Paperwork, plays, and prayers.

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All student names in this post have been changed in order to protect their privacy and safety. 

 

Nina

I gave up the opportunity to watch the Superbowl to go see a play with some of the 7th and 8th grade girls I work with. And by that, I actually mean that I gave up the chance to see Justin Timberlake do his thing just to spend a few more minutes with the girls I’m seeking to build relationship with. I know what you’re thinking: who gives up a chance to watch a JT performance like that?! But when my supervisor asked me if I wanted to get paid to chaperone for a play, I didn’t consider what I could lose. I wanted to go, and that was that.

And that is what led me to driving a mini bus full of some of the girls in our after-school program to TPAC last Sunday evening. I was nervous about driving with them on the interstate, and navigating downtown too, but it turned out okay. I was worried that many of the students wouldn’t enjoy the play because of the challenge of comprehending a theatrical performance set in a different time and context. But, I prayed in the ride to the apartment complex alone, and asked God to give us a good evening together. I asked Him to keep us safe, and to give the girls the energy and focus they needed to enjoy the play.

Once we got to TPAC, we nestled into our seats. We had a huge bag (literally) of popcorn to keep us satisfied, and we were eager for the show. Finally, the lights went dim and the curtains on the stage were pulled back.

I would soon learn that the student I sat beside, Nina, was fully of many, many questions.

“Is this real?” she asked me a few minutes into the play as I shook my head no.

“Did he call that woman ‘Sir’?” she asked as I nodded yes.

“I see three shadows. Why?” she asked as I pointed to the different lights above us.

And when the slave-girl and her lover kissed, Nina jumped. “Ew! They kissed?! Really? They kissed?” I laughed, and explained that in real life they probably don’t kiss. But for the play on the stage, their characters did. Just this once. Nothing I said could erase the look of shock and disgust off her face as she simply repeated, “Nuh-uh. Really?”

Although her reaction was funny at first, I thought more later: my insensitivity to public intimacy for entertainment should probably serve as an alarm for me that something in our culture is off. But, that’s for a different discussion a different day.

At the end of the play, Nina asked, “How do they do that?” I didn’t know what she meant. I asked her about singing and dancing before I realized she meant their entire stage presence. She was asking me about the performers. She wanted to know how they landed on that stage.

“How do they do that?” she asked again amazed.

I explained how people practice and train to become actors and actresses. They work hard to memorize long sentences in English, and then they dress up to perform it to others.

“I want to do that,” she told me simply, “I want to be an actress.”

I don’t know what’s ahead of my friend, Nina, but I hope she gets to one day. I really, really do. Dreams feel like an American luxury, and I delight in teaching my students to believe in the seemingly impossible, beautiful, bold visions placed in their hearts for a different future. I love to tell them about the possibilities and choices they can make now, because for most of them, they were deprived of self-choice for most (or all) of their lives.

 

– – –

 

Kyle

I gave my middle schoolers assigned tables this week. Although they nearly revolted at first, they’ve continued sitting at the correct tables and have begun to participate in activities with their new groups. It doesn’t sound like much, but this is a huge deal. I’m eager to see how our new set-up continues to challenge them and lead them to more successes.

However, with that, the week was filled with some of the greatest victories, yet hardest difficulties with my student, Kyle. (Check out the last blog posts to hear more about his story.) There were some moments when he took the seating changes like a champ, and other times when he roamed and wandered instead.

At the end of the week, he got upset because I didn’t reward him with an extra point. I explained to him that because he hadn’t listened to me when I asked for his attention, I couldn’t reward that. I promised to give him the point if he listened later.

“We need a new teacher,” he said simply.

Honestly, I wasn’t hurt. I told him that I care about him and the class, regardless of how much he likes me or not. I’ve seen how this story ends: they say they hate you, but on the last day of class, there is sadness in goodbye. I can’t pretend that I’m qualified to speak on why that is, but I do have theories. And most of them center on the fact that middle schoolers are awkward with processing positive feelings.

It sounds crazy, but I’ve reminded myself of his comment a lot this week. I’m still not hurt. If anything, I’m sad that he feels that way right now. But, if his comment isn’t the most accurate picture of humanity and how we treat Jesus, then I don’t know what is.

We dare to look at Him and say, “No, no. Give me a new teacher. I don’t like what you’re doing here.” Whether it’s because he calls us to things that stretch our comfort zone, or maybe it’s because we can’t see Him in the ways we want to. We assume we have the authority to look at Him and tell Him that He’s not enough, and we know better. We are like traumatized, awkward middle schoolers overwhelmed by the burden of figuring it all out. And we look at the only loving, trustworthy Teacher and tell Him “no.”

Suffice to say (for now), I’m learning about the depths of unconditional love and relentless pursuit—even when the people of your heart and burden are bent on running further away into their pain.

 

– – –

 

Too Many People to Name

A few weeks ago, my supervisor at my new job approached me about picking up some extra office hours. Although filing and paperwork isn’t my dream, being faithful to learning more about refugee and immigrant advocacy is.

Since then, I’ve been working alongside the lead office guy to learn more about the ins and outs of immigration paperwork. I feel like an intern in a lot of ways, but I’m enjoying learning about the work that goes into this process. It’s practical, it’s confusing, and it’s going so well that I left my job in retail two days ago just to be able to give more time to the office work.

Everything I do is fill-in-the-blank work. And some of it is detective work. Although my supervisor, meets with the case workers of clients to get initial information from them, it’s usually messy and full of gaps. That’s where I come in. I fill in as much as I can gather. I turn field notes and scribbles into a neat, presentable green card application. Believe it or not, even the most basic information can become confusing on an 18 page application for each individual. But, I study it, make it work, and print it all out. Finally, my supervisor meets with the clients one final time to review the finished paperwork with them and get final signatures before sending it all off to the USCIS.

It’s not unusual to see 8 or 10 cases in a family. But I’ll be honest, cases this large usually come with a unique set of challenges and messiness. And the 10 cases I worked on for one family last week was exactly as predicted: challenging and messy.

Yes, I filled out ten 18-page green card applications. Yes, it took me all week. Yes, there were a ton of gaps to fill in and no, I didn’t do all of it correctly.

What I could gather, and assume, is the total case included a grandmother, 2 parents, and 7 children. Their birthdates ranged from 1949 to 2015. All of the children had been born and raised in the refugee camp before they were given the golden ticket opportunity to resettle in America in summer 2016.

The thing with these applications is they are very detailed. The application wants to know about your birthdate and alien number, it wants to know about your parents (deceased or not) and your children, and it wants to know about where you lived in the past and what your intentions are for the future.

Unfortunately, the grandmother didn’t know any of the birthdays or whereabouts of 5 of her 6 children and the family had spent 20 years in the tents at the refugee camp.

Despite its obstacles, I felt like I had completed and printed pretty accurate copies of the applications for the clients to sign. After my supervisor’s final meeting with the clients, I flipped through the pages‚ just to make one final clean-up of the files before packing them away in the priority mail package.

I came across the application for the youngest baby. The information about her parents was marked out, and in its place was the name of one of the girls I assumed was her sister. I asked my supervisor about it, and apologized for the mix up.

“Oh, yeah. The baby is a granddaughter. Her mother is one of the children. She was raped, and all they know about the father is his first name,” he told me.

“Oh,” I uttered, not really sure of what else to say. He assured me the mix-up wasn’t my fault, and the way he talked about it made me certain this wasn’t the first time he’s come across this.

But I was shocked. There was nothing to put on the line for the father, other than a name. And for the mother, I checked her birthday again. She was born in 2000. And my heart broke when I realized she was only 14 or 15 when she got pregnant, 15 or 16 when she went into labor at the same refugee camp she had been born in. I couldn’t erase the number from my mind as I thought about the tears that must have been shed. Even now, I can’t pretend to know that I understand what this family has gone through.

