totally random comments.

On this particular day, there were some Congolese girls sitting behind my driver’s seat. I have no clue what they were saying or what they were discussing, but I tuned into the conversation just in time to hear my sweet, very small, student Shelby say:

“They might say you’re ugly, but you’re really just cute in your own way.”

Amen, sister.

 

– – –

 

The Burmese Women

Before spring break, I wanted to give my higher-level class an extra challenge. I wanted to teach them how to express frustration. To be honest, I was worried about the lesson. Not only did I worry it would be too difficult to grasp, but I also wondered how’d they respond to using English in a somewhat “negative” way. But, we went for it.

That day in class, I only had 5 of my Burmese students. They are all women, wives, mothers. We spent more time laughing and chatting and asking questions. And y’all, I used every second to cultivate a place of vulnerability and safety.

Although I would never want to lead my students down hateful or unkind roads, I know that being a wife is hard. I know that sometimes your husband, despite all his love and trying, can sometimes still forget to wash the dishes or take out the trash. I’ve also heard that parenting is difficult too. Sometimes the babies will cry, and cry, and cry. And all you want is for them to rest so you can rest too.

You know, that’s just part of being human. We frustrate each other, and things don’t always meet our expectations. Reality and what we want are often different. Usually during my classes, I like to learn about what my students like, and what inspires them. But during this class, I really sought to learn more about what frustrates them. Honestly, my ultimate goal was to show them that it’s okay to have feelings, even when they feel negative.

At first, it was difficult to talk about it. By the end of class thought, we were laughing and joking, and really being honest about these things. During one of our last activities, I wanted to find out what frustrates them. These are some of the things they said:

  • It bugs me when the schools asks for more money.
  • I can’t stand it when the house is dirty.
  • I hate traffic.
  • It bugs me when the grocery store is expensive.
  • I can’t stand it when I can’t talk to people.
  • I hate it when I can’t speak English.

It was a difficult lesson, and really stretched their language abilities. But, it was worth it. Just to be reminded that they get frustrated by the same things we do, was worth it.

I forget often that I work with living, feeling, thinking humans. Seriously, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of just viewing them as students who don’t understand. It’s my most earnest and passionate prayer that I would never become desensitized to their humanity. They feel things just as you and I do, and think about the world and life too. Just because they can’t always talk about it with us doesn’t make it any less valid.

My job is to empower them. My job is to step in, when everyone else just wants to point out all they’re doing wrong, and encourage them that they’re valuable people capable of learning a language, making a beautiful life in a foreign land, and acknowledging every single feeling and thought that comes with it. Because the reality is, for a long time they didn’t have the luxury of knowing their feelings were important. When they ran to refugee camps and were shoved out of their homelands, they didn’t have the liberty to trust that their life—including all their thoughts and feelings—were important enough to protect.

You’re mad they don’t know English? They are too.

You’re upset they won’t answer simple questions at the grocery store? They know.

You don’t think they’re trying to do well with the second chance they have in America? Wrong.

Have grace and patience, friends. The same people you might get frustrated by have thoughts, fears, hopes, feelings. They’re made in the image of the same God as you are.

In the words of Pocahontas (deep, I know),

“You think the only people who are people
Are the people who look and think like you
But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger
You’ll learn things you never knew, you never knew.”

 

– – –

 

Kyle

This semester has been a learning experience for me as a teacher. One of my biggest learning opportunities has been in dealing with some of my most difficult middle school students. Kyle, one that I’ve written about on this blog before, has had some really great days but also some really hard days. There’s usually no in between.

Something we’ve toyed with in our program is the use of a disciplinary checkmark system modeled after the public middle school the students attend, but tweaked to encourage better choices and second chances as opposed to simply repeating, “You’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong.”

I won’t bore you with the details, but I will say it’s proven to be a pretty effective system. It is the most tangible way that I can hold my students accountable to making better choices, and having “evidence” to talk through solutions to our problems later.

My sweet student, Kyle, has gotten at least 1 checkmark each day. Usually for leaving class without asking, often times for talking at inappropriate times or not following instructions. However, he made some really great choices last week. I’m not sure if spring break and time to play was what he needed, but he came back ready to listen and work.

Monday passed, and he didn’t get any checks.

Tuesday passed, and still no checks.

To my shame, I hadn’t even realized how significant this was… until he came to me about it. He came to me frantically at the end of class with his checkmark sheet attached in his folder.

“Mrs. Brianna, checks! My checks!” he said, pointing to the paper.

