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Teaching America

They came to Uptown from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Romania, Iran, Ethiopia . . . My job was to teach them English as a second language, and the U.S. as a second home.


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An Israeli who leaves Israel is said to be "outside of the land"; an Israeli who moves from Israel to America is said to have "gone down." According to Israelis, one is either inside or outside of the land. There are no in-betweens.

In the late summer of 1985, when I returned to America after a year of living in Israel, I felt as though I were on the outside, and had stepped down into a country I was no longer a part of. The simple things were the most difficult to digest: the lightness of American coins in my pocket, the quickness with which they were chewed up in telephones, the awkwardness of asking directions in English, and my lack of excuses for losing my way.

When I had first arrived back in America, I took a bus from Manhattan to a small town in upstate New York to visit an Israeli friend. I had known him in Maalot, Israel, where I had spent the summer teaching English to Ethiopian refugees; Shimon had already been in America for a month. He greeted me in the middle of the main street. "I hate it here--so big and empty," he said in his new broken English, but he was chewing American bubble gum and eating a carton of shrimp. I handed him shekels and Israeli cigarettes, and insisted on speaking Hebrew, especially in public.

When I arrived in Chicago, my home, there was no one with whom I could hide from the present. There were few ties to a life that I did not want to give up. The only language I heard was English, except in my dreams. Back in Maalot, a small development town next to the mountains and not too far from the sea, I would lean over my porch and call down to the apartments below to borrow a tomato or salt and to see who wanted to join me for the evening meal. In the suburbs where I was now staying with my family, I focused on the spaces between houses and the way we couldn't recognize our neighbors at the supermarket. I focused on the 12 different brands of coffee and the mail that always arrived in bundles, even on Saturday, which was no longer a day of rest and reflection.

When I called old friends, longing for the sound of a familiar voice, I heard a tape recording saying they were too busy to pick up the phone. This was my America of 1985, a place I could not touch, let alone feel. The first time I took the train into the city, I felt the McDonald's wrappers around my feet and the way people avoided each other's eyes. I did not remember what I had loved about Chicago. My eyes were half-closed. At the Art Institute, when I went to see the Impressionists, culture shock was seated on a bench next to me.

A week later, I took a train to Truman College in Uptown to look for a job. It was time to continue on a path I had planned for myself: after four years of college and two years of graduate school, I was supposed to be teaching writing or English literature in a college or university. But when I had finished graduate school, I felt as though I had been looking at the world through a window for six years and that I needed to shatter that glass and see and feel something real. I went to Jerusalem on the pretext of translating Hebrew poetry into English. As the el passed the back porches and rickety stairways of old Chicago buildings, I remembered the previous spring when I moved from Jerusalem, a city I loved, to the north of Israel. I had heard that Ethiopian refugees had entered the country via "Operation Moses" (a secret lift of Ethiopian Jews) and that these people did not use spoons or stoves and that they needed us North Americans with the luxury of time to help comfort them and teach them our language through our common second language, Hebrew.

After six months of teaching them grammar and songs, after six months of learning their dances, shopping with their mothers, running up hills with their little brothers and sisters, my real education began. It was the education of poverty, of closeness, and of a life without the luxury of viewing the world through a thick piece of glass. We felt the same strong sun, lived among the same flies, and our plastic dishes shook at the same sound of planes whizzing by on their way to Lebanon. To be needed and loved and exotic in someone else's eyes, these were all parts of it. We waited patiently for our language to flow from these people's scorched tongues. There were moments when it did, and moments of wondering what it would be like when we finally let go of their hands and abandoned them in some wilderness. There were also moments when we had to go on knowing that they would keep pronouncing their rs and ss wrong.

Did we change them? In Israel the Americans showed the Ethiopians that they were worthy of our "white love." We caught the stones that were thrown at them by Moroccan-Israeli children. I did not correct my student, Osnat, when she served me a whole potato without a fork; I did not want to change her or offend her but to move into her life as it was. Then why was I there? I still don't know if it was the most helpful way, but I wanted to give friendship as well as knowledge. I did not want to destroy the fragile bonds that tied them to their own culture.