I’ll be honest, some cases and families I come across are more painful than others. Even just the birthdates and address histories have the power to break your heart. It’s the most black and white evidence that the world is not okay. This one was one of those times.

Reaching for the box with USCIS’s addressed written on the outside, I paper-clipped the health records, applications, and passport photos for each of the 10 people together. I know I shouldn’t because it more painful and personal, but I peeked at each of the 10 photos before sealing them away. The faces staring in each photo were straight, which is to be expected in a headshot of this nature. But even in a 2×2 inch square, I could feel a deep sadness written over each face. In the wrinkles from years of worry and the scars from years of warfare, I saw a history of a people that I’ll never be able to understand. I saw stories of heartache and terror. I saw a mourning for a peaceful, joyous world that we hope for in faith only.

It’s only paperwork, and they’re people I’ll probably never get to wrap my arms around. But, I can’t shake the thought: it’s the most black and white evidence that there is something deeply, painfully wrong in our world.

 

– – –

 

Quiet Time

I heard that Nehemiah spent 3 times longer in prayer than he did physically building the wall. As a goer and a doer, this realization hits me to the core.

It’s hard to sit still. It feels like there’s never enough time. It feels like the burdens to lift up to Him are too numerous to count.

But earlier this week, I got to my classroom early.

I chose to sit still. I chose to make enough time. I chose to take it one burden at a time, starting with the classroom of students I was about to greet.

I can’t say that anything extraordinary happened in the classroom hour to follow. However, I was so aware of the Peace and Love working to create a space of trust in our midst. I watched as my students created some of the most complex sentences they’ve ever fought to make, and my heart was full of thanks for a Father who cares about them abundantly more than even I can.

May this work never be only about English. May this work be a testament to the Love and Light that satisfies the soul in a way that no world-language or first-world country ever can.

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A fake mustache, jumping rope, and some figs.

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Shelby

One of the greatest positive reinforcement tools in the after-school program is the use of tickets. Lots and lots of tickets. We love to reward good behavior, no matter how small or big the steps are. And when a student gets 30 tickets, they get to pick a prize out of the prize box.

My students have two modes: work hard and quietly and get all the tickets. Or run around and get none. Most days there is no in between. We’re working on that.

One of the girls in my class is a small Tanzanian girl named Shelby. She’s so tiny that she’ll fit in a large tote (I know because I’ve watched her do it), but she has one of those kinds of smiles that’ll leave wrinkles around her eyes one day and makes you want to smile too. She’s just adorable. There’s no other way to describe her. She adds so much to our class, and I’m glad to be her teacher.

Well, my sweet student Shelby earned a peek in the prize box on Thursday. She turned in her tickets with pride, and began rummaging through the box. She flipped through Skittles, Frozen notebooks, knitted winter hats, a box of Christmas lights. She passed chocolate and headphones. She thought quietly, and I was beginning to think she didn’t see anything she wanted.

“These,” she said suddenly. And in her hand—of all the things in that small treasure box—was an 8 pack of stick-on mustaches.

“Those?” I asked, a little surprised. She nodded, and walked away. And that was that. I erased her name off the prize list on the board, and turned to finish gathering up the rest of class to go home.

As the rest of the class continued to finish cleaning up and packing up, I heard Shelby’s little voice. “Teacher, why won’t these work? Why are they broken?” I glanced over to see her standing with a mustache in hand, the backing still attached. “Take the white piece off,” I said to her, motioning over the heads of half a dozen students moving and cleaning around me. I felt bad that I couldn’t show her how the white paper protects the sticky part, and I hoped she could figure it out on her own.

In some ways, cleaning and packing up is the hardest part of the day. Don’t ask me how that works. All I know is it’s usually chaotic and loud and still messy after they leave. I’m realizing the hardest balance in this job is giving each student the undivided attention they need from me as a teacher, while also keeping enough focus on the whole class so it doesn’t blow up.

Within a few minutes, it was as good as it was going to get. I had the van key in hand and was heading toward the door as I corralled all the students to get in the line, ready to take them home.

I turned around just in time to see sweet Shelby walking toward the line. I did a double take. I realized that a large, black, handlebar mustache was nestled under her nose. Seriously. Home girl was walking around with a fake mustache on her face and so much chill. It was way too big for her face, and nearly blended in with her skin, but she didn’t even seem to notice. She didn’t have a care in the world, and I smiled because she had figured out how to “fix” it on her own. And also because she’s still adorable.

I hope that I still know her when she’s older. I want her to know that when she was in middle school, she won a pack of stick-on mustaches and wore one home.

I hope she never changes.

 

– – –

 

Darcy

During our time in the gym this week, I played a couple games of soccer-ish/volleyball-ish/football-ish with my friend Millie. But one night, I somehow got roped into… jumping rope.

I saw one of my Muslim students, Darcy, and a friend tossing the rope in the air. I don’t know much about this game, but I do know that with such a long rope, it works best with at least 3 people: two to toss the rope, and one to jump it. So, I ran over to them hoping to be that third person.

“Want some help?” I asked. They smiled and nodded excitedly. I took the rope from Darcy’s hand, and encouraged her to jump. I was surprised by how many times she jumped and how quickly she could. Actually, I was amazed. Jumping rope is not my talent, and I love that there are people in the world who can do it, do it well, and enjoy it.

Some other girls came and left, and I remained at my post, tossing the rope and clapping for each girl that finished.

Darcy, in all her kindness and helpfulness, yelled to me as another girl stepped away from the rope, “You try!” She pointed at me, and I laughed, trying to convince her that I was only there to help. Not to take away from their game.

“I want you to play!” I told her.

“Awh, Teacher, come on. We want you to jump!” she said.

And that was it. I had to open up about my embarrassing confession.

“Well, actually, Darcy… I’m not good at jumping rope. That’s why I want you to play. I’m no good,” I told her.

“Awwwwwh, just try! I’ll teach you!” she smiled, totally unmoved by this confession that I assumed would be the epitome of embarrassment in middle school circles.

What else was I to do? So I tried.

I traded off the rope to another girl, and took my stand in the center of it. Darcy yelled, “Go!” and I began jumping. I made it around one full time before getting my feet in a tangle.

“See? I’m not good at this. Here, you try again,” I told her, trying to give my position away.

“Come on, you can do it. Try it like this,” she said, showing me the perfect jumping height. I tried the jump, and we laughed because I realized how high my knees came in the air and how heavy my feet hit every time. Anyone who has ever called me graceful, has never seen me jumping rope with middle schoolers. My jumps looked goofy compared to Darcy’s quiet, small jumps.

So, I tried again with the rope. My knees were still too high and my feet still landed too heavy. But this time, I made it around 2 or 3 times. As soon as the rope stopped, I tried to get away from it. I gave Darcy every excuse why I wasn’t good enough for it.

“You can do it, teacher. Just try it again. I know you can do it!” Darcy said, smiling. I believed her, so I gave it a couple more tries. And every single time, she encouraged me to keep going because she believed I could do it. She told me so.

At some point, I looked to her and said, “Darcy, you’re my teacher now! Teacher, student,” I said, pointing at her and then to myself. She smiled from ear to ear and giggled, and I knew that there was no way I could ever explain to her how true that really was.

I have learned, and continue to learn, so much from my students—even the littlest of things like learning to jump rope. And I don’t take a single moment for granted.

 

– – –

 

The Big Class

One of my favorite questions to ask my students is this, “What are your dreams?”

It’s a question of reflection and hope. It’s a question of safety that mirrors the face of this nation we live in together. When I ask this question, every few months or so, I do it to remind my students that they’re worthy of hopes, they’re capable of seemingly impossible tasks, and they’re no longer bound to survival mode only. I don’t believe America is the saving grace every person in humanity needs; however, I will recognize that the questions we ask about our future here reflect our liberty and luxury.

My students come from places where their hopes for the future were safety, food, and shelter. They lived to survive; there was not an option to thrive. And for most in America, we don’t have to hope for those things. We assume we have them, and then hope for luxuries. We have what we need to survive, and then we focus on thriving.

