This past week, in my creative writing class for adults studying English as a Second Language (ESOL), I was critiquing an essay by Rashida, a thirty-ish Bangladeshi woman writing about an arduous trip she and her husband took from Dhaka to India a decade ago. It was a frigid night when they arrived at the Taj Mahal in Agra, she wrote, and she wished she had put on another pair of socks because her fingers were becoming numb.
"I'm confused," I told Rashida. "You said your hands were cold and you wanted to put socks on them?"
"No," she replied, "not my hands, my feet—the fingers on my feet were cold."
I couldn't stifle a laugh. "No, you mean your toes. Fingers are the ten things on the end of your hands. Your feet don't have fingers. They have 10 toes, the same number as fingers."
"'Toes,' that's what they call them?" Rashida said, looking a little puzzled. "That's a funny name, why do they call them that?"
"I don't know," I responded, "but you're right, toes are funny."
I love teaching ESOL adults, which I've been doing, as a sort of "second act" career, for the past 4 years. Currently, in addition to my intermediate writing group, I run a conversation group for beginning students. But the writing group is where my students tell their stories, reveal their character and empower themselves in ways they never imagined. It is in writing class where the voices of Sana'a, Kinshasha and Bogota become part of the one great voice known as New York City, where each story comes to belong to everyone.
I revel in those voices.
Rehima, a Muslim writing student from 2 years ago, had a master's degree in her native country, where she left behind a loving family of 10 to follow her husband and his family to New York. That family was less than tender and loving to a wife with no children, no job and a limited grasp of English. Rehima seemed to wear her shame and vulnerability like a garment, and on the few occasions where she spoke in class, it was in the barest of whispers. And, then, with just a bit of coaxing from the instructor, she started writing a mini-memoir of home — an enchanting piece of ghostly ephemera that brought out the author's previously hidden sense of humor and her need to belong and be recognized. Full recognition ultimately came with the selection of her short story by a prestigious literacy review, and at the gala ceremony celebrating the honorees, dressed in a stunning pink sari, Rehima took her place among the community of writers. It was a glorious evening and one of the most rewarding nights of my life.
Francesca, a grandmother from Dominican Republic, is currently working through the early drafts of a story about her family of 13 brothers and sisters, and a father who worked 16 hours a day baking bread and pastries. Pater's pastry shop barely maintained a roof over their heads and food in their bellies, but every night her father made sure to check their homework and kiss every kid in the house good night. Father, himself, never physically got out of the tiny village in which he was born, but he gave voice to his dream of traveling to far-off lands, naming his children after all the nations he longed to visit but knew he never would. Francesca, Italia, Australia, and so on. Those children ultimately lived out their father's dream, settling in America, Europe and the Far East. And the children of those children carried their grandfather's dream even farther, visiting even more remote parts of the planet. Francesca tells me that she honors her father's memory every time she puts pen to paper. I never get tired of hearing her say that.
Yolanda, a Haitian student from back in 2011, wrote about a different kind of father — a father who beat her bloody when he was drunk, which was a good deal of the time, and ignored her when he was sober. I began reading Yolanda's story aloud in class until I came to the part about the beatings. Yolanda began to tear up and I stopped reading. It was a story she needed to get out, but not in a public forum. Yolanda and I worked on the story offline and as it came together, she appeared to grow stronger and more secure, both as writer and human being. Writing as therapy. Like every good story, Yolanda's was specific and universal. It didn't win any prizes, but the author is now in college studying marketing communications and faring quite well there, I'm told.
Rosa, from Peru, hasn't yet entirely caught on to what we're trying to do in writing class. But she's getting there. Her latest essay, titled "My Day," contained a laundry list of daily chores: "I got up, brushed my teeth, made the bed, made breakfast for my husband," etc. Near the end of the essay, in a classic example of what is known in journalism as "burying the lede," Rosa mentioned her last task before trudging off to bed — "doing homework with my 7-year-old son."
"We all brush our teeth and make breakfast," I explained to Rosa, "but not everybody sits at the kitchen table at night and helps her son with his arithmetic assignment while your baby boy helps you write your essay for this class. That is a special kind of mother-son bond, a mutual bond of learning. And that is the story you want to tell here."
Rosa smiled. For the first time, the indelible link between the specific and the universal came into focus. It will be a long time before Rosa is composing exquisite family vignettes. But she is ready now for that journey and I'm tickled as hell to be along for the ride.