My images of the small development town in the Galil faded as an old Jewish woman sat down next to me on the el and told me about a group of black men who had bothered her on the train. A week earlier, her friend had taken a train to Marshall Field's to get a beautiful golden chain fixed that had belonged to her mother. On the way home from the store it was pulled from her neck--so hard that the scar was still there. I did not understand her words all of the time but her accent was familiar, Eastern European. "Wilson will be the next stop," the conductor interrupted us. "Uptown, Truman College."

I found myself at the corner of Wilson and Broadway, where, in the words of Studs Terkel, the pulse of Chicago still lives. I walked past the Native Americans drinking out of paper bags, resting against the August cement, or searching in the garbage for their afternoon meals. Asian families were strolling down the street with children trailing after them, and at the entrance to Truman College were students resting between classes. I walked past all of it quickly.

There were no openings in the English Department. I dropped off my resume and tried to find my way out of the mazelike building, the most modern building in Uptown. Instead I came upon a sign that said "Refugee Program," and found my way into an office that later led me into the world of Asian refugees.

Ruth Lambach, the coordinator of the refugee program, towered over a desk filled with papers and poems. Her walls were covered with Hmong tapestries and photographs of her 13 brothers and sisters on the farm in Canada where she grew up. Ruth said it had been called the Indochinese program in the 1970s because most of the students were from Cambodia, Laos, or Vietnam. The name was later changed to "refugee," a more generic term meant to include newer arrivals from Romania, Iran, and Ethiopia. There were nearly 500 students and 17 teachers in the program, which was still dominated by Asians.

I sensed even during our first meeting that Ruth cared about her faculty not only as teachers but as individuals. When she found out I was a writer, she gave me a short story she had written. She also told me about an apartment in Rogers Park. In deciding whether I was "qualified" to be on her staff, she listened to the intonation of my voice, the way I responded to her writing, and the way I dealt with the people who kept dropping into her office to introduce themselves.

In late October, Ruth called me on a Saturday morning to let me know about a position that was opening up that Monday. It was a level-two class in the afternoon, which Ruth described as the sleepy time of the day. Many of the afternoon students had been farmers in Cambodia and were illiterate in Khmer, their own language. Many went to school to get out of the house in the afternoons and socialize in the warm building where the American teachers were (mostly) patient and smiling. Other afternoon students were lazy and did not want to start studying until after lunch. Some of the older Cambodian students were labeled "lifers." "Lifers" did not progress from semester to semester but warmed the same seats in the same classrooms even as the teachers shifted--the subject matter remained the same. There were also the motivated Vietnamese students who had spent the morning studying with one teacher and wanted to continue in the afternoon with another. Some of the young Cambodians were new arrivals and did not yet have jobs. They were anxious to learn enough to be comfortable going to the store and post office and to feel a part of the world they walked through each day. For many, this world began and ended in Uptown.

The evening classes were filled with people who already held jobs during the day, the go-getters who even after a day of hard work in a gas station, restaurant, or hotel dragged their tired bodies into the classroom each night and were present in both body and soul.

I accepted Ruth's offer enthusiastically, but still I was nervous because I had no formal training in teaching English as a second language and no books. I knew that a lot of the preparation would come from my own understanding of why I was entering this world, why I had agreed to spend four hours a day teaching America to these men and women with whom I did not share a common language. I had helped my Ethiopian students into Israeli life, and that felt natural after only six months of living on that soil. I was about to help the Asians into American life, and I was ambivalent.