When I asked this question this time, they paused. Linda said wants to drive a car one day, and Lucy said that she wants to buy a house.

A Sudanese woman, named Stephanie, looked surprised. She said–

“Teacher, I’m in America. This is my dream.”

Although I’m an advocate for hopes, visions, and dreams for a better future, I’m also learning to be content. My students live with a quiet hope and a genuine contentment. They humble me and remind me that things and accomplishments are not the definitions of our lives.

I will be learning and re-learning this lesson far past my teaching days. I have no doubt.

 

– – –

 

Charity

The youngest Somali sister I teach, Charity, is only 19 years old. She works in a factory every day, and is one of my most faithful students. She’s never cancelled class, and she’s always on time.

I have been teaching her and her sister, Farhia, about jobs. We learned job titles last week, and began looking at job ads this week. The sisters are young, and I can’t see them wanting to stay in their factory job, knowing little English, for their entire lives. I know they want so much more, and in their position, the process of wanting more begins with knowing the opportunities and how to get there.

On Monday, only Charity came to class. I’m always so impressed by how quickly she can learn and use information, and Monday was no exception. At the end of class, she told me so simply, “Teacher, I want to go to college. Next year, I want to go.”

We talked for a few minutes about it. She told me that she wants to be a nurse, and that’s why she wants to learn English. I was honest with her—I told her she has to work hard. I explained that she knows small words, but we want her to learn big words and sentences. I explained that college is a lot of reading and writing in English, and being a nurse is a lot of speaking in English. She’s smart, but there’s still more to learn.

But, I immediately told her that I believe in her too.

“You can do it. I want to help you do it,” I told her. And now, I’m wondering what this task looks like of getting a refugee student’s English to the point of being ready for the university level in the relatively near future. I don’t want to let her down. I believe in her too much to let her down.

 

– – –

 

Sara & Milad

Sara and Milad—my Monday morning class—told me last week they had a food stamp interview, and needed to reschedule the next week’s class. We made plans to meet on Tuesday instead. I’m used to rescheduling for appointments like this, so it was no problem. Just a few days later though over last weekend though, Sara texted to tell me the appointment was delayed. “My dear teacher…” she began the message, just to tell me we could in fact meet at our usual time on Monday. Again, I’m used to changing plans on a whim. It was no problem.

I showed up bright and early on Monday morning, and we began our lesson. I had just finished presenting the new material, part 1 of the 3 part lesson, when the phone rang. Sara answered, put it on speaker phone, and then handed the phone to me.

“Hello, I’m calling from DHS to do the interview,” the voice said.

“Do you have an interpreter?” I immediately asked.

“Can’t you do it?” she responded.

Interpreters get paid upwards of $50 an hour, and for an interview like this, I couldn’t risk my limited ability to communicate in complex thoughts and sentences to hinder the process. I told the woman no. “I’m only the English teacher, and we’re learning how to say the months today,” I told her simply. She got the point. She asked what language interpreter we needed and I told her 3 times: Arabic or Kurdish Badini. Arabic or Kurdish Badini. Arabic or Kurdish Badini.

And just like that, she hung up. We were all confused, because we had understood that the interview would be delayed. We also didn’t know when she would call back. So, we continued on with our lesson the best we could, knowing it could be interrupted at any moment.

Fifteen minutes later, the woman called back again. She asked for the language, and I told her for the fourth time: Arabic or Kurdish Badini. “Okay, hang on,” she said, putting us on hold. We continued our lesson for another 10 minutes to the sound of hold-music playing over the speaker phone. I already knew I’d have to reteach everything we were learning today, because our focus was not on the class. Our focus was on that phone and that somewhat unexpected interview.

The music stopped, and the woman immediately called back. For a third time. This time, she had an interpreter. And I can’t even adequately put into words the chaos that followed in the couple minutes following.

In case it’s been a few years (or since middle school) since you were in a three-way call, it’s overwhelming enough with only 3 native speakers casually talking. And I realized I was about to witness a three-way phone call between a DHS representative, an interpreter, and 2 nonnative people in a formal interview. I honestly just wanted to pack up and leave then.

The woman asked about Sara and Milad’s family—number of kids, etc. She asked about Milad’s job, and he explained that he’s a school custodian. Everything was going as well as it could—until she asked about Sara’s job.

“She doesn’t work,” the interpreter communicated.

“Why not?” the woman said.

“Her language is not good. She studies. We have a baby at home,” they explained.

Well, that’s not enough. She has to have 30 hours of activity a week,” the woman said, her tone changing.

“Oh, English class. She goes to class. She studies,” they responded.

“We need verification of that,” the woman said shortly.

Sara is in two classes: mine and another offered through another organization. They tried to give the DHS representative the address of the other class, and she simply said it wasn’t in their system. At this point, not even the interpreter was helping.

I grabbed the phone, and gave her the address of the other class. The tone changed again, and it became quieter. I wondered why I hadn’t spoken up sooner and why I didn’t even want to speak up now. They probably didn’t even realize I was still there.

“I need the verification forms signed and faxed. Here’s my fax number,” she said. There was a mumbling of thanks and goodbyes exchanged, and the call ended.

And just like that, it was silent in the room. I was already 15 minutes past our class’ end time, but I could tell by the look on Sara and Milad’s face that they knew the call hadn’t gone well. Milad simply said, “We tried.”

I left quietly, ashamed that I hadn’t helped them more and sad that their chances for help from other places weren’t looking good. I didn’t know what to say, other than to encourage them to keep trying and to not give up.

I don’t want to turn this post into an argument about politics, nor is that ever my intention in this field. Certainly, there are political and legal aspects of this line of work, but above that, there are people involved. And that’s what I want to talk about. People and their stories and their feelings and the very things that are woven into each and every human that make us mirror the Image of a God bigger than we are.

However, I can’t help but wonder: what does that phone call say about our system and what does it say about my advocacy?

Sara and Milad obviously can’t afford childcare, nor do they know people nearby who can watch the baby for little to no money. Sara’s language skills might be struggling, but she is taking 2 classes a week to practice. And even though 2 times a week isn’t much, they’re free classes and could be the only ones she’s able to go to with Milad’s work schedule and the 5 children they have.

My students are the most hardworking people; Sara and Milad are no exception. They are working hard in their parent roles, their English student roles. They are working hard to learn a language, learn a culture, build a safe life abundant with opportunity for their children. They’re working without the luxuries of having been born or placed in a place of opportunity; they’re working after they have already worked hard to come to this place of opportunity. They’re doing so much more than a signed verification paper can show.

How can a system step in to literally interrupt one of the couple hours a week that they get to practice what they’re learning—the very thing that the fuss of the phone call centered on—just to say they’re not doing enough?

This phone call hasn’t left my mind all week. For two reasons.

One,

I don’t know understand how it’s so easy to refuse help to vulnerable, trying people. No matter what language tumbles off our lips, no matter whose signature is on the paycheck, and no matter what activities fill our verification form—I don’t understand how we can boil down someone’s worthiness to receive help without considering that maybe the answer won’t fit on a single piece of paper or signature line.

And two,

I wasted an opportunity to help my students in a very real, tangible way. When I was in a moment to speak up, to be a true advocate, I sat in waiting. To be honest, I don’t even know what I had been waiting for. I knew the answer to every question DHS had asked. All I needed was to speak up. But instead, I chose to sit and wait. I regret that.

Before I left, Sara and Milad asked me to sign that verification form. I knew they were several hours short, and they did too. “It’s not enough,” Milad mumbled.

To be honest, I didn’t know how to tell them that it’s not fair. What they’ve had to endure, and what they continue to face, isn’t fair. I wanted to apologize for living in a world that is cautious of hearing a person’s plea for help. And when we do hear it, we’re still reluctant and we complicate it.  

