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The Language Lesson

Since my muse is on extended vacation, I figure it might be a good idea to switch gears and post about something not writing-related. So in honor of the beginning of a new school year, I thought I would share one of my favorite memories of when I was in the classroom.

It was the first day of a new school year, and I eagerly greeted my students. Instead of the usual roll call, I suggested self-introductions. After all, it was a course in communication, heavy on building interpersonal skills, with public speaking thrown in for good measure. One-by-one, the students tentatively gave their names, along with a bit of information about themselves.

I saw the panic in her eyes as it got close to her turn. She was tiny, shy and, obviously, not American-born. “I not speak English,” she said hesitantly. My mind raced. Was she is in the wrong class? I smiled reassuringly as made my way over to check her schedule. But she was indeed where she was supposed to be, with a very Asian first and last name that, ironically, I was unable to pronounce. I nodded. Nonverbal language was universal, I figured. I pointed to her name and looked at her questioningly. She said it softly and then paused as though frantically searching for the words. Finally, she added, “I new here.” There was a stillness in the room, and then, the class cheered. And from that moment on, I knew that we were all about to embark on a very special journey together.

I watched with pride as the days turned into weeks, then months, as my high school students took turns engaging her in casual conversation, instructing her on how to respond to their questions. They asked about her culture, life in Korea with genuine interest. I noticed that they mentored her through assignments and made her practice in before-school tutoring sessions They encouraged her when her turn came to take to the podium to address the group, prompting her when she hesitated for the right word.. And they delighted in her triumphs as she worked tirelessly to demystify the complicated nuances of the English language. Each day, her speaking skills grew as her vocabulary expanded. Of course, I had to resist the overwhelming urge to help, to simplify, to slip into instructor/mother hen mode as her teacher. But my students subtly let me know that they had her peer education well in hand, and they most certainly did. It warmed my heart.

As we approached the end of the semester, the last big challenge loomed large for all of them, a policy debate. Not only did it require analysis of research material, but it also entailed constructing an elaborate brief, synthesis of ideas and on-your-feet refutation of the opponent’s argument. Could she do it? We all waited in breathless anticipation as she addressed the group, notes in hand.

“Resolved: that the SAT should be abolished for admission into public colleges and universities,” she announced in her pronounced accent. We collectively held our breath. And as she slowly presented her side, built a case, and answered the opposition’s questions, we slowly exhaled. She was brilliant! And when the winner was announced, she beamed with pride as she claimed her prize, a plastic trophy I had bought from the dollar store.

But the reality was they were all winners, as they experienced the joy of helping another human being reach her full potential. Yes, it was amazing to watch the magic that group of kids created. But the most powerful lesson to come out of my classroom that year is that kindness is indeed a universal language. And the most grateful student was this teacher.

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