Monday was Halloween, and Ruth spoke of a celebration. I felt foolish at the thought of teaching Halloween, a holiday I never thought much about, to these men and women, some of whom were grandmothers and grandfathers and had been farmers and doctors and teachers in their own countries. I knew that in December, when it was time to teach them about Christmas, I would feel as though I were teaching them about someone else's culture, not my own. In Israel, I had felt connected when I taught the Ethiopians about Tu Bishvat (Arbor Day), when we planted trees, and about Passover, when we celebrated freedom from bondage: every year, everyone must regard himself as though he were personally brought forth from Egypt (from Ethiopia, from Morocco, from Yemen, from Iraq, from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the Soviet Union . . .).

My refugees in America did not have the initial fear that there had been in my Ethiopian students, who were at first shy and distrustful. My new students had already had enough experience with American teachers to know that I was on their side.

Although we did not share a language, our smiles were warm and the ambience in the room was gentle. The students sat according to nationality. The room was full of whispers in Khmer and Vietnamese. We had a few minutes before the entire program would gather in Hall A for Halloween, so I asked the students to introduce themselves and tell me where they were from. "My name is Duc Van Huynh," the first student announced, "and I am from Vietnam." He was very thin and toothless, with long sharp nails on his index finger and pinkie. Van Fuy Vong, an older Cambodian woman, said with a laugh, "I'm from Cambodia, but I'm Chinese." I listened to the names of my 22 students and repeated them in my clumsy American accent. I wondered if once I put the names with the faces I'd ever be able to say their names correctly. As I'd expected, most of the students were from east Asia. Anastasia and Victoria were two older women from Romania. They wore short skirts and had dyed blond hair. Rosa and Letekidan were from Eritrea (they insisted, not from Ethiopia). Asmelash was a young man from Ethiopia.

I was relieved to find out that their former teacher had already carved a pumpkin with them, so we walked as a group to Hall A. The room was dark except for a row of jack-o'-lanterns glowing with candles. Ruth told stories about Halloween while writing new words on the board. Many of the teachers were dressed like goblins and witches and ghosts. The Asians did not laugh about the ghosts as we did, but stared fixedly at whoever was talking. To them ghosts were real.

I discovered this with greater clarity many months later when I was teaching level five. I was writing vocabulary words on the board from an article we were reading. One of the words was "ghost" and another was "devil." When I told the class that there were no such things as ghosts and devils, Huong from Vietnam corrected me. She announced to the class that in Vietnam there are devils, and they are women with long hair without faces. "How does one become a devil?" the class asked her. "When someone loses his life too soon," she answered. "Have you seen the devil?" I asked her. "Teacher, there are many devils. In Saigon, one knocked on my door, and when I answered, she was gone." "Are you sure it wasn't the wind?" "Teacher, she had hands that begged, unlike the wind." The Cambodian students followed her story with their own stories about deep woods in their country, the evil creatures lurking about, and those who had escaped to the forest never to be seen again.

Even after days of writing the long and short vowel sounds on the blackboard and reading from our text, Line by Line, about typical American families and how much they spend on coffee at the supermarket and how they watch TV for fun, even after days of imagining these life-styles with my students and repeating the words of our daily lives--"How are you?" "Thank you," "How much does this cost?"--I would turn from the blackboard, look past the pigeons on the sill, and watch the train that slid past our window and that for a moment covered the words at the top of the church, "Christ died for our sins," and be amazed. We were in America, not in any of the countries that my students still referred to as "my country," the countries I could almost feel when I looked at the green tattooed letters on the hands of some of my Cambodian and Vietnamese boys, the patches on their skin and the darkness behind their eyes, countries I could almost smell from the food they brought me from their homes. Every day I had to break some ice that formed inside me and reach out to their worlds and touch them with a language of which they knew very little.