As I looked at that messy paper with too small lines, I didn’t know how to tell them: you are worth so much more than this paper. I’m so sorry we live in a world that lets us believe otherwise.

Learning about marriage, a game of catch, and a really long day.

All student names in this post have been changed in order to honor their safety and privacy. 

Alex and Mary

I meet with a Cuban couple on Saturday mornings. Actually, yesterday was the first time we’ve met in over a month because of the holidays, snow, and moving homes. But, they greeted me with smiles at the door at 9 AM and I set up to finish teaching them the alphabet.

The class is 3 hours long, and these are my lowest level students. Yes, it’s as difficult as it sounds. But, we work hard and accomplish a lot in our time together, and it’s only because they are motivated to do that on their one day off.

My favorite part of meeting with them is seeing them work together. Alex and Mary make an awesome team, and I can’t wait for the day when we can chat in English about how they met and when their story as a couple began.

Alex picks up on sounds quickly. He can correct his mistakes and remember the correction at a really impressive rate. Mary, on the other hand, needs more practice. And confidence. Always, always, always confidence.

This lesson in particular was filled with some hard sounds—Z, X, V (not B!). Our work was cut out for us, and for some sounds, we spent several minutes repeating the correct sound over and over. I was trying to be overly animated in order to illustrate the sound to Mary. I pointed to my teeth and lips, to show her step by step how to form the sounds. I practiced them with her. I made sure my voice was loud enough to be heard without confusion.

But you know what worked better than my certified, well-trained and practice teaching expertise (I say this joking, by the way)? Alex’s help.

“This,” he said, repeating the correct sound.

She’d try, and not quite get it.

“No, no. This,” he said again, repeating the correct sound.

He pointed to his teeth and lips too, repeating the sound. It was the same thing that we had already done, but this time, I got to watch. And he got to be the teacher. She’d follow him, and even though she kept falling short, he’d keep trying.

There are few things in teaching sweeter than not only watching your students grasp the concept, but to see them help their classmates get there too– especially when their classmate is their wife. It is one of the greatest acts of teamwork I’ve seen in a marriage relationship and in an ESL classroom. I was hesitant to commit to a 3 hour Saturday class at first, but Mary and Alex’s encouragement have made affirmed hundreds of times that it was worth it.

I know I’m the teacher, but I learn from my students too. Like this: in marriage, we always work together. We work to encourage each other, and to build one another closer to our goals. We don’t degrade or put each other down even when we stumble. Instead, we move forward together. We always work together. Whether meal-planning for the week, reading a new passage, or learning English, we always work together.

 

– – –

 

Kyle

When I began working with middle schoolers 3 weeks ago, I had 12 students in my class. And as of last week, I now have 15 on my roll. Meaning, my class is at full-capacity. Which is crazy and awesome and challenging and a blessing and sometimes frustrating.

Honestly, my class is pretty great. Most of my students are motivated to practice and eager to learn. I love getting to work alongside them, and encourage them. We celebrate their successes—even just something little, like helping throw the trash away—often. I give them tickets that go toward a future redemption in the prize box, and a high five. I try to never miss an opportunity to tell them I’m proud of them.

I do this because of the psychological trauma each and every one of my students are coping with, whether or not they realize it. The situations they’ve lived through have changed them and the way they think. They’re always on guard, in survival mode just trying to protect themselves. That’s too big a topic for this post though, and I’m no expert. All I know is now my role is to step in and teach them: there is a better way, and this is what it looks like.

There are a couple of students in my class who need, uhm, a little extra encouraging. These are the students who have suffered a greater deal of trauma effects from being a resettled refugee. They’re not bad, they just process classroom settings differently. I really have to work to keep them on track to our goals and tasks. I have to show them a lot of grace. I have to step into messy situations a lot, and there’s a couple of students who are usually at the center.

And that’s where we find one of my most difficult students: a 7th grader named Kyle. He makes me work hard for my money.

He makes messes, and refuses to clean it up when I ask.

He leaves the room without asking, even though our number 1 rule is make sure that teacher always knows where you are.

He plays on his phone, even when everyone around him is studying or doing homework.

Basically, he is almost never doing what he should be doing. And a lot of my energy and attention goes toward attempting to help him get back on track.

Last Tuesday, specifically, was really hard for us. I don’t even know what made it so hard, but there was so much working and motivating and failing and trying and failing again. I’ll put it this way: I got home after 7, and fell asleep (without brushing my teeth or washing my face) within an hour. I didn’t budge until the next morning.

I remember feeling so frustrated and defeated, especially during class. That’s one of the hardest feelings as a teacher: losing confidence in the middle of the class. When you’re the one setting the pace of the class, it’s crucial to know how to keep your confidence level up and to keep going even when it doesn’t feel like it’s going to work. When your hope runs dry, it’s impossible to refill it in the middle of the class. That’s where I was.

Kyle had left the room several times. He kicked the wall (not angrily. It’s just what he does sometimes). He refused to practice his reading or homework. He ran around the room, spilling his juice everywhere. He distracted his classmates.

And there I was, chasing him around. No hope. No confidence. Honestly, no desire to even be there. Not even the coveted Youtube time at the end of class—our treat for the classes who have to wait for the later buses to take them home—could save the day. It felt chaotic, and I just wanted to go home. It was the hardest day I’ve had in a long time.

Not even wanting to try to start conversations in our short free time, I sat down at Kyle’s table. I sat across from him, and as I tried to find quiet for just a moment, I heard him singing.

“I’m no longer a slave to fear. I am a child of God.”

I looked at him. His head rested on his folded arms on his desk. His red hoodie that reads “Lifeguard” was pulled over his head. His eyes looked tired as he stared at the lyrics on the screen. And he mumbled the words of an anthem about freedom from fear.

“You split the sea so I could walk right through it. My fears were drowned in perfect love.”

He continued, and I tried to tell him I like that song too. He didn’t hear me over his headphones, and I didn’t have it in me to try again. I stood up to walk around the room. I didn’t want to cry the tears I felt welling up.

I thought about those words he sang. I wondered if even though he was freed and in a safe place, he still felt trapped. I wondered if he knows that the way he acts isn’t how he was made to live, and I wondered if he felt like the change to something better just feels impossible. I wondered if he felt broken, and if he felt unloved and hated.

I wondered if he thought I hated him too for the countless trouble he’s put me through in the last 3 weeks too. Something in that moment of hearing him sing such a vulnerable song made me believe that he knows something is still wrong, and he just doesn’t know how to deal with it. And I just wanted to cry, because I know the truth: he is a human being made in the image of a wonderful God. He is loved, he is cared for, and he is not a burden to the God who made him.

I wanted to change everything right there. Not to make it easier on myself, but to free Kyle from the chains still hold him down. I wanted so badly to hug him and cry with him. I wanted to tell him that I believe in him, and that I’m here because I care. I wanted him to know that the things he’s seen and the places he’s been are not his fault—it is the fault of a fallen humanity. I wanted him to know that I hurt with him in those hard places, and that nothing he does to cope with the effects of it all could make me care about him less. Most of all, I think I just wanted to tell him that no matter what happens in our class—no matter how many messes he makes or walls he kicks– I do everything for him out of love. Because I want to see him flourish and call it crazy, but I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility.

I drove home in silence that night.

“That song probably hits home with the things he’s gone through,” Travis said. I cried, and he held me. Because I know he’s probably right. And then I fell asleep and slept for over 9 hours. It was the hardest day and the best night of sleep in a while.

 

– – –

 

Millie

On Thursday evenings, we like to spend some time with our middle schoolers in the gym. It’s a great way to close the week: they have a blast, and they get to burn off a ton of energy. Everyone wins.

The first time I was in the gym with them, I sat on the side with a student. But this time, I got up to play. I watched one of my students, Millie, throw a ball and run to catch it herself. Millie is brand new to our program, and is one of the younger girls too. She’s precious, and has become one of the hardest working students in my class.

