Us vs. Them

I consider myself a fair person.  Full of justice and inclined towards benevolence.  I like rules, but I believe some can and should  be bent from time to time. I am open to change and willing to look at situations fairly, when my temper has cooled and my passion and sense of justice has loosened my heart and tightened up my tongue.  I make decisions fairly quickly and try to be diplomatic to all those involved.  This summer, however, as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at the community college near my house, I was put in awkward position of establishing rules and then having the adults deliberately break them, and thus pushing me to my breaking point.

I got into the “biz” of teaching adult immigrants English a few years ago.  I wanted to put my Master’s degree to good use, and I thought it would be another avenue to explore down the line as a full-time job.  I even considered being a Fullbright Scholar and traveling the globe teaching English.  I believed that immigrants were entitled to learn the language freely and without consequences, and that they could pair their native tongue with English and enrich our country with bilingualism.  And I still believe we could benefit from learning a variety of languages for a variety of reasons.  Lately, however, my views are ebbing towards a more moderate sense of the use of English, and the point that learning the language is a choice, yes,  yet I see it more as a necessity if the “land of opportunity” is the golden apple everyone wants a bite of.  I still cringe when I hear people refer to immigrants in third person pronouns as “them” and “they” and feel angered when people use derogatory terms like “wetback,” “beaners,” “slant-eyes,” etc., and sentences such as “They should go back where they came from if they don’t want to assimilate,” because from my experience as an ESL teacher, most do want to be here and learn English.  Learning a language, however, is hard, and it takes a lot of time.  It doesn’t happen over night.  Plus, the old cliche “Birds of a feather flock together” is a cliche for a reason.  Of course humans are going to seek out their own kind so as to feel safe and protected and normal for awhile.  It’s the staying in one spot that gets us in trouble.

I learned this last piece of wisdom from my Ukranian volunteer and friend.  She said that being an American and living in America is a privilege, and that in order to get ahead, you have to fit yourself into the culture and make your peace with living out of your comfort zone.  Try to learn the language.  Meet more people different than yourself.  She’s right.  Yet, I’m torn when I see that the biggest “them” that people are afraid of are lower socio-economic Mexicans who are escaping drug wars, severe poverty, and corrupt government.  “They” don’t think like a college graduate who chose to come over here to improve her English and get a master’s degree.  When I watch the news and see the unmarked graves of those who risked their lives to come to a land to get  a job at a Burger King or as migrant workers, my heart aches. On the other hand, I am very upset for the American farmer on the ranch who feels like our country is getting invaded when he watches many people from another country jumping fences and running through his fields, and stealing his food that he has worked so hard at growing so he can make a profit to feed his own family. Yet the farmer is powerless to do anything because there is no easy solution to a problem that has layers of problems inside of it.

My sense of diplomacy has been shaken as well when my summer students abused the use of cell phones and constantly texted friends because they were bored of the lesson I was teaching.  It angered me because I spent hours putting together cohesive lesson plans with varied and interesting activities; and in truth it was my best teaching I have done in an ESL class to this point.  But I felt that it went unnoticed for the most part by most of my students because a handful of them were too busy speaking in their native language and having side conversations to notice.  Sometimes I think a free class, regardless of the content, is a bad idea because it lowers expectations.  My rules were presented, and they were broken.  And it pissed me off that I wasn’t the one bending the rules, they were.  I finally blew a gasket at one point and chastised them like children for their immature behavior.  Needless to say, my class numbers dropped as well as the state and federal funding for the free ESL program.

In the past, my experiences of teaching ESL have been thrilling.  I have met people from Madagascar to Japan, to Taiwan to Serbia, Cuba to Peru and a lot more countries in between.  In the same class I’ve had Muslims, Taoists, Christians, and Jehovah Witnesses.  I’ve taught a Bolivian Methodist preacher and his wife, and was taught compassion by a Colombian Franciscan priest who wore suits Monday – Thursday and his favorite soccer team’s jersey and jeans on Friday.  He also played the guitar and sang to us “Jesus Es La Luz de mi Vida” while smiling at us all.  And I was impressed by the intelligence and sharp wit of the Mexican nun who cursed like a sailor in both English and Spanish.  All I’m missing in my pious collection of revered reverends the world over is a Hassidic Rabbi, a Buddhist monk, and a Muslim Sikh.