In certain months, our class would expand. A new student would walk up to my desk, smile politely, and hand me a white card signed by Ruth Lambach. As the student sat down, a quiet would descend on the classroom--the arrival of a stranger. Within days, the "stranger" would become a part of our family. The day that Jose, my one Salvadoran student, joined our class, I asked all of the students to introduce themselves to him and to tell him where they were from. This was our ritual each time a new student entered. Mot Le, a 44-year-old Vietnamese man who wore each day the same checkered slacks and white sweater and smoked Winston Longs between slightly off-center lips, began: "I from Vietnam. From Vietnam, I go Thailand. From Thailand, I go to other camp. From other camp, I go Washeeton. Then I go Chicago. Now I am here--I go to school study English." Everyone laughed, as they always did after the story that Mot Le told. It wasn't the names, which were familiar, but the rhythm of his voice moving from place to place.

As the momentum increased, the students began telling not only where they were from but why they left. Everyone listened, everyone, even those whose bodies usually graced the chairs in the classroom but whose minds were somewhere out the window, in some other climate. Van Fuy told about war in Cambodia. She made a gun with her fingers. "They dead people--people dead--three of my children"--she made a vanishing sign by pushing the air--"there was very little food." Van Fuy giggled when she was finished. Nhune Bouthsy, a 40-year-old woman from Laos, giggled too. She pulled a clip out of her hair and her bun unraveled until her hair fell to her waist.

When Van Fuy spoke again, her face was pale and her eyes seemed smaller, with red circles beneath them. Each time she told of this pain, it would lie heavy across the classroom. She would tell it again and again, as if we could bring her children back somehow. I felt responsible, I'm not sure why. I knew that if I said "I'm sorry," she would know that I could not understand. I knew that if I told her to talk about it more and tell me how she was feeling, she would not be able to. I did not want to continue with our simple lesson for the day. I knew that all of them had a larger lesson to give to each other, but no words with which to do it. Do they reflect? Are they bitter about their losses? Have they grown wise? None of this is clear to me. They ended all of their stories with: Now I am in America. I want to go to school learn English.

Later that week, our family expanded again. Four young Cambodian men entered the classroom and sat in the back row next to the door. They had just been released from Kao-i-dhang, a refugee camp in Thailand. They had learned a little bit of English there but not much, and so had been placed in level two. They looked frightened and ill at ease in their shiny white gym shoes and stiff blue jeans. What could I say to them? One man, Phat, had eyes that didn't focus but looked slightly to the right. They all had green letters tattooed on their hands. It was clear that they didn't understand the words in our text, but because of Phat's eye, I couldn't tell how far away he really was. We were also joined by three young Vietnamese siblings, Cuc, Mai, and Thao Ho. These students arrived with dictionaries, White Out, pens, and sharpened pencils. They were immediately at the head of the class.

The Cambodian men sank deeper and deeper into their seats, until I sent them down to level-1B. I realized then that a pattern had emerged in my class. I was not willing to start at the beginning again for these students. Asking myself whether I had the patience to change my method each time a new group arrived, I learned at this early stage that I did not, and that as a teacher I was best with the achievers. This was evident when I asked them to write about their countries, and Meo Meo, a 64-year-old man from Laos, would stare at me blankly and write his name. "Write one sentence about your country," I would implore, and Van Fuy would giggle and say, "Teacher, I can't write." I would stiffen and say, "Yes you can," as if the words could miraculously flow from her pen and find their way to the page. Van Fuy and Meo Meo could not write in their own languages either.

Around Christmastime, Youra from Iran entered our classroom. He had large dark eyes that watched intensely each time a new word was introduced. Although we partook in the same ritual of introduction with Youra, he refused to feel at home. He sat alone in a corner and spoke to no one. After class he would often help me carry the books to my office. When I complimented him on his English and asked him why he didn't speak in class, he replied, "The people, they only speak Chinese and I can't understand. I want to hear English."

Just as the students were occasionally divided by ethnic group, the faculty was divided on the issue of the separation of church and state. Some of the teachers did not want to teach Christmas to their students, many of whom were Buddhists. Ruth insisted that Christmas was the best way to teach the message of giving, miracles, and joy. She told me recently that the year after I left the program, she showed the movie The Miracle Worker, the story of Helen Keller, on Christmas because she believed the gift of communication was the most precious gift that one person could give to another.