Confused, I just nodded my head. I eyeballed the messy, inked up paper, and said, “Oh yeah, Kyle, these are your checks…”

“Mrs. Brianna, today my checks,” he said, still pointing.

I paused. Thought. And realized. “Ohhh, Kyle. You didn’t get any checks today! You didn’t get any yesterday either! You stayed in the classroom, you worked hard on Lexia, you were respectful of me and your classmates,” I explained.

He smiled from ear to ear.

“I good?” he said.

“Yes, Kyle. You’re good,” I told him.

He walked away, and the smile didn’t leave his face. I’ve thought about that so many times since then. It’s a victory to celebrate and he knows it too. And I’m grateful for the chance to get to encourage him every step of the way—even when he probably thinks I’m the difficult one for giving him the disciplinary checks in the first place.

 

– – –

 

Mrs. Brianna’s Class

We have an ongoing class competition at after school. We compete in attendance and minutes spent on our literacy program. Let me tell you about my class: they have consistently won in at least one category since December. In February, they really surprised us by taking the cake in BOTH categories. Then, I was amazed by the hard work they are dedicate to.

Last week, we found out that my class won in both categories. AGAIN. Of the 15 students multiplied by the 15 possible days of programming we had last month, there were only 8 absences. What? On top of that, they spent over 300 minutes on average improving their literacy. Again… what?

They could be doing a million other things after school. They could be playing soccer, babysitting, derping around on Facebook. But instead, they choose to continue learning. They choose to sit a little longer. They choose to work a little harder.

My sweet Shelby innocently asked me last week as we prepared to play a game of alphabet Bingo, “Mrs. Brianna, why do we always play games? We came here to learn!”

What she doesn’t realize is she and her classmates are. They are making huge strides of improvement, and it’s been an honor to play such a small role in that for them the last few months. I’m only a witness to the success stories that are being weaved in them. These are the kids that are going to make a positive difference, whether it be here in our Southeast corner of Nashville, or somewhere on the other side of the world.

A couple of the girls wrote me a note the last day before spring break. They said:

 

“Dear Ms.Brianna,

We say thank you for teaching us. We are really thankful for everything that you guys did for us. We have to thank to y’all for teaching us and we learn more and more from you guys. But if we did not be respect we say sorry. But you guys are the good teachers. We know that some time we didn’t be respectful to y’all. But all the human can not stay without do some mistake.

We will always loves you, Ms Brianna. The best teacher.”

 

Wherever they go, I believe in them. I’m so proud of the things they’ve already accomplished, and the things coming ahead.

A festival. A really, really cool festival.

IMG_8730Back in December, just a couple weeks into settling into marriage, some of the Burmese women in my large group class stayed around class a little longer than usual. As I cleaned the board and packed my things, I wondered what they were doing. Did they have a question? Did they lose something?

All of the women, 4 total, finally came to me. “Teacher,” they said, interrupting my busy work, “we want to give to you.” They extended their arms to hand me a small package wrapped in a Walmart bag.

“For me?” I asked, surprised, as they smiled. Inside the Walmart bag and wrapped in sparkly tissue paper sat two neatly folded scarves, a necklace, and a hair bow. Donned in red, black, white, and green print, I could tell these were no ordinary American accessories.

“This is a gift in our culture. Zomi culture,” they told me as I held each item closely.

We talked, and the women helped me to dress in my own scarf and necklace. We laughed and took pictures, and I learned that one scarf was for me and the other was for my husband. These women—plus one who had moved and was no longer in class—had worked together to bring me a beautiful, thoughtful wedding gift. They didn’t have to, nor did I even expect anything like this. But, I felt honored that they would entrust such a unique part of their culture to me.

“When can I wear this? Is it okay to wear it?” I asked them.

They said, “To the Zomi festival.” They told me that there is a festival where the Zomi people gather to celebrate their culture. This would be the perfect opportunity to show off my new, beautiful gift.

Although I thought this festival only happened overseas, I learned that it happens in Nashville every year—very close to our classroom meeting place. They told me it would be in February, and that they would tell the exact date when they found out. The winter was only beginning and I was already eager to meet some of my students at this festival with the people who meant the most to them.

When I got home that night, I showed Travis the gifts we had been given. I wrapped the scarf around his shoulders as he read the card, printed with the words, “Sometimes something wonderful happens to someone special,” and signed simply with the names of some of my Burmese students. He promised we’d try to go to the festival, and I framed the gifts to display in the dining room until the time came to wear them.

 

– – –

 

I began asking my students about the festival again in late January, and even though some of the women weren’t sure if they were going, I talked a couple into going with me. I asked them again if we could wear our Zomi accessories, and what I should wear with it. I asked them if Travis and I would be the only Americans there, and they said yes.