Sun, from South Korea, was a spunky middle-aged woman who gratuitously used “shit” in every day conversation, and made me two dozen egg rolls that I wound up putting in the freezer.  I forgot about them until one spring thaw when I was in a cleaning frenzy and noticed them smashed under a box of freezer burned ice cream and an old Lean Cuisine meal.  Alan, a mentally-challenged 22 year old man with the heart and mind of a child, used to always make me repeat the same conversation with him day in and day out as a normal part of his routine.  “Hello, Megan.”  “Hello Alan.”  “Where’s your husband?”  “He’s at work, Alan.”  “Tell him, ‘hello’ and that I think you’re pretty.”  “Thanks, Alan.  I will.”  (I didn’t have the heart to tell him I wasn’t married because the ruse had gone on for so long.)

Our discussion topics in these classes ranged from culture to shopping and banking to topics in the news.  These students were curious and wanted to know about grammar and were willing to communicate in their new language as much as possible.  This mentality was what I expected this summer; but I became quickly jaded by the few who ruined it by constantly texting and speaking over me, and trying to talk to me in Spanish while I was conducting class.  I lost it when two women began speaking in Spanish while two shy, nervous Mexican students were presenting their dialogue they wrote to the class.  I admonished them and let the whole class know that they were being rude and that they were making my job difficult.  It wasn’t surprising that they didn’t return back to class the rest of the session.  This time around, these women ruined my willingness to extend myself to Spanish speakers during breaks or before and after classes by talking to them and answering questions in Spanish.  If anyone asked me a question in Spanish or tried to strike up a conversation with me, I would respond back in English. Who knows?  Maybe it was a power play on my part.

As my annoyances grew, the class and teaching itself became a burden.  My summer was eaten up by the 8 week course, and I began to resent it.  I started noticing small abuses of the “free class” system that Adult Education Department offered, the biggest being a sense of entitlement and low expectations on the students’ part.  And it bothered me that one person was on welfare and yet her citizenship status was “shady”.  I wondered if some people wrote down false social security numbers on their registration forms.   I heard stories that a woman in years past was thought to be a victim of a sex slave trade, yet she was obnoxious and rude to the teachers, and walked around class and got on the computers and cursed at people.  A few years back, one man intimated to me that he only married his fat American wife so he could get citizenship status.

My politics and diplomacy and sense of justice vs. injustice went haywire.  What should I do?  I really enjoyed taking my master’s classes, and my past experiences were so positive.  I believe in the American dream, and really love the idea that anyone on this green earth can become an American.  I think, though, that I lost sight of the fact that it takes sacrifice and courage and a willingness to open yourself up to a new culture and new way of life to receive the benefits and privileges and freedoms that this wonderful country has to offer.    Because, even though America is a melting pot, America has a culture.  We’re kind and generous.  We’re patriotic.  We’re passionate.  We like our fast food restaurants.  We walk our dogs in a neighborhood with or without sidewalks.  We go to county fairs and eat corndogs and fried donuts with powdered sugar.  We have our own music and authors unique to our experiences.  We impulsively  join the gym and resolve to go at least once a week.  Six months later we run out of time and/ or energy and quit going, then show up 4 months later to discontinue our membership.  We attend parent-teacher conferences and have PTA fundraisers.  We like to our “do-it-yourself” home renovations.  We are obsessed with celebrities.  We pay for and thoroughly enjoy our DVR option on our TVs.  We have funny sitcoms that are popular the world over.  And we bitch about taxes, but the majority of us pay them.  We help people when they need it the most.  We’re charitable and give of our time and money.  We love to fight about politics and sports teams, but we will gladly sit down and have a beer with our friends even though we disagree on these topics.  We are bound together by many threads.  And one of the most important threads is our language.  English is just as American as apple pie.

On the flip-side, the immigrant story is the largest tie that binds us.  Other cultures have shaped us and enriched us, and made us who we are today.  And, I shouldn’t forget that all was not lost this summer.  I watched as Francisco and Susana showed up to class as much as possible even though they worked a 40+ work week; and Susana, scared near tears the first few classes to speak English, eventually put together her own broken sentences to share with us that her mother was a doctor and helped deliver babies in Mexico.  I watched as Kai, a woman from Thailand, broke out of her shell and eventually told jokes and showed her sense of humor and thanked me for my help to help her express herself better.  And, we were all heartbroken when we learned Sumitra, another woman from Thailand who was also well-versed in Japanese, shared with us that she misses her daughter who is still over in Thailand; but she is here to help make her life easier and eventually wants to bring her here and help her too become an American citizen as she is.