For Christmas, my class and Louise's level 1B class joined for a party. The Vietnamese men brought their boom boxes and played loud American music, followed by some Vietnamese tunes. The desk in the center of the room was covered with potato chips, cans of Diet Coke and Budweiser, and elaborate Cambodian meals prepared by the women. Van Fuy filled two plates with food and insisted that Louise and I sit down and eat. It was a joyous atmosphere, despite the shy younger women who sat toward the back of the room and whispered among themselves. Victoria from Romania brought her granddaughter, Diana, who found her way into Youra's lap. Youra was now laughing with Chau Au, a young, skinny Vietnamese man who trembled when I asked him a question. "Do you understand?" I would ask him after each lesson, and he would say, "Yes, yes," and tremble and laugh. He seemed relaxed, though, in Youra's company. I kept telling him to eat and that he was too thin, but he only smoked Winstons with Mot Le and drank a few beers. In our classroom, before the Christmas party, I had lit a Hanukkah menorah and told them of the many religions in America. They were stunned to discover that some Americans don't celebrate Christmas. Youra said that his sister lit a menorah at home.

When we returned from winter break in January, I wanted to delve into their lives with the same intensity as I had before. Writing was still limited. In Line by Line, we had read a story about someone's bad dream. I asked them to write about their own dreams, thinking that this was the key to their secrets, that this would show me what their hearts held.

Anastasia dreamed of Romania. "My father and one child very small. I look after the child. My father thinks we are back in Romania. I do not agree because I had two children in America."

Nhune dreamed of Laos. "I dream of my city. I dream my mother and father are in Laos and dream in Chicago. I dream English teacher. I dream look the windows."

Thiem dreamed he went to Vietnam. "I dream my father and sister die. I dream very cry, sad very much. I dream my father and sister died too long."

Path Phon dreamed of Cambodia. "I am happy my brother, my sister, and me are looking into the farm."

Youra wrote about loneliness, not dreams. "I want to be in Iran because I miss mother and father and everybody in my family . . . I was alone always . . . in Turkey . . . in Italia . . . why, I don't know. G-d know."

Van Fuy doesn't dream either. She brings me pastries filled with meat and strawberries. "Teacher, I can't dream," she tells me. "Two children missing . . ." Her eyes redden and fill. In our presence she cannot stop laughing. There are no more words.

There were days when we were all empty of words. February was filled with storms and dark afternoons, when the class dwindled and the ice inside me thickened. On one of those afternoons, I brought in crayons and construction paper and asked them to draw their countries. This was one of the moments when I was no longer sure whether I was acting like a teacher for grade-school children or a therapist trying to read inkblots.

When I handed out the crayons, they looked perplexed. Youra refused to draw at first. I asked them to label the objects with their pens to make sure that while I was peeking into their countries, they were practicing their vocabularies. Letekidan and Rosa from Eritrea drew a house surrounded by trees with orange and yellow flowers. Nhune and Meo Meo from Laos drew flat square houses. Once the students lost their inhibitions, the pictures were filled with mountains, seas, and exotic flowers. Perhaps for them the purpose of art was to capture the beautiful. There were no pictures of starvation, poverty, or war. I drew the mountains in the western Galil of Israel and the way they looked in the spring when the poppies bloomed. I did not draw the borders of the country. Each one of us dreamed and created in two countries. I no longer believed that we were either inside or outside of the land, we were both.

I hung my students' drawings on the wall in my office, where there was no window. I called all of the other teachers in to look at them as if my own children had drawn them and I were a proud mother.

Ruth's office was always filled with teachers talking about the stories they were writing, a new diet, an interesting restaurant on Argyle, and men. The conversations inevitably shifted to the lives of our students: a recent gift, a funny mistake, a new insight into their worlds, or a beautiful poem written by a Vietnamese man. There was always someone plopped down in the chair next to Ruth's desk asking advice about how to deal with a student.