Finally, the day came. After class, one of the ladies stayed behind to verify our plans. She asked if I wanted to give a speech at the festival about ESL classes, and I thought she was joking. Then I remembered that humor doesn’t usually translate well, and I had to politely decline. I couldn’t explain the reasons of my being under-qualified and against contract to speak on behalf of my organization. “Next year, maybe,” I told her.

That evening during the after-school program, some of the middle school Burmese girls played with my hair. They knew I was going to the festival, something they had wanted to attend with their families too, after work and wanted me to look prepared. And within just a few hours, my husband was picking me up from work and we were on our way. The GPS led us to a large building nestled behind a bar and a car parts store on a busy stretch of road in Southeast Nashville. I didn’t even need to text my student. She was already standing outside waiting for us.

We parked, got out, and dressed in our Zomi attire. My student, Sing, came over to greet us. She helped me adjust my scarf and led us to the front door of the building. On the inside, the building reminded me of a Co-Op or one of those buildings they held farming competitions in at the Cheatham County fair. It was simple, well-used over the years, and full of some 300 Zomi people on this evening.

Travis and I—two very white people, one with a righteous beard and the other in a single braid, both donning the attire of a culture we were just meeting—followed Sing through the crowd of dark haired, brown skinned people wearing the same white, green, and red patterns.

As we moved, they watched.

I could feel a quiet in the back of the room where we were. Eyes followed and thoughts wondered. They watched us silently, as we distracted them from the man on stage speaking words I didn’t know. I smiled politely and said excuse me, wanting them to know I was safe. I was here for them. When we finally arrived at the seats Sing and my other student, Lee, had saved for us, people moved further down to give us more room.

The next hour and a half, we sat and listened to a Zomi-speaking man. We turned to Sing and Lee, just to ask: what did he say? We watched the people around us, from babies just months old or men and women who could have raised generations. As we sat, this is what we realized. This is what we would spend the following days thinking about, and what many of our conversations would come back to as we remembered our evening spent at the Zomi Nam Ni festival.

 

About 1,000 Zomi people live in Nashville. Or more, who knows.

Someone asked me a few months ago if all my students are from Mexico. I was taken aback, and admitted that I actually don’t teach anyone from Mexico. They were amazed as I told them about the 7 other cultures that are represented among my students, and how that’s only a fraction of the entire representation of the immigrant and refugee community in Nashville alone. There are far more faces, languages, and places in this world than we often realize.

 

What if I learned the Zomi language?

As I sat listening to a language and had N O  I D E A what was being spoken, I wondered if I could learn it. My mind raced as I thought about the opportunity to provide at least one student with work to be my own teacher, and to find yet another reason to invest in her life. I’ve been told a few times in this line of work, “The most valuable thing you can give someone is your time and your faith.” It’s far more difficult and worthwhile to show someone you genuinely care about the things they care about, and showing up to learn more about them.

 

The Zomi culture will likely die away.

Sing went to the front row of the festival just to ask the leader to come meet me. I shook his hand, introduced him to my husband, and we talked for a few minutes. I praised the festival and the work of my students too. During our conversation, much louder music started and we looked over to see a group of teenage girls performing an Americanized dance in front of the stage. Although they wore the same festival colors, the presentation didn’t look unique to their culture.

The leader turned to me, and commented on the dance, “We have to add more American things to make the young people happy.”

And I honestly wondered how long this culture will survive. I know for many of the people in this room, the opportunity to come to America was a long-awaited prayer and blessing. But it dawned on me: this is now the land their children will know. This is the place they will grow, learn to speak, go to school, make a life. The land where the Zomi culture was birthed and grew into a vibrant tapestry of culture and people has, in many ways, moved. As a result, life in this now foreign land will look different. This land won’t always be foreign to them, and a part of me is saddened by the reality that there is a great chance that this culture will change.

 

Many of these people don’t have friends.

As we sat surrounded by an ocean of people, I turned to ask Sing, “Do you have friends?” She seemed taken aback by the question. “Who do you visit? Who do you talk to?” I asked further.

“Not really,” she quietly smiled. She named a few of the Burmese people she visits often, and of course, her husband and two children. For many of my students, including Sing, their time in English class once or twice a week could be the only opportunity they have to socialize with other adults. Especially with a native American.

Call it arrogant that I believe that my classes could be that special to some of these people, but I remember when my Kurdish student Anne left my class to go back to Iraq last fall. She gave me a beautiful keychain to remember her by, and cried as she hugged me. “You’re my only American friend,” she said.

