I teach English as a Second Language in a large American elementary school, the kind of school that is so large that a smile may be all I can offer some of the children. This past summer, I spent a month in Mexico, trying to learn Spanish. I learned new words and grammatical knowledge, but I also learned to see my ESL students through new eyes. Surprisingly, my Mexican summer brought to mind a poem by Emily Dickinson. These are lines for every teacher to ponder: They might not need me--yet they might-- / I’ll let my Heart be just in sight-- / A smile so small as mine might be / precisely their necessity.
I lived in the beautiful state of Oaxaca, where everyone has native roots, a strong cultural history, and a family of artisans and legends. It’s a place of warm, sunny adobes, where rounded blue mountains nurture a love of color and music. But it is also a poor place, and some people harbor resentments. They do not necessarily extend a fond welcome to Americans; their minds--like ours--are filled with the peso crisis, NAFTA, and Proposition 187.
My first experiences in Mexico were not good ones: I had a layover in Mexico City and set out to do some sightseeing. I was quickly overwhelmed by pollution and shortchanged by a cab driver. I saw nothing but the cathedral and returned disillusioned to the airport.
Many hours later, I finally arrived at the door of the family I was staying with in Oaxaca. They were having dinner, and I washed up and joined them. I knew enough Spanish to ask for some things, but I did not understand everything said to me. I often responded with a puzzled look and a sigh of frustration.
I have not traveled much in my 32 years, and this was my first immersion experience. As I sat and poked at the dinner before me, I felt waves of panic rising and settling. Two things saved me that night; two things reassured me that this journey was going to be a rich opportunity, not an embarrassing failure. One was the warm, kind faces of the father, mother, and their two daughters. Had we not one word to communicate, those smiling faces would have told me how generous and patient these people would be.
The second factor was the presence of Laura, an American student from Philadelphia, who sat next to me at the table. Having arrived the day before, she seemed quite relaxed and already at home. We did not speak in English in front of the family, but I took great comfort in knowing that if I needed to “take a break’’ from the hard work of talking and thinking in Spanish, I could. As my summer progressed, my friendships with the family and Laura were the roots through which my courage and ability to learn could grow.
Last year was my first as an ESL teacher. I was terrified of the kids who could not speak any English. How could I teach them? What would they first need from me? I was especially fearful of Wilson, a young boy from Hong Kong. Unlike the new students from Spanish-speaking countries, I could not translate for Wilson. We had no Cantonese books in our library and no Cantonese-speaking translators working in our district. I went to bed every night worrying about Wilson, who spent most of his days talking to himself and playing with toys at his desk.
Finally, the assistant principal told me she thought there was a 4th grader in the school who spoke Cantonese. This student’s name was Cathy, and later we found out that she and Wilson were cousins by marriage. The first day Cathy came to my class, they talked excitedly. Wilson ran around my room, pulling out books that had interested him, asking Cathy to translate them. She kept laughing hysterically, and I asked her why. “He’s so funny,’' she said. Wilson? Funny?
After he learned a few nouns and became more comfortable in school, I discovered that, yes, Wilson was funny. In fact, he was hilarious, like a tiny Charlie Chaplin. It turned out that what Wilson needed were the same things I needed this summer in Mexico: some signs of kindness and reassurance and a friend to talk to. I cannot say that this was all Wilson needed, but it was what he needed first. He needed that sense of security before he could begin to build a bridge from Cantonese to English, from his world to mine.
At the beginning of this school year, as I set up an ESL display in the school lobby, a young boy and his grandmother nervously peered into the cafeteria. I asked in English where they were from, and the woman said Bolivia. I wish I could describe the little boy’s face as I welcomed them to the school and explained in my newly improved Spanish that I was an ESL teacher. He told me his name was Jorge and that he had been in the United States for three months. Then he asked me to check the name of his teacher. When I did, I said, “You are very lucky; she is a nice teacher.’'
I smiled at Jorge, and he smiled back.
A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as The Kindness of Strangers