“Millie!” I yelled, waving my hands. In middle school ministry, this outcome could go two ways: either she accepts and throws the ball to me, or she declines and literally just walks away to do something else. Thankfully, she’s not old enough or cool enough to decline yet. So, she smiled real big and tossed the rainbow bouncy ball at me.

Y’all, homegirl can throw.

The ball went zooming past me, and I ran to kick it back to her. Once I learned how capable her little body was of making me run for my money to chase the balls she threw, I got a little quicker. I’d chase, catch, kick or throw, and she’d mirror it exactly. We were having such a great time, that she decided to toss in a second ball. So basically, there was no rest break. We were chasing and catching and kicking and throwing back to back with no stop.

At one point, I yelled to her, “Millie! You’re so strong!” I pointed to my arm muscles, and she just laughed. I didn’t know if she understood my English, but I hoped the point to the arm muscle was a pretty universal sign for strength.

As we kept playing, I thought more about what I had just yelled. Millie, you’re so strong. Although I was referring to the game of catch, I realized I meant it in a much deeper way. Here was this 5th grade refugee, adjusting to life and school in America, laughing and playing a game like there wasn’t a care in the world. And just before this, she had spent over an hour practicing English, even though she had already practiced it in a school all day. If she was tired or worn thin, she gave no signs of it.

She laughed, she played, and she threw the balls with as much strength as she had accuracy in catching them too. And I couldn’t stop thinking, “Millie, you’re so strong.”

 

– – –

 

The Dream Board

My class made a dream board last week, and I’m eager to share it with you in the next few days. I have no doubt it’ll move you as much as it moved me to help them through it. It’s precious and the most tangible illustration of why I do what I do. Be on the lookout, it’s coming soon.

A lot of snow days and couple classes.

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All the names of the students in this blog have been changed in order to protect their safety and identity. 

 

Last week came and went much more quickly than I expected. When I heard about the predicted winter weather coming to middle Tennessee, I didn’t even consider the possibility of it keeping students out of school for several days. But before I knew it, my supervisors were sending me “school is closed… again” texts one after another as I snuggled on the couch and watched the falling snow outside my patio door.

Although I’m grateful for the break—especially because there’s not another day off until the end of March—I only taught 3 out of my usual 7 classes last week. And 2 of those I taught on MLK day when I was supposed to be off anyways.

I set up a lesson planning office on the loveseat in my living room, and planned the next several lessons and brainstormed the others. I don’t get paid for more than an hour of work when class is cancelled (one of the downfalls of my freelance teaching position), but if nothing else, I thought about my students every day as I prayed over our classes and hoped that the lessons in the coming semester would challenge them to continue learning and growing.

 

– – –

 

Sara

When I came to the door of the Kurdish couple, they greeted me and invited me to sit on the couch as I pulled my shoes off at the door. However, her husband, Milad, quickly explained to me that the van was broken and needed to go the mechanic.

“Today appointment.  Van is no good. Have to go. Come back here,” Milad explained. It sounds crazy, but I knew exactly what he meant. And after a couple minutes of asking comprehension checking questions and repeating the story, I knew I was right. He had made an appointment in the middle of our class time and didn’t want to disappoint me by canceling.

I began to teach, but only made it 5 minutes into the lesson before his phone rang. It was the mechanic, and it was time for him to go. Knowing he’d be right back, I totally paused the lesson, thinking it’d be a 15-minute wait tops.

His wife, Sara, and I sat waiting. Although she scores higher on our English exams, her conversational skills are not as built as her reading and writing. She’s one student that I’m specifically working to encourage and build confidence. Which, honestly, is half the hard work of learning a new language.

Fifteen minutes came and passed. We waited 20, 25 minutes as the clock continued to move. Although she had offered breakfast—the usual Doritos and cake– early into our waiting and we talked some, I wondered what I should say to her next. Call it crazy, but sometimes I run out of ideas too. Sometimes I still get surprised or timid in situations, and am not sure what to do. Unfortunately, this was one of those times.

I glanced at her phone, and saw her on Instagram.

“Oh, Sara! You have an Instagram?” I asked her, pointing at the phone. She smiled and told me yes, and that she liked Instagram.

“I do too!” I smiled, and she laughed.  I asked if I could find her and be friends, and she continued to giggle as she spelled her username.

“Oh, I found you! Do you see me too?” I asked her excitedly.

“Yes!” she continued, “I’m happy. American friend.” She scrolled through her followers and faced the phone screen to me, explaining to me.

“Kurdish, Kurdish, Kurdish, Kurdish,” she repeated, almost frustrated. And then she got to my profile picture and username and smiled, “American. American friend.”

She patted my knee, and we continued to smile and giggle like teenage girls. Maybe it was the happiness of the moment, but when I looked at her, she looked nearly in tears.

And I’m not surprised. I can barely imagine how lonely it must feel to not have one single native friend or companion in a foreign land that you’re trying to learn. I imagine that even though it’s a blessing to have some Kurdish friends in America, it’s a reminder of the land and the home they left behind and miss every day. When they scroll through their timelines and feed, they see the familiar faces and names of the ones they love back home. When they meet a fellow Kurd, just learning the way in a foreign and prejudiced land, it’s just a reminder of what they left behind and how hard it is now.

 

So no, I’m not surprised she was in tears over finding an American friend on Instagram. What’s even sweeter is the chance to be her friend in real life too. I’m so eager for the coming days when we can talk more than we ever have before. I have no doubt it will come.

 

– – –

 

Sing and No

 

Sing and her husband came to America nearly 5 years ago. They were resettled in Colorado where they were married. Shortly after, they wound up in Smyrna, Tennessee. Although the husband knows decent English, Sing is still a lower level student. And that’s when I came into the picture.

Sing and her husband are believers. I didn’t even need to ask them. I could tell by the light and love they radiated when I met them, and by the end of our first class together, I was staying late to talk about church with them. Sing and I have very small conversations, and we work very hard in our class. Her husband, No, is always faithful to ask how she’s doing at the end of our meetings. Even more so, he is always faithful to ask how I’m doing. They love to know how marriage is, and how church is going.

I hope in the future I can share more of our past conversations. For now, let me just share one thing that stood out in my conversation with the couple last week.

This particular class was my first class with Sing in a month. I had originally planned to return to class in early January, but decided last minute to take full advantage of the extended break my supervisors had given me. The day I wanted to return we were snowed out. So here I was, in the home of this Burmese couple, apologizing for the missed classes.

“It’s okay. Are you okay? We know you work hard. Teaching is difficult, and now you are married. You need to rest. Don’t worry about the missed classes. We want you to be safe in the snow, and to be well-rested. Don’t worry,” No told me. The selflessness of the people I work with always astounds me.

We talked for several more minutes, and then I began reaching for my coat and backpack.

“Oh, by the way, Travis and I would still love to have you all come to our home for dinner. Any Saturday evening will work for us, if you would still like to,” I said to No, reminding him of a conversation we had at our last class. He checked his calendar and said that the upcoming Saturday wouldn’t work because of a church event, but any of the days after would be alright.

“Maybe February 3 or 10th?” I suggested, “February 17th isn’t good. It’s my birthday, and I’m not sure what our plans are.”

His face lit up. “Your birthday? On February 17th? Let’s do it then!”

His smile was huge, and I thought surely he was joking. But he continued, “In America birthdays are special. You have cake, and spend time with your friends and family. Why not do it once? Why not have a special celebration with your friends and family at one time? We want to come on your birthday. It will be a good day. We want to celebrate.”

I laughed, and told him I needed to talk to Travis because he might have a surprise planned for me and I wasn’t sure. Although I wondered how I would host a birthday party—something I haven’t done in years—No wasn’t thinking about the food, the cake, the ice cream, or the balloons. He was only thinking about the joyous opportunity to spend celebrating the life of a friend. I learned later that his country doesn’t celebrate birthdays.