And honestly, ever since then, there has a been a growing burden in my heart. It’s a burden that is aware of the loneliness of the people I work with. The bubbles they live in as they flock to others who look and speak like them. The isolation of not knowing more than a few. And the blatant truth that there are cultural gaps that deserved to be bridged among the people in this place, starting in this little corner.

 

I’ll never know the feeling of being a minority—even when I am.

When I was in Hong Kong, I journaled often about how I felt like strangers approached me differently there. In all my traveling, and in all the places I passed through, I always felt like they moved over a little more for me and stared for a little longer. I felt noticed. This same feeling followed us at the festival too. People stopped, noticed, moved over a little quicker.

And you know, this is probably the most arrogant thing I could probably ever assume, but I truly believe it is because I am a white American. I’m among the most-privileged, wealthy, educated people to have ever lived in history. I’m not here to get into a racial debate with y’all, but I am here to say that the way my students must feel when they go out as minorities in primarily white places is a feeling I’ll never know. Even when I am the only white person in a room. Even there, I don’t think I’ll understand what it feels to be judged cruelly for my skin color or to feel threatened.

 

We sat in a room of 300+ once-persecuted brothers and sisters.

Of all the words that sounded from the stage, these were the ones I understood: church, brothers, and sisters.

I turned to Sing. She explained, “He is saying that there are many churches in many places, but we are all one. We care for our brothers and sisters everywhere. We cannot forget them.”

When I asked her if every Zomi person was a believer, she almost chuckled as if I was crazy for asking such a thing. Of course they were. That’s why they had run. That’s why they had been pushed away from home. That’s why they were here now. That’s why they’re refugees.

And it dawned on me: I’m sitting in a room of brothers and sisters who have been pushed, harmed, and threatened because of their faith.

Wow. That washed over me and soaked me to the bone. I’ve heard about these people and the stories they’ve lived through, but I never thought I’d sit in a room with such a mass of them on this side of heaven. I wondered what many had seen in their lives, and I wondered if they felt closer the Father because of it. I admired their faith and courage so much more in that moment. And honestly, I think I caught a glimpse of what eternity with them will be like as we sat in that room. I’m eager for the day when we can worship together at the throne.

 

– – –

 

After we left the festival, Travis and I made a stop at Waffle House for dinner. The entire drive there, we unpacked and thought about the time we had spent in that packed room on that busy street with this culture we were only just beginning to know. He grabbed my hand and he prayed, “I’m sorry for the situations that forced them here, but I’m thankful they’re here now.”

 

Amen.

Hair, trauma, and rumors that my husband looks like Jesus.

IMG_8771All student names have been changed in order to protect their safety. 

 

Middle Schoolers Say the Darndest Things

My husband has a pretty righteous beard. And there are two things none of my middle school students have: a husband or a beard. And for whatever reason, the trend this week was to talk about my husband and his beard.

I pulled my phone out at one point during class to text my supervisor a question. Two of the students I was helping were quick to notice the lock-screen photo of my husband and me at are wedding.

One pointed, and said, “Teacher, is that Jesus?” I chuckled and told her no, that it’s my husband. She simply said, “Oh,” as if she was disappointed and truly expected a different response.

The next day, I sat in the gym when a student from another class came to me. She said, “Miss, can I see a picture of your boyfriend?”

“Sure, but he’s not my boyfriend. He’s my husband,” I told her.

She paused and just stared at me for a moment before saying, “……Jesus…. Christ.”

I opened my mouth to respond to her, but she seemed less interested once I told her he wasn’t my boyfriend. That’s still a mystery to me.

And finally, when we got on the bus later, little Tim asked me about my husband too.

What color hair does he have?” Tim asked, and I told him brown.

What about the hair on his face?” he continued, and I told him like black.

What about his eyes?” he asked once more, and I told him blue-green.

I KNEW IT! He’s been at my school before! I saw him before,” little Tim stated so matter-of-factly.

And honestly, I just didn’t have the heart to tell him he was probably thinking of a different guy. So I just kept driving.

 

– – –

Chesa and Ming

This time 5 years ago, I was preparing to cut off 19 inches of my hair. I spent months in prayer over the event, and I wholeheartedly expected God to transform my heart in the process. Back then, cutting off my hair was a symbol of dying to self. It forced me to do something uncomfortable to help strangers, and manifested a spirit of eagerness to give everything within my grasp for the sake of growing in the Gospel and mirroring it.