The monthly meetings were the time when we officially exchanged problems we were having with the students and shared new methods of teaching and our different perspectives on our task. Sometimes at the meetings we discussed "what is America?" One day Ruth asked us to take out a piece of paper and write a list of adjectives and nouns that described America. The lists consisted of words like freedom, democracy, materialism, disposable products, boom boxes, Diet Coke, and rootlessness. There were descriptions of noise and crowded urban scenes. Given the window we were looking through, we forgot about farms in Iowa and redwood forests in California. "What is it we hope to teach if we dislike so much of our culture?" Ruth asked. I said I wanted to teach them to love their own cultures and to pick up parts of our culture that would enrich their lives, that would help them get by, language above all.

In the spring, Michael Franklin, who had spent time teaching English in a refugee camp in the Philippines, was hired as Ruth's assistant. Michael led a meeting one afternoon. As each of us entered the room, he spoke to us only in Vietnamese. He showed us pictures of apples and oranges and houses while saying the words in Vietnamese. He then put a colored wooden rod next to each picture while repeating the word in Vietnamese. Each time he showed us the rod without the picture, we were to remember which word it represented and were asked to say the word correctly. Many of us felt embarrassed and under pressure. We were confused by all of the new words and the new rhythms of the language. We began to understand what it felt like to be an adult in a classroom learning the names for the simplest objects. We felt afraid of opening our mouths and making a mistake, pronouncing something incorrectly. We gained humility.

My lesson in humility, however, did not reduce the frustration I sometimes felt when hearing my language sliced into pieces by tongues that were taught to move differently. Progress was slow. In Israel, we had learned to work without noticeable progress. About two months into teaching the Ethiopians, the Americans would start to burn out. We were abruptly reminded that we were only planting seeds, and that many people, many different groups of teachers, would water those seeds before they bloomed, before our language would flow naturally from our students. What we felt instead was the deepening of our friendships with them, of our knowledge about their cultures and the stories of their lives. These stories eventually became more real and enlightening, and more painful.

The same burnout appeared in the refugee program. Among our Cambodian students especially, progress was like a turtle crossing a road. Sometimes my students would memorize the words in Line by Line, and I would listen to them repeat "Bob had a party yesterday," "This weekend I watched TV," "Tim and Jack are brothers." Was this America? Was this the language I loved? I preferred them to learn the rhythm of the language by using the words of poets I admired. I started to bring in poems by Stanley Plumly, a former teacher of mine, and Chinese translations by Ezra Pound. There were days when the classroom was filled with Vietnamese and Cambodian voices chanting Plumly's words:

I wanted to bring the tree in the room

the way the light in the morning

first fills, then surrounds it

the way the light this morning brings it

to the window, brings it in, almost into the room.

And I wanted to bring the rain in with it

the rain from all day yesterday, all night

until just now, the light filling the rain

filled with the rain, the rain the light on the tree.

I believed that not just the rhythms but the meaning would seep in and somehow transform their lives.

When Ruth peered in at my class reciting these poems, and later met me on the stairs asking if my students had handed in their theses on Eliot and Pound, I knew it was getting to be time to move on. I was trying to push them on to places they weren't ready to go. I was getting frustrated, aware of how my own needs were not being met. Teaching them no longer felt like a challenge but like pushing against the same brick wall. As it turned out, there was a level-five class available and Ruth agreed to let me teach it. It was painful saying good-bye to my class.

One of our last days together, my class went for a walk to the lake. We labeled the objects that we saw on the way: stoplights, stop signs, and lampposts. When we arrived at a church on Wilson where there was a line of street people waiting for a meal, the labeling stopped. We walked on in silence until we came to the park. When I pointed to a bench in the distance and called out "B-E-N-C-H," an old woman who had been sleeping on it raised her head and shouted "bench, bench, bench!" One of the students explained that that was the woman's home.

