Monday through Friday, my usual morning schedule goes that I run in the morning, eat breakfast, say goodbye to Tim, and go into the magazine’s office for a few hours. My Tuesdays, however, are very different. My Tuesday mornings are filled with laughter, sharing, learning, praise and sometimes frustration. On Tuesday mornings, I am a teacher.
For two hours, I teach English to refugees in the party room of an apartment complex. My students are red group (beginner level — some have been here a few days). Most of them are Karenni, an ethnic minority that is being driven from Burma. I also have several Chinese students and two students from Africa. I love teaching them. They are eager to learn, and we laugh often. Today we laughed when a student’s baby picked up a coin and threw it back into the middle of the circle, like he was tossing his penny into a wishing well. Today I smiled when a student told me what he did yesterday and pointed his thumb over his shoulder. I smiled because I do that when I am explaining things to them that happened in the past. I smiled when we talked about money and they finally were able to identify the difference between a dime and a nickel. Sometimes I smile when I leave. I feel like I am doing good in the world. And sometimes I am just happy because I know how hard their lives have been and it is wonderful that these people do not have to live in fear any longer.
Certainly my students are at different levels. Some are so eager to learn that they talk over the others who would much rather watch than participate. Some of them ask questions that even I do not know the answers to. Last week, we were talking about medicines, the doctor, and the hospital. One of my students asked “What is C? What is V? What is S?” I have no idea what CVS stands for, and I only understood he was asking for the meaning once it was clear that he already understood what you buy there.
My Tuesday mornings can also be frustrating. Today, I did not know how to explain some abstract words that we came across when talking about money — worth, want, and need. I eventually figured out a way. For worth, I put two nickels in one hand and a dime in another. I then put them side by side and said “same.” Then I put three pennies in one hand and a nickel in another. I put them at different levels and said “not the same.” Then I said “worth,” and they seemed to understand. It would be very easy to gloss over these problems, but we cannot. These people are learning the basic vocabulary for the things they need to do to survive — work, shop, eat, and go to the hospital. I would much rather them encounter these words with me than with somebody in the real world who would give up on them.
I don’t believe there is such a thing as altruism. I don’t do this completely for myself, but it would be false to say that I do not get anything out of it. It brightens my day to be with these people. I feel like I am doing something valuable with my time. I am also learning much of the patience and cultural sensitivity that I will need in the Peace Corps. As much as I wish we were there right now, I am so glad that I have this year to prepare for the work I will be doing in Africa. Between the classes I take and the classes I teach, I already know I am a better volunteer than I would have been a few months ago.
So, that is what I do with my Tuesday mornings. I wish I had more time to give, but I know I will be able to do more of this work once I finish my certificate and return from PC. Tim also teaches a class on Thursday nights when I am in my Second Language Acquisition class.