My hair has grown out significantly since then. And these days, I often find myself sitting in a gym with middle schoolers as students play with my hair. This wasn’t part of my job description when I began working with the after school program, but I’ve gladly taken it. They braid it, take it down, and then French-braid it again. They put it in sleek buns and tie it on top of my hair. They brush it out, and chuckle as they tell their friends in their native language that I have some grays.

And all the while, we just sit and talk. I ask them about school and their families, and they ask about mine too. I ask them about their dreams, and pray for them every second they tell me more.

These are some Burmese girls I’ve really connected with this semester, Chesa and Ming. Our friendship started during my second week of class, when we sat outside and they played with my hair. This week, I learned that they want to live in Florida one day and that one of them wants to be a cosmetologist and the other says her parents want her to be a doctor. As we sat this week, the thought came to my mind: God knows what He’s doing even when I don’t. 

He gives us what we need at the right time. He teaches us the lessons we need and gives us the resources we need when we need it all. 5 years ago, as a new believer, I needed every hands-on lesson I could grasp in order to understand the magnitude of this life I had agreed to live for. I had to learn to not want to hold onto the things I loved, and I had to be willing to die to myself. I needed to cut my hair.

But now, to be honest, I don’t find identity in my physical appearance like I did in my early Christian days. Having long, silky hair isn’t a distraction or something I value as much now as I did then. Actually, I considered cutting it off again a couple months ago just because it gets in my way and causes a headache. As I sat with Chesa and Ming this night though, I realized that most of our friendship centers on our conversation that happens when they play with my hair nearly every week.

I thought cutting off my hair was a ministry some 5 years ago, but now I think it’s a ministry to keep it. Just to give me an easy reason to continue building relationships with my new middle school friends—it’s worth it to keep, despite all its headaches and annoyances.

We kept talking as they kept working, and I told Chesa and Ming, “You know, everyone has been saying my husband looks like Jesus.” I showed them a picture, and they doubled over laughing.

Yes, as annoying as it is, I think I’ll hold onto my hair a little longer.

 

– – –

 

Notes about Trauma

Although I interact everyday with people who have undergone immense trauma, let me be the first to say with complete confidence: I do not fully understand it. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a psychologist. I’m not an immigration expert. I read and studied literary works in college, and wrote way too many papers about it. That’s the extent of my formal education. Everything else I have learned, I have witnessed on the field or in a few hours of job training.

While I’m not degrading my education or work experience, I do need to make it clear that there are a lot of days when the field I’m working in reflects a side of humanity that I didn’t realize I’d need to be prepared to deal with. There are damages to the human mind and soul that I don’t always know how to respond to.

What I know about trauma is that is completely rewires a person’s brain. The ideal environment for these people is shattered. The chemicals and big words I don’t understand within their body are restructured. It causes them to put up walls, build forts, and hide away in places. The only encouragement trauma offers the human body is the empty promise that all people are bad, every situation you’re in is evil, and you must always protect yourself.

I see the effects of trauma daily. This is why I work with the after-school program to teach our middle school refugees what is right and wrong, and that our team can be trusted. However, this week, I saw it in ways that startled me.

In our little circles, we call it shut-down. It’s when a student loses all self-regulation, and stops responding to reason, kind words, affirmation. It’s when they become seemingly empty. And at that point, teaching is impossible. The only thing you can do is help bring them back to their senses.

I’ve seen it in the Somali sisters I work with, even though I didn’t realize it until I went through training for my newest job at the start of the new year. For months, they have shown up late to class. They tell me they’re tired and busy. They tell me the work is hard, although according to the institution tests, their ability is far greater than they let on during class. They blatantly answer questions wrong and don’t listen. And they’ll wind up sitting in class, gazing off into space. Even as I say their name, there’s a blankness in their eyes. They don’t look up immediately.

And then there’s times when they come to class focus and full of energy. They’re on time, and far surpass my expectations with their reading and writing. They are engaged, and I believe them when they tell me they’re happy about English class.

I, like you’re probably thinking now, have wondered before if they are just lazy students and I’m a bad teacher. I’ve wondered if they just need more rest and easier work. But to be honest, I believe I’m dealing with deeply traumatized sisters who don’t always know how to process what they’ve been through or what they’re going through now. Call it a lie, but I truly believe they “shut-down” in class. I think the broken make-up of their brains makes them give up, stop, and completely stop responding to all reason or affirmation. I have no other reasonable explanation for the depths of sorrow and void I see on their faces in these moments.

I saw it in my middle schooler Maddie this week. When she put her head on the table, and when she lifted her head up long enough to let me talk to her, her expression was empty. Her eyes were blank. She didn’t want to hear or respond to a single thing I said.