And then there is the queen grandmother, Saku – a widow from Tokyo, Japan.  She married her American husband and left all of her friends and family.  He died 8 years ago, and her daughter, who was the valedictorian in her graduating class from the University of Illinois -Champaign, lives in Ohio with her husband and two grown children.  Saku came into class everyday and said in her happy, Japanese accent “Goooood  Morniiiiiiinnnnnggggg!!!”  Immediately I smiled.  She walks 3 miles a day, and visits her friend weekly.  She wears patriotic shirts on the 4th of July, and gambles at the St. Louis casinos with her neighborhood friends.  She practices her English every day and reads and writes as much as she can because she wants to be better at it (no mind that she’s in her 70s).  When I tell her that her English is great and that she doesn’t need to improve it, she tells me “I need to work very, very hard at it.  I must be better, you know?”  These are the people, our fellow Americans, for whom I work and teach.

(Well, that and the money I make will go towards a flat screen TV and a new fall wardrobe.  Hey, I’m entitled to the American Dream as well).


There’s Something About A Fireman…

Recently, I arranged for my 2 1/2 year old nephew to get a tour of a local fire station.  I wanted to do something for him that would make him happy.  He’s your typical little boy:  he loves planes, trains, tractors, trucks, diggers,  and motorcycles.  Anything that moves and is motorized, he’s into it.  There was another reason for the tour as well:  for a year now, he’s been coming to Children’s Hospital in St. Louis to get tested for a blood dyscrasia.  He has low blood platelets, and he bruises easily.  His doctors are still trying to figure out what is causing this problem, and he’s had two bone marrow draws already, and numerous blood draws and a few platelet transfusions as well.  I live 15 minutes away from the city, and it broke my heart to realize he began to associate going to my house with going to the doctors’ office.  I’ve been trying to think of creative ways to get him excited about coming to visit ever since (though, my dog is enough for him.  They’re best of buddies.)

Upon entering the fire station, he was in awe.  The secretaries greeted him, and they arranged for the fire chief to come out to greet him as well.  The Chief took us to his office and let Ben look at his model fire engine, and gave him a Junior Firefighter sticker badge.  Next, another chief, Battalion Chief Tom took us down the long corridor and out to the garage where we saw one of the big fire engines.  Ben, who is normally talkative, had nothing to say.  He simply stared.  When he started to walk down the steps, he grabbed Chief Tom’s hand, and the chief tenderly looked down at him and smiled, and wrapped his big hand over Ben and slowly walked down with him, quietly telling him what he was about to see and do.

My sister, my Dad and I followed behind them, and we smiled.  I knew this was going to be a special tour.  Out came Fireman Michelle and Fireman Doug (the rookie) and they walked with us to the second fire engine parked outside.  Ben got to see the masks, sit in the chairs and the driver’s seat, pull out the climbing rope, look at the axe, pick up the rubber mallet and pound it on the ground.  They asked him if he wanted to see what firemen wear, and he simply nodded his head.  Speechless.   Around to the other side we went, and Fireman Doug began to put on his gear.  Every little boy has dreamed about being a fireman I’m sure.  To be in shape, wearing cool gear, and saving lives.  There’s a sense of strength and an overall tenderness that is special to a fireman, too.  To know that a fireman is there by your side and will risk his life to save yours is nothing short of heroic.

Doug put on all the gear, and let Ben step on his special steel boots.  Then, he climbed the engine’s 75 foot ladder to impress us all.  It worked.  Ben stood there, arms crossed, eyes focused on the ladder, jaw jutting forward, and a serious look on his face.  He wasn’t upset.  He was assessing everything.  He looked like an old man in an young person’s body.  Doug leaned over and waved at us from way up on his perch.  We were impressed even more so when we learned it was Doug’s 3rd time on the ladder and that he was afraid of heights.  There’s something special about a man that would put away his own fears to put a smile on a little boy’s face.

After I took Ben’s picture with the three fireman, Doug picked Ben up and swung him and stood him gently on the ground.  Ben walked towards us with a big smile on his face.  The moment couldn’t have been more perfect, and I think the firemen were happy that they could show off what they do.  It’s such an admirable job, but one that could be boring at times, sitting around waiting to get a phone call that someone needs your help.  I think they liked the break in their day.  The tour ended with us getting to see the bedrooms, kitchen, and the Battalion Chief’s office as well.  Finally,  we had to say goodbye.  Ben knuckle-bumped all the guys’ hands and hugged the two women.  He got to eat his Laffy Taffy and we got to hear him tell us all about the tour again on the ride home.   I’m glad I got a chance to set up this tour for him, but it was the firemen of Station 4 that made it a special moment for us all.  Oh, and Fireman Doug, I noticed you didn’t have a wedding ring…


I went to the fortune teller.  She took a look at my palm.  She said, “You will be going through changes when you are 34, 35, 36 years old.”  That was two years ago, on my 33rd birthday.  I hadn’t planned on going to get my palm read.  I don’t believe in that stuff.  But, we were at a weird bar, “The Venice Cafe” in South St. Louis, and I was drunk.  What was $20 when I already had blown even more cash on booze and food?

