I have been teaching English as a Second Language classes to adults for fifteen years. In that time, I have met and made friends with hundreds of people, from Afghanistan to Zanzibar and just about everywhere in between. I’ve learned how to say “Happy Birthday” in Swahili, Vietnamese, Urdu and Hindi and have greatly expanded my French, Italian and Spanish vocabularies. But more than anything I’ve learned that, despite real cultural, religious and political differences, we are still so similar underneath it all. Parents the world over worry about providing for their children; husbands from everywhere joke about their wives shopping too much while all the wives roll their eyes at such stereotyping. And grandmas from Burma to Bosnia mist up when talking about their grandchildren.
For six hours a day in the little United Nations of my classroom, there is world peace. There is respect, kindness, tolerance and much laughter as a wildly diverse group of individuals unites to defeat a common enemy—the crazy, confusing and convoluted English language. Now before you cue a chorus of “Kumbaya,“ understand that I am no Pollyanna, naively believing that this lovefest will spill beyond the classroom walls, cover all the Earth and bring all division and conflict to an end. But, every now and then, I do get a small confirmation that my unassuming little ESL classes can build bridges where none existed before.
A few years ago, I had two young women in my class that, on the surface, appeared as different as day and night. One was dressed head to toe in a black abaya and hijab, and the other in a cute little mini-skirt and flattering but rather form-fitting top. I purposely sat them next to each other as conversation partners because I knew both young women were first-time mothers to small infants. At first, they regarded each other with a bit of confusion, even suspicion, and, I think it’s fair to say, judgment. They worked together, but stiffly and formally, and rarely had any social conversation between them. After a few days, I made a point of asking each about her baby and feigned great surprise that their children were about the same age. When I asked to see photos of their babies, out came the cell phones and by the end of class, the ice between them was beginning to melt. In a matter of days, they were chatting away, commiserating about problems with diapers, doctors and mothers-in-law as well as the simultaneous exhaustion and exhilaration that accompany motherhood. I was delighted that my little classroom social experiment had worked.
Fast forward to yesterday. I was walking to my car after class when I heard people calling my name. I turned and saw two women in the distance waving at me. I didn’t recognize them from that distance, but I waved back and began walking toward them. When they came into focus, I realized with a skip of my heart that they were the two young women from my “experiment.” In talking with them I learned that they had both taken some time off from classes to care for their children and now were back and in the same class again. They had kept in touch with each other and had become very good friends. Their children had even had play dates together. I can’t begin to put into words the joy that this news gave me.
“And it all started in our little ESL class,” I said, jokingly.
“Yes, Miss Lee, it’s like you are the matchmaker for friends!” they both said, laughing.
We said good-bye and they hurried off to class, chatting and giggling like schoolgirls, which technically they are right now.
As for me, I walked to my car wearing a smile that stayed with me all day . . . and, yes, I admit, I couldn’t help humming a few bars of “Kumbaya” on my way home.