When I asked her later if she wanted to choose her prize from the prize box for the week she shook her head no, and when I offered her prize tickets she had worked hard to earn, she turned away. Usually, no matter how upset a student is with me, there is no debate about whether or not they will choose their prize. They always, always do.

But Maddie didn’t.

Later, when I finally convinced her to stand up and walk over to the prize box, I wanted to celebrate. I felt like we were finally taking a successful step in the right direction. Literally and figuratively. And for a few seconds, she looked through the box. But almost suddenly, less than 30-seconds, the blank expression returned. I watched the transformation happen right before my eyes, and it shook me.

Here, on the cold tile of a brightly lit room in a church, sat Maddie. At some point in the past, she sat for days at a refugee camp in Tanzania, but today, she sat in a safe place with a box of candy, toys, makeup, and other gadgets in front of her. The only response she could do muster was to sit motionless and expressionless.

Friends, I don’t know how to explain it. My words fall short, but the image of her sitting there remains in my mind and it breaks my heart. Everything I’ll never understand as she does was there in her eyes. There was sorrow, isolation, painful memories, a confusing present. There was an emptiness that, for a second, made me feel hopeless.

The next day, Maddie told me at the end of class, “Miss, I didn’t get to pick my prize yet. Can I choose now?”

I was taken aback. It was like she had forgotten about the entire incident. It was like she didn’t even remember sitting in front of the box yesterday, after denying nearly a dozen offers of me encouraging her to choose her prize.

Honestly, it scared me. It scared me to see how a person—endowed with a soul and purpose made special in the hands of an Almighty God—could sit with so much void and darkness hiding within them. Not that she is evil, but the things that have been done to her are. I could call it nothing but the evil work of the enemy, and I hated him for that in that moment.

 

– – –

 

Sara and Milad

As usual, Sara greeted me early on Monday morning with a smile. Her nearly 2-year old, Helen, smiled bashfully before running to the other room. Helen has gotten used to me. In the past she would run in the other direction without even waving hi or bye. But now, she will stay. And if she doesn’t stay, she is quick to come back. She looks at me with an expression that I can only explain as a shy fascination. She doesn’t bolt away from me anymore than any other toddler I’ve ever met would. And sometimes, she even shakes my hand. Her eyes never leave me and neither does her smile.

Although building a relationship with my students is my first priority, it means so much if I can learn about their families too. Each and every person I interact with is uniquely different—different ethnicity, different story, different family– and it is a huge expression of trust that my students will let me greet their little ones and hold their babies.

The more I learn about the families of my students, the more that I realize: there are so many people to meet. There are friends to be made and strangers to greet—so many of which live in my neighborhood and community.

This week, during out short break during class, Sara served me chocolate cake, lemon cake, and a single strawberry paired with a cup of coffee. As Milad and I waited for Sara to return to the classroom we had spread across the coffee table, we began to talk. In nearly all of our conversations, there is something to be learned, even when it’s communicated in a somewhat broken, mispronounced, incorrect English. Honestly, this is usually the motivation I need to continue going because I’m so eager for the day when we can communicate in full, complete English sentences.

As Milad and I talked, we got on the subject of phones. I always love to hear my students reactions to American culture and lifestyle. Although they speak with the highest respect and kindness toward this new land they are in, I hear it in their voice: this place is different and unlike the home they once knew.

That’s not necessarily good or bad. But it is true.

This time, Milad described to me the people he sees always on their phone. He told me about the people he sees in public, and how their phones never leave their hands. They stare at it, and forget that there are real people standing around them. They choose the photos and typed words on a phone screen before they choose to look up and see the image before the photo is taken and the story in the flesh before its words are typed.

“Their phone is their friend. All the time on it. Too much no good, huh?” he said.

I simply nodded and, against all my training on speaking in complete sentences, agreed, “Too much no good.”

Valentine’s Day, Scooby-Doo, and a huge birthday party.

IMG_8667

All students names have been changed in order to protect them. 

Valentine’s Day

We made cards in my middle school classroom. I explained about this funny day we celebrate on February 14th, and showed my class what a Valentine’s card looks like. Then, we got our hands on markers and construction paper and made our own cards.

Some of my students made cards for friends in other classes, and other made some for teachers at their school. And about half of them made cards for any set of eyes that would care to read them. A couple of the girls devoted themselves to taping them up on the front door of the classroom.

This is what they read:

  • Happy Valentine’s Day everybody
  • Happy Valentine’s Day ❤ you are very kindfully to other people and you are always respectfully. Anyway I would like to say happy Valentine’s day.
  • Have big happy happy I happy Valentine’s happy
  • Saddy Valentine’s Day.
  • My is sister. I love you. I am thankful for you. Thank you for helping me. Love. Thank you for everything.
  • Happy Valentine’s day to everyone. I love you guys. ❤ Happy Valentine’s day to everyone. Enjoy your day guys.