So, my friends, I might be having a birthday party soon and inviting all of my students. We haven’t decided for sure yet, but I’ll keep you posted. It would certainly make for a story, and memories that I won’t soon forget.

And that sounds awesome.

 

 

 

 

New friends, resolutions, and simply okay.

FullSizeRender 2All student names in this post have been changed in order to protect their safety and identity.

 

Sara & Milad

After a too-short Christmas break, I came back hitting the ground running on a Monday morning. My first students of the week are an Iraqi couple named Sara and Milad. Usually, any hard feelings I have toward Monday mornings dissipate once I step in this couple’s home. They have become friends to me, and I’m so eager for the day when we can share more in-depth conversations.

I still remember our first class together. I told the couple we would only be meeting once a week, and their faces dropped. “Only Monday?” they asked. I explained that many people want English class, but there’s only a little money to pay good teachers. So yes, only Monday. They were disappointed, but still thankful for any chance to practice with a native speaker.

We began our lesson, and stopped halfway through to take our short break. As usual, Sara left the room to prepare a small breakfast in the kitchen. While Milad and I waited in the living room, he shared how badly his head and eyes continued to hurt.

“The air here is no good. Allergies,” he explained. I nodded my head in total understanding.

“Many people have allergies here. I’m sorry you do too,” I told him. He showed me the medicine he has been using, and I recommended some others, saddened by his eagerness to continue coming to class despite how badly his head hurt.

I wondered if the stress of resettling here in Tennessee caused him to feel sick also. There’s a lot of stress in moving, but especially in moving to another country with 4 children. There are bills to pay. Jobs to work. Roads to learn. Schools to enroll in. A language to learn. A new culture to adapt to. That gives me a headache just thinking about it.

I showed him the word “stress” on Google Translate, and he said, “Yes! Stress!” I suggested he get more sleep and encouraged him not to worry, knowing that would be easier said than done.

We were quiet for a moment. The TV on the other side of the room was muted, but I watched the video and studied the Arabic scrolling across the screen. Other than kids’ shows to keep the toddler entertained during class, I had never seen anything other than Iraqi news played on that TV.

“What’s happening?” I asked, motioning to the TV. I ask this every week, curious to see how Milad will fight to explain it in my language. He always tries, but some stories are easier to describe than others. This week, he couldn’t communicate it well enough. I’m not surprised—it looked pretty messy.

He was able to share with me about the war. He told me that everyone is fighting, and it’s not good. I asked him about his country specifically, and he reached for his pencil and paper to draw a picture for me. This is the second Iraqi person to do this for me. The Kurdish (or Iraqi) people I know take a great deal of pride in their heritage.

He drew an oval, calling it Kurdistan. His country. He explained that there was war and fighting, and everyone got a piece of his country. On top of the large oval representing Kurdistan, he drew 4 smaller ovals. He pointed to each one, “Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria,” he said. His family was from the Kurdish region in northern Iraq. I understood that Kurdistan is no longer a nation, but an ethnic group of people displaced across a region because their nationality—at some point in history—was changed.

Even though I’ve seen this map drawn out a few times, it still makes me pause every time. Even though I’ve attempted to read about the history several times, it still makes my head spin.

They used to have clear-cut lines to prove they were a people standing together as a nation. And at some point, that all changed. Those lines were erased as others where they would go. Now they’re a group of people carrying the name of the heritage proudly, no matter where they live. My students are Iraqi. But they were Kurdish first.

I’m hopeful that one day Milad and I can have a more in-depth conversation about this. I have many questions to ask him. But there was no time, as Sara arrived at the table with hot coffee and a spread of wonderful snacks—lemon cake, chocolate cake, vanilla wafers, and Doritos.

 

The Sisters

There are 4 adult sisters who live at an apartment complex down the road. Three of them live together with their aunt, grandmother, and father. The other one lives at another unit with her husband and 5 children. The two sisters with the higher-level English skills, Charity and Farhia, are the ones that come to class regularly, although I desperately wish the other two would come too. One must work during our class hours, and I think the other one gets overwhelmed easily at her lack of skill. Even so, I know the names of all of them and try to never miss an opportunity to encourage them, whether or not they come to class.

The sisters’ grandmother lives with them. I don’t know how old she is—maybe I’ll ask during class tomorrow. At any rate, she’s very, very, very, very old. Deep wrinkles cover her skin, and although she usually wears a hijab, I’ve seen her on days when it’s taken off and revealing wiry, aged hair. I’ve never seen her eyes before. They’re always closed. I’ve also never seen her standing or walking on her feet.

I see the old woman at every class. When it’s warm outside, the grandmother is sitting under the tree in her wheelchair. Sometimes the aunt is sitting with her. The aunt’s face will brighten, “Hello, Teacher!” she’ll shout, waving from across the lawn.

It’s winter now though, and the grandmother is always on a pallet in the dining room. In place of the wooden table most would expect to see, there is a thick pile of pillows and blankets. And when the grandmother isn’t in the wheelchair, she’s on the pallet. Oftentimes she’s sleeping. But other times, she’s awake. I can’t tell by her eyes, but I can hear her the sounds she makes. They’re pained moans and a strained voice. I’ve never seen the aunt sitting because she is always caring for the grandmother.

Sometimes when the grandmother is having a hard time, Charity or Farhia will stand up to help move the aunt move her to a more comfortable position. Other times they giggle at her from across the room. I’ve never been able to understand the situation the grandmother is in, but I gather it’s not good. But maybe it’s not so bad—especially on the days when Charity or Farhia chuckle.

Almost every time one of these spells happen, I’ll ask one of the sisters, “Is she okay?”

“Not okay, teacher. She’s very sick. No good,” the say.

And I never know what else to say, so I usually just say, “I’m sorry.”

 

 

Abana

One of the spunkiest middle school students I teach is a Tanzanian girl named Abana. Her English is great, and she’s unafraid to ask questions.

“Miss, do you live in an apartment or a house?” she asked I drove the mini bus carrying her and 13 classmates home.

“Apartment,” I said.

“Really? Do you live in an apartment because it’s cheap and you don’t have enough money to live in a house?” she implored.

“Yes. That’s exactly it,” I stated.

“Oh. Okay,” she said, turning to another conversation.

In her language, “okay” feels more sincere. Meaningful. I’m never offended when I hear a person of her language simply say “okay.” It feels like enough, which is interesting since it feels like the most common, overused word in the English language.

One day at the end of class, our class had been granted the highly esteemed “YouTube Time” as we waited for the bus to pick us up. I walked past the dozen screens in my room, and mostly saw African songs and dances playing. As I glanced at Abana’s computer, I stopped.

She was listening to the song “Testify” by Needtobreathe.

I knelt down beside her. I wanted to instantly believe she was a Christian, but I didn’t want to jump to conclusions. In work like this, you can never jump to conclusions. I told her I liked that song, and when she didn’t believe that I knew it, I sang the words. She smiled, probably unsure how to respond. I asked her why she liked this song.

“I’m a Christian. Why shouldn’t I like this song?” she said so boldly and quickly. I admired her faith immediately.

“Oh, Abana. Wanna know something? I am too. That means we’re sisters,” I told her.

She smiled, and told me to prove it. She started a new search for another song. Typing capital G, she was offended by the lowercase g’s in the search bar.

“Why are these little? God is a big G,” she mumbled. I chuckled, but she didn’t notice.

She played “The Creed” by Hillsong. I told her I knew the song, and prayed I could remember the lyrics. I sang the words to her as she covered the screen.

Smiling, but still not satisfied, she searched for “Who Am I?” by Casting Crowns. I told her I enjoyed that song too. She covered the screen once more, and I used my hands as blinders around my eyes. I sang the song.

She smiled, and simply said, “Okay.”

 

 

The Big Class

The largest class I teach meets in a classroom at an apartment complex. Our Christmas break was the longest I’ve gone without seeing them. It was a long, yet much-needed 3.5 week break for us.