While looking at the fortune teller, I fell for the gimmick.  Maybe there is something to seeing a person’s future.  Here it is two years later (I’m almost 35!), and I am feeling the transitions inside of me, and seeing it happen as well.  My hair is different.  It’s gone from wavy to a really corse tight curl.  My cellulite is creeping up in places I never thought existed.  Who knew elbows and calves could hold fat globules?  Fine lines are starting to crease around my eyes, and dark circles underneath my eyes take longer to fade.  I’ve even bought concealer which is a big deal seeing that makeup isn’t something I wear on a regular basis.  I could go on and on about the physical changes, but I’m not going to.  It’s natural.  I deal with it fairly well.  I want to be like Meryl Streep when I grow up:  no make up, showing my lines, letting my hair hang down, and living happily in my own skin.  The change that is exciting me (and sometimes disconcerting me) the most is internal.

The fortune teller told me that I would be “coming into my own” during these transitional years, and that it was important to pay attention to and to learn from them.  I don’t know what the hell that means, and I surely don’t know what to do with that advice.  So, basically, I threw that advice out the window.  Yet, it creeps up on me when I stop and think about it.  I am a very focused person who tries to learn something every day about myself and figure out the meaning of such random and mundane tasks.  It gets tiring sometimes.  But, I am obsessive and compelled to try and figure things out.  I have control issues, yes, but I also have a curious soul that just looks for the commonality in things and people and the connection of them to me.  So what are some examples of the things that I’m paying attention to?  My attitude towards my day and people for one thing.  This morning, I was at the YMCA intent on working out (who knew that the fat globules on elbows are hard to exorcise?), and a nice looking man came up to me and started talking.  I had to take out my earphones to hear what he was saying.  He repeated it again, “I see you all the time here, and I told myself that one day I would come up to you and try and make you smile.”  Immediately I smiled.  Pick up line?  Yeah, probably.  But, it was a nice to know that someone has noticed me and wants to see me smile.  Immediately I felt lighter and sexier (even in workout clothes and sweat).  All of us want to be paid attention to.  In the past, I tried everything possible not to bring attention to myself, and now here I am trying to change that.  To “Let my light shine” a little bit more.  Good to be reminded of that.

That smile led to more smiles at the grocery store later when a woman approached me and asked me what aisle the popcorn was on.  And the smile grew into a longer conversation with Kelly the checkout clerk who asked me about my summer, my 4th of July, and shared with me a sweet story about her daughter’s present to her husband for Father’s Day.  She remarked that she always sees me smiling (funny that I had to be reminded to do just that this morning) and didn’t believe it when I told her I was really grouchy yesterday morning.

Another change that I’ve noticed is that I’m not worried as much about others’ opinions of me.  It’s time to stop feeling like (and thinking and acting like) the nervous, shy teenager who worries about every detail of herself before presenting the final package to someone.  I screw up on a regular basis, and it’s liberating to know that in the long scheme of things, it doesn’t matter much.  It’s time to be a little more unguarded and vulnerable.  Doesn’t even the desert flower have to open up to the harsh conditions in order to bloom?

All of these changes are starting to metaphysically show up around my house as well.  I’ve always believed that an organized, clean desk, for example, is a reflection of your state of mind.  In the past few months, I’ve cleaned out closets, thrown away or given away unsentimental items, shredded journals and old love letters from old flames, painted my living room, dining room, and hallway.  Now I am living in the middle of stacked boxes and displaced furniture in order to prepare for new hardwood floors in all of my upstairs’ rooms.  I don’t know how I want to redecorate my downstairs rooms, and I don’t have a picture hung up any place.  I need a new computer desk, and I’m tired of my old drawing desk as well.  Old furniture I bought from Target and put together 10 years ago has got to go, and it is slowly getting replaced with more sophisticated, stronger and beautiful furniture.  It’s as if my house is coming into its own as well.  Oddly, I’m not 100% sure on how I want the finished projects to look.  But, I could say the same for myself.

Maybe I should go see the fortune teller again?  Or, better yet, I should just let things  happen on their own and see what comes my way and what I can do with it all.  Besides, the fortune teller said that she couldn’t read my future past the age of 75, so I need to get a move on things!