A week later, I was teaching the more advanced students in level five. It was almost Independence Day. We decided to present for them the story of Ellis Island. In Hall A, Ruth sat at a table and pretended to be the immigration officer who either refused or accepted people into this country. Each teacher would assume her grandparents' nationality, and Ruth would bark questions at us. It turned into a comedy skit. Karen and Brenda, two other teachers, and I suddenly had stage fright, so we took each other's arms and ran onto the stage together. We were three sisters from Lithuania. We were wearing grandmothers' babushkas. Our names were Da, De, and Di. Our answers to all of Ruth's questions were "Da," "De," and "Di." The audience was in an uproar. They loved the sight of their English teachers as peasants who looked stupid and frightened.

My level-five class was tiny but energetic. They loved to talk and to write, so my understanding of their lives was deeper but more painful. I taught them about birth control, Chernobyl, and how to act at a job interview. A 30-year-old woman from Cambodia told stories about how when she arrived in America with her two daughters, her husband was not waiting for them as he had promised. He was living with another woman. He would often come back to my student pretending that he would stay, but instead would beat her and accuse her of talking to other men. She wanted a divorce, but her husband refused to give her custody of the children. She took the case to Asian Legal Aid, but she said the male lawyer sided with her husband. She was waiting for a woman lawyer.

Huong, a 27-year-old woman from Vietnam, told a story about a girlfriend of hers who left Vietnam with her two children. Her husband was already in America. She fell in love with a man in a camp in Thailand and moved in with him. The man was also married but his wife was still in Vietnam. The woman got pregnant in the camp. When she returned to her husband in Chicago, he was very angry. Her lover fled. The baby was delivered and remained in the hospital. The husband would not let the baby into their house because it had been fathered by another man. The baby had been in the hospital for three months. When I told Ruth the story, she said, "Let's go pick her up and bring her home." I don't know what happened to the baby. I would like to say that she found a nice home and everything worked out fine.

As teachers, as Americans, we tried not to lie. Yes, in the winter the ice is cold, but there is refuge. You can close your doors to keep the cold out. You can close your English books and murmur your own sounds, our rhythms will never be yours. There is a long river that runs through Cambodia and there are rice fields in Vietnam. We have the Statue of Liberty and 12 different brands of coffee. Many of us have the luxury to fill our lives with small choices, the freedom to make our own decisions.

On my last day of teaching, in late July, Karen and I rode our bicycles home from Uptown. I had accepted a position teaching English composition at a university. I was moving from "training specialist" to "lecturer." I wanted to teach the literature I love. I wanted to teach the writing of ideas to students whom I could challenge and who could challenge me in a different way.

Karen and I pedaled slowly, taking the side streets. We approached a building on Argyle where some of our students lived. There were mothers holding their children or their neighbors' children in their arms. The spicy aroma of the evening meal flowed from one apartment to the next. My Cambodian student Dorn ran up to me and we hugged. "Teacher, I miss you." She did not even know that I had left level two. She had been home for months taking care of her husband, who had a sore back. "I miss you too," I said as I played with her daughter's long black hair.

I have been teaching in the university now for two years. Some of my students are inquisitive, original, and occasionally brilliant writers. There are those who devour the literature and write from their hearts and minds. There are also those with narrow views, the 18-year-olds who don't know that there is a world outside of their dorm rooms and that there are worlds where people would give their right arms for an education. There are many who do not appreciate learning. For them it is something they do without questioning, without passion. Sometimes when I read generic compositions, I long for the honesty of my refugee students, their rawness and their purity.

The train still takes me south into Chicago where "Freedom for South Africa" is replaced by words in Spanish and then Chinese on the passing walls. In the city where I was born there are words I cannot understand, words in languages from countries where wars were lost, and children with one-syllable names were lost. Is our house large enough for everyone? I know now that there are classes where Cambodian women sit with only the memory of their children. Van Fuy will bring her new teacher cake because yesterday Juana brought candy. They are offering everything, even a little bit of their past, the part our language can translate.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.

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