 

– – –

 

IMG_8670

 

Darcy

Do you remember the middle school student I told you about who loves to jump rope? She helped me to jump rope one evening, and promised me that I could do it. Well, her birthday was last week. When I told her my birthday was only a few days after, her face lit up. “Really?” she asked.

When we made our Valentine’s cards in class a few days later, she made one special for me. I hugged it to my chest, and told her thank you.

This is what the Valentine card read:

  • Brianna, your the best teacher that I ever had. I wish that you could stay for ever in after school. Happy Valentine’s Day. Love, Darcy.

Just a few minutes later, she caught my attention again. She held a piece of notebook paper and a small, locked notebook in her hand.

“Miss, this is for your birthday. Happy birthday,” she said, handing it all to me. I opened the notebook paper to see a drawn peacock wishing me a happy birthday. The notebook had a mermaid on the cover, and said, “Always be yourself unless you can be a mermaid. Then be a mermaid.”

It was the first birthday gift I had been given, and one of the most special. The thought counts, and the actions that follow– no matter how big or small—make a difference. I have no doubt little Darcy will make a difference in this world. She’s making one in mine, and I’m supposed to be the one impacting her.

 

– – –

 

Tim

A small, sixth-grade boy named Tim started in our after-school middle school program a couple weeks ago. He’s from Asia, and he’s at that part of growing up where he’s still sweet and isn’t cool enough yet to make my life super hard in the classroom. He’s the only student who lives at an apartment complex further away from his classmates. I’ve driven him home a couple times, and I love getting a few minutes to talk to him quietly. Honestly, opportunities like that don’t come too often in our program. I’m thankful when they do.

This week, when Tim and I began the 10-minute drive to his home, he asked me, “Miss, I have a question: do you like Mario or Scooby?”

“Hmm. I like Mario,” I answered, wondering where he was going with this. It hardly seemed like a fair comparison.

“Really? Why?”

“Well, I liked to play Mario when I was a kid. He lives in an interesting world,” I explained.

It was quiet for a few seconds. I could only assume that he disagreed, so I returned the question, “Who do you like, Tim? Mario or Scooby?”

“Scooby!” he exclaimed, without giving it a second thought.

“Scooby? Why?” I asked him.

“Scooby solves mysteries. And, he isn’t afraid of monsters,” Tim said. My eyes were fixed on the road ahead of me, but I could hear his voice clearly. He sounded happy and excited, and this is something else I don’t get to witness a lot in my middle school students. And again, I’m thankful when I do.

You know me: I romanticize things and make it more poetic. And I knew when Tim answered that he likes Scooby because Scooby isn’t afraid of monsters (which is debatable, ha!), it was beautiful. Everyone has fears lurking in the shadows of their world. We run from them and avoid them. We don’t like talking about them, and many times, we don’t feel like we can fight them. Some people try though, and it’s one of the most inspiring and awesome things humanity does.

Everyone has them. And everyone’s looks different. I have a feeling that the fears and monsters I fight are different from the ones Tim has fought. I wasn’t brave enough to ask, but I have a feeling that he’s come face to face with monsters much bigger than the ones I’ve ever dreamt of. Even though he’s safe in America now, what I do know is that most of his life has been spent on the run. He’s run from monsters, and I have no doubt he’s met them too.

We talked the rest of the drive about Mario’s mustache, and he suggested that I tell my husband to get rid of the beard.

“Maybe you’ll like him without it,” he said. And I just chuckled.

 

– – –

 

Sara and Milad

I know I talk about Sara and Milad nearly every week, but we connect in ways that I don’t experience with many of my other students. I believe we have a special relationship, and I pray that even long after my role as their teacher is finished, I will continue to know them.

This week, they served me breakfast, as they always do. On my plate was a beautiful heart-shaped doughnut, covered in red icing and pink sprinkles. I asked them if they celebrate Valentine’s Day. They looked at me incredulously, “Of course. It’s a love day.”

Honestly, I had decided against teaching my students about Valentine’s Day this week because I knew that many countries around the world have banned the holiday. Out of respect for my students whose religious beliefs might discourage them from celebrating, I chose to forfeit that fight. Plus, I was super excited to teach about American birthdays instead.

I tried to explain this in low, introductory English to Sara and Milad. The world “Muslim” came to my mind, and I decided to go there.

