All 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.
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.”
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.