As we got back into class, I showed them the weather forecast for the weekend. I showed them the snowflake on my screen, and they were eager to know what time the winter weather was predicted to come that weekend.

“I want to see snow,” Lwin smiled. I hadn’t thought about it, but yeah. I guess most of them have probably never seen snow before. And boy, even though I knew much wasn’t predicted to fall, I was so excited for them. Whether it was 10 inches or half an inch, they would be equally grateful. That’s the beautiful thing about them.

We meet twice a week, and I took both days as an opportunity to learn about a cultural aspect of America: New Year’s Resolutions. Not only did they learn some great vocabulary and another funny thing about the way we celebrate holidays, it also gave us a chance to think about what resolutions look like for not only ourselves, but other people too.

For homework, I challenged them to write resolutions for their spouse, their best friend, their teacher, and the president.

This is what they shared:

 

  • Your Teacher
    • She is going to giveing us lesons.
    • She will teach us today.
    • She’s going to explain a leson. (Yes to all of that.)
    • She’s going to help other people.
    • She’s going to travel to another country. (I’m praying about that!)
    • She is going to sleep early. (Oh, I really really really hope so.)
    • My teacher will teach me clearly.
    • She is going to make us perfect in English. (crying)
    • She will give us good knowledge. (still crying)
    • She teacher has virtue in the life of every student. (STILL CRYING)
  • The President of the United States
    • He’s going to visite TN.
    • He going to stop war in the world.
    • He will be nice to other people. (Praying for that.)
    • He is going to donate.
    • He is going to make peace in the world.
    • He will be the good lawyer. (I think we wanted to use a different word here??)
    • He is going to stop war.
    • He will develop USA country.
    • He’s going to make America great again. (LOL)

 

I teach the most hopeful, gracious, forgiving students in the whole world. I don’t think they would dare think an evil thought about me or the president, despite our flaws and imperfections. They literally love America and the people here.

I just pray they never watch the news to hear the highlight reels of the President’s conferences or learn what Twitter is.

 

 

Chesa, Ming, and Nyan

The hardest part of middle school ministry? Making friends.

My first week on the job has been difficult, and the kids are really testing my patience. When our last day of the program for the week neared, I was ready to rest. Thankfully, we were able let the kids burn a lot of energy off outside. Although tossing balls and running looked like fun, I noticed a girl by herself on the side. I walked to her, and began talking. I was surprised by how easy she responded and how she asked me questions too.

It was like she wanted to have a conversation too. A middle schooler who wants to be my friend? An old married lady? It was a God moment.

We talked for several minutes as we watched her friends toss a ball in the distance. I was enjoying the quiet conversation as we talked about our 9-year old sisters, talked about school and college, talked about English classes. Her friends barreled to us just a few minutes later, and I began repeating their names over and over: Chesa, Ming, and Nyan.

We all talked and laughed together. Nyan began to braid my hair and Chesa wrapped her arm around mine. I showed them a picture of the scarves, hair bows, and necklace some of my Burmese students gave me a while back. In unison, all three girls gasped.

They began talking excitedly and we looked at pictures online. They told me about the Zomi festival, and told me exactly how to wear the gifts I had been given. They told me about the food at the upcoming festival and the dances the people do. I asked them if I was allowed to come, and they told me yes without hesitation. I continued asking them questions about their culture, just because I could tell they were really enjoying teaching me.

Later that evening, they went out of their way to find me and give me a hug. And just like that, I had 3 new friends.

 

 

 

The stories of my friends, neighbors, and students.

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I’ve introduced myself to a lot of new people lately– the hiring manager I never heard back from in December, the Senator I contacted this morning, the Asian doctor who prescribed me antibiotics last week.

Hi, my name is Brianna Persinger and I’m an ESL teacher in Nashville,” I tell them, give or a take a different word or two.

It’s a pretty simple greeting, but it usually sparks a further conversation. I’m finding that people usually have a lot of questions about my job. Especially when I tell them I teach English to adult refugees and immigrants from 9 different countries.

Here’s the rundown:

My students cannot afford English class because the vast majority of them came to the States as refugees. Some have been here for a few years, but many of them have been here around 12 months. I’m employed through the same institute I received my TESL certification from last summer, and my entire paycheck comes out of grant and donor support. The branch I teach in is the only entirely nonprofit branch of the institute.

I teach one large group class that usually sees 8-12, depending on the day, at a local apartment complex. However, most of my teaching is in small groups. I go to 4 different homes in Southeast Nashville, where I meet with couples, sisters, and cousins. They invite me to their living room, offer me coffee and water, and we practice English.

It’s hard work, honestly. I have to keep up with a timesheet in order to get paid, and I have to work untraditional hours. Sometimes I leave class smelling like food I can’t even pronounce, and I have to carry my entire classroom around in the same Patagonia backpack I carried to Hong Kong. Even beyond that, a lot of unpaid studying and planning goes into this field. Sometimes I have to brush up on my own grammar or study out the reasons why we Americans say some of the stuff we do. Other times I need to learn more about the countries my students are from and the difficulties they’ve faced.

And all of the time, it’s a process of learning how to be a more effective teacher for my students and a more compassionate friend. There’s no way a teacher ends up in the line of work without a deep passion for people and a willingness to die to self in order to serve others.

Last week, I started a new job with a local agency that helps refugees and immigrants become generationally self-sufficient. When it’s time for the resettlement agency to step away from a newly arrived refugee, this agency steps in to continue the work of building a life of sustainability. A lot of the work of this group centers on adults.

However, there is one program for middle schoolers. And for whatever reason of my Father’s leading, that is where I have landed. Now, I have a class of 12 6th-8th grade refugees. One of them is from Sudan, and the rest are from Tanzania or Democratic Republic of Congo. They have all been here for around a year. Although they’ve quickly picked up English in their schools, they still have a long way to go. On top of learning a new culture, country, and language, these students also are dealing with the effects of trauma. You know, because a child doesn’t spend their life living in “temporary” tents and camps, with no definite end in sight and true protection from war, without leaving unscarred.

And as if that wasn’t enough, they still have to endure the painful awkwardness of growing into an adult body.

And for whatever reason, I found myself meeting these students for the first time this week at an after-school program designed to help them with homework, literacy skills, and community building. Half of my job is to simply drive a mini bus to and from their school in order to get to our program, and to and from their home when it’s over every night. The other half of my job is to serve as a lead Youth Success Coach, our fancy word for teacher, and lead them in classroom activities. And every part of this job deals with classroom management and proving to the kids that I am on their side, eager to see them thrive in this city they had probably never heard of until they learned they were being given a chance to move to America.

 

– – –   

 

The idea:

I’m leading a life I never dreamt of leading.

I never thought I’d be bold enough to step into the home of a stranger—not just one time, but day after day.

I never thought I’d be thoughtful enough to take my shoes off at the door of my host, and I never thought I’d be humble enough to accept gifts and meals I didn’t ask for.

I never thought I could love a person I had never met or care about wars in places I’ve barely even seen picture of.

I never thought there was more to learning and teaching English than just a few words.

I never thought I could hear the word “refugee” and feel a deep need to stand up in defense.

But I do now. For the past year a half, my heart has been broken and restored. Every. Single. Day. The things my students do and the conversations we share leave me in awe. I get to witness details about humanity. And every day, I grow in love for the people I work with, the stories they bear, and the God who brought us together.

Let me be quick to say that I’m not bragging. I don’t believe I’m in some higher position than you. Honestly, my position is low. If we’re talking about the wealth, power, and prestige our culture craves, I’m very low. Refugee and immigrant advocates don’t get that kind of money. ESL teachers don’t get that kind of fame.

Even so, there’s a passion moving in my heart, and I’ve never felt compassion and unconditional love the way I am learning today. Most assuredly, these are the plans of a God who knows the name of every student and knows every step they’ve taken on this earth. Undoubtedly, if I care for them a lot, He cares for them infinitely more.