“I know you’re Muslim. I didn’t know if you liked Valentine’s Day,” I told them, curious to hear their response.

There are good Muslims, and there are bad Muslims. We are good Muslims,” they said. They told me they loved to celebrate and parties. Milad went further, “There are many Christians: Catholic, Protestant, Jews–“

I stopped him there. “Only people who believe in Jesus are Christians.” And I think that proved his point.

There are good Christians and there are bad Christians. Same with Muslims,” he said.

I empathized. I understood what he meant. He, in simple English, was making religious comparisons that stretched around the world. And you know, I felt what he said. I felt it deeply.

There are Christians who shame the name of Christ, instead of letting His name shame them. They abuse His Gospel and carry it without much care about who could be watching. They don’t esteem His Words, and they twist it into their own words. They teach what’s wrong, and glorify the gods of their comfort. They speak up when it’s best to be silent, and vice versa. I know, because I’m one of them. Even when I try to be the “good Christian,” there are many days I fail.

And here is my student, talking about a different religion, but still explaining that there are some people who harm the name of what they claim to believe. They do more harm than good with their actions on the altar of their beliefs. And for those who are passionate for the “good” version of their religion, they feel the sting of those who shame the name of what they love.

Readers, I hope everything I write makes it evident that I love Jesus and Jesus alone. However, I also hope these words can show us the similarities we have with people who are so different. I hope we can find a common ground, and a safe place to meet the people we think we could never reach.

I hope we can realize that at the end of the days, we’re all broken people trying to do the best we can with what we’re given. As we all seek the same answers but look in different places, I hope we can find the reality that we’re all in this humanity thing together. And sometimes, maybe the people who look the most different from us are the ones who are more alike than we can even imagine.  

 

– – –

 

 

IMG_8720

Birthday Party

I shared with you all several weeks ago about how I told some of my students that I wanted them to visit my home for dinner. They loved the idea, and even suggested having a birthday party instead. I didn’t think I’d have the guts to go through with it, but once I told Travis, we were sold. All in. Nothing was going to stop it.

I dedicated last week to teaching my students about the basic birthday traditions in America, and the necessary words they need to know too. At the end of each class, I handed them a printed birthday invitation and explained that they were invited to my home for a party with students from all my classes, my family, and my friends.

On Friday night, we made a trip to Sam’s Club for bulk queso and a huge cake. On Friday morning, I left a class and then recorded myself driving into my apartment complex to send to the students who had RSPVed. Finding the address is easy, but finding the apartment number is the hard part.

Would you believe me if I told you that almost half of them came?

I invited 15 students, and watched in amazement as 7 of them came to our home with some of their families. These students were stretched across 4 different classes, and the only people most of them knew were me or their spouse. And then our friends and family began arriving too. There were knocks on the doors, and my parents kept coming to me saying, “I think there are some people looking for you.” They’d motion toward to the door, and I’d recognize familiar faces.

“Teacher, where do we put shoes?” they asked me, stepping into my home for the first time.

And before I knew it, there were Burmese, Kurdish, Cuban, Sudanese and American people piled into our tiny, one-bedroom apartment. We didn’t even have enough chairs for everyone to sit, but I’m not even sure anyone noticed. We ate pizza, we played pin the tail on the horse (seriously- ha!), and sang the most beautiful round of “happy birthday” I’ve ever heard.

Friends, do you know how brave this whole experience was for these people?

I thought I was brave for going out on a limb and hosting a party for such a wide range of people, but the ones who came were the brave ones.

The students who came to an apartment complex they had never seen before, and knocked on a door not knowing who would be on the other side or what they would say—they’re brave.

The friends and family who gave up time on their Saturday to come and meet people they might not ever see again, and can barely communicate with—they’re brave.

My husband who willingly let us budget for a pricey grocery trip to make my dreams of seeing unity among all people and serving them in our home—he’s brave.

All of my students brought me gifts. They brought Easter bunnies, perfume, flannels, house shoes, blankets, purses, a scarf from the tribe of Mara—way more than I deserve or expected. When my dear friend, Sara, handed me the gift as she and her family left, she hugged me tight. “I love you,” she said.  

I held her for a minute and told her, “I love you too.”

It was the party of a lifetime. It was the most tangible reminder of why I labor, day in and day out, to know these people and to seek to build long-standing relationships. It’s difficult, exhausting, and sometimes feels unfruitful. But the start of 23 years old told me that it’s not in vain.

Here’s to a year of more building, unity, loving, serving, and crazy, impossible, mountainous ideas.

I’m their teacher, but when it comes to learning about love and courage, I am their student. God, bless them.