Although I’m speaking from a place that is aware of my lowly title, it is also unique. It is counter-cultural, working against much of what our nation desires and confusing many people who don’t understand.  And I have never felt more eager to tell you the stories of my students.

I want to start a conversation. Too much is at stake in millions of refugee and immigrant lives around the world—thousands of which live in my sweet city of Nashville—to remain silent. The problem is I haven’t found a good way to do it. Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are tools, but they’re not enough. These stories deserve something bigger.

Here’s my promise: I’m going to turn my field notes into short stories to post on this blog. Every. Single. Week.

Some will be only a few sentences, other might be paragraphs. Whatever is in the store for the weeks ahead, I’m open to it. I’m eager to share it. I’m willing to put in the work to do it. And I’m hopeful that you’ll join the journey with us.

Even if you say, “No. I don’t care what you have to say about refugees.” That’s fine. It sucks, but I get it. This is a hard topic that has caused a lot of division.

However, I would implore you to step into the divide alone and seek out the truth of these people in other reliable places. Find the real stories. Listen to the truthful voices, not the loud ones. Find conversations that are uncomfortable. Let them stretch you. Don’t be afraid of the unknown. Go into a new place with an open heart. Consider the way of Jesus. I dare you to try and make your life fit with the words He gave us.

Even if it’s not on my blog, I pray you would do something good and loving that matters in the world.

For me, I have found the most reliable and good work has been in my neighborhood of Southeast Nashville where I make a living and meet awesome people. I spend hours a day pouring into their lives, and leave fulfilled because they pour kindness and hope right back to me.

These are the stories of my friends, neighbors, and students. I believe in them, and I hope you will too.

Storyteller.

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We were made to be storytellers.

 

There’s something woven in each and every one of us that makes humanity purposeful. We’re made for so much more than waking up, clocking in, clocking out, sending a few Tweets, using a few filters, and going to bed just to wake up and do it all again.

 

We’re made to tell a story, and we’re made to live in every line of it.

 

It’s easy to pass over. The cover looks plain, battered. Like it’s been read thousands of times and passed along thousands of people. But on the pages, nestled between the well-worn pages, is a story about love. Hope. Grace. Relent pursuit. Forgiveness. And more love—so much more than we can imagine.

 

So what is the story?

 

It’s about people who were created to live in a relationship centered on love—but not just any love. It was the kind of love that didn’t hurt or abandon. It didn’t run out or embarrass. It was perfect. It was everything we’ve ever desired.

 

But, the people weren’t content. They became insecure and doubted their story. In some ways, I can’t blame them. It must have felt too good to be true. In their unhappiness, they strayed far from the One who loved them most.

 

They hurt the One that gave them protection.

They left the One who gave them the love they needed.

They ran out on the One who wanted to be close.

They willingly handed over everything you and I were made to desire.

 

And then they wandered off into a cold world alone.

 

Along the way, many brave men and women spoke up. Many of them did courageous things because they missed what they had lost. They hungered for protection and love. But, many, many more spoke up in a different way; they did everything to keep their distance. I wonder if they ever thought about that initial decision to run away from Him. Like, if they blamed their parents for creating such a mess. I want to sometimes—but then I remember I’m just like them. I struggle with doubt and wondering what’s better on the other side too. And to be honest, I probably would have ended up doing the same thing. Our story is the same.

 

The problem is, we couldn’t find our way back home. As we wandered and attempted our own plans, none of it could measure up. We wrote a story where every page desperately cried out for love and grace—but it fell silent. As we rummaged for our maps and books and tools, we tried halfheartedly to find that way back home.

 

It was like being on the opposite cliff. You can hear Him. You can see Him, a little speck on the other side of the massive gorge separating you two. He feels close, but still far. As He shouts your name across the expanse, fear sets in because you realize you’re alone– but this isn’t something you can do alone. You need help. You need a miracle. You feel hopeful yet hopeless all at once. You pace back and forth, thinking, “There must be a way, there must be a way.”

 

No bridge could be built to cross. There’s not enough nails, wood, time. You’d splinter and tear your hands for naught.

 

What you didn’t realize is that He, still standing across the canyon shouting your name, is relentless. As we wrote the chapters to a story that led us to stand alone on a cliff, He was editing behind us every step of the way. He was at work in our story. He told us that too—uncountable times. We’re just too stubborn to listen. He showed His power to redeem the bad situations we found ourselves in. He used our bad decisions to pen something more beautiful.

 

“Hm. Let’s change this sentence to this. No period here, semicolon. This one is just bad altogether, let’s fix it. Oh, but this one… this is one we can use,” he muttered. Sometimes we understood what He was up to, but most times, we didn’t. But that’s okay. He was working things out and that’s where we found our hope.

 

The story was leading to the climax—the part that everything centered on. Instead of only hearing His shouting from across the valley, we would feel Him take us into His arms as he whispered, “Welcome home.” That’s what He was working too. That’s what all the editing and rewriting was about.

 

And sure enough, just as He had promised, our help came. On a night that we call silent and holy, when a star shone brighter than any other, He came. Lying in a feeding trough for animals, a newborn baby was nestled in swaddling cloths. His teenage mother and unmarried father gazed upon Him with adoration. Kings looked for Him and people hated him.

 

Something in the world changed that night. And this was the beginning of our “Welcome home.”

 

This baby grew. He grew to become a carpenter and miracle-worker. He was wise and thought-provoking. He unashamedly lived out the purpose He was sent for. And He changed everything about that story.

 

The beautiful thing is He came in grace. Love. Forgiveness. Hope. Relentless pursuit. And more love. This wasn’t a contract we’d sign, promising to never mess up again. This wasn’t a guilt-trip over the silly, embarrassing places we’d landed in. This wasn’t a pay-to-receive type of thing. He didn’t want anything from us. Because the reality is His love for us was deeper and wider and fuller than the valley that had separated us.

 

He simply wanted to welcome us home.

 

And this was what every line in the story led to: the receiving of a gift. Not broken bridges or splintered hands. We were finished with proving ourselves. In its place landed a gift, without conditions or guilt, handed to us from the hand of the One who loves us most.

 

He poured everything He had into this gift. He had been so excited to give us this gift. Actually, He had told us about this uncountable time before this. Like a kid keeping a secret, He was giddy to tell us. And He had hinted at it for centuries. But we were busy and didn’t hear it.

 

Finally, the moment came when He handed this long-awaited gift to us in plain, brown paper and told us, “It might not look like much, but I’ve waited years to give this to you. It’s the most precious thing I have, and I want you to have it because I love you. I love you so much, that it is worth giving up my entire treasure.”

 

And all he wants is for us to accept it. No payment. No rehashing of all our embarrassing stories. No explanation of why we ran. Only yes.

 

::

 

My brothers and my sisters, this is the what the songs are about. When we sing this week, and when we pass gifts, and when we exchange a smile with a stranger—this is why. We are celebrating that the plans of Love were accomplished. We are celebrating our “Welcome home!” We are praising the Author who crafts stories that change the world.

 

And to those who carry this plain, brown paper gift daily: our songs are being sung. Our stars and angels are being placed on the tops of trees. Generous, kind gifts are being given, but none can compare to the endless love of the baby in the manger that would grow into the man who would walk to His death in order to restore humanity back to the One who loved us most.

 

This is our week.

 

This is the week of our Savior, church.

 

This is the week, more than any other week in the year, when a lost nation utters the name of Jesus while singing about joy and peace.

 

I’m not sure that I can rightfully say that this week centers on us. But, I can say it centers on Christ. And if He is all that we claim Him to be, then it is an honor to tell His story of relentless, unstopping love this week. After all, we were made to be storytellers.

::

 

“Light of Life dispel my darkness

let Your frailty strengthen me

let Your meekness give me boldness

let Your burden set me free

oh, Immanuel, my Savior

let Your death be life for me”