By Kelsey Smith, ESL Coordinator at New American Pathways
Although my students cannot yet read the following words of Herman Hesse, I believe they would agree with them:
“As a body everyone is single; as a soul never.”
The outer trappings of these adult students are so different from one another. They come from so many different countries—Burma/Myanmar, Somalia, Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Sudan, to name a few—and speak such different languages and embody different cultures. Yet when they are together in the Cultural Orientation English as a Second Language (ESL) Classroom at New American Pathways, the differences that might appear to separate one body from the other do not at all prevent us from knowing and relating to one another. Maybe one reason is because they are all at the same level—unable to read, write, speak, or understand in the new language of the new country in which they are all attempting to build a new life. And I think another reason is that, especially when each very different individual is brought to the same level, it’s easier to see the connection of how they are all so beautifully human.
My students love to learn each other’s names, and we all laugh until our sides hurt at the way NONE of us can pronounce everyone’s names correctly (not even Teacher!). They love to see each other’s countries on the classroom atlas that I bring out, and they even enjoy attempting a few words in each other’s languages. They also enjoy working together even though the only common language they all have is English—a tiny thimbleful of English that together we are slowly building into a language in which they can live and thrive.
Ku Htoo and Fatumo know the joy of friendship even though they can barely speak to one another in the small amount of English that they have. An unlikely duo—Ku Htoo is tiny and quiet and hails from Burma, while Fatumo is tall and vivacious and is from Somalia—they began as classmates in ESL at New American Pathways, and quickly became friends. As their teacher I am so excited to see the way they interact with one another. Ku Htoo, who is somewhat more adept at English than Fatumo, assists her friend along in the individual and group assignments and thereby accelerates her own language learning process, while Fatumo’s learning experience is also enhanced by having not just one, but two teachers who care about her and invest in her language skills. Both have grown not only in their English language ability, but in their confidence, and I believe also in their realization that they are not alone on their pathways to becoming New Americans.
As Fatumo put it, “Teacher, Ku Htoo is my friendy!” And the journey is never quite as difficult when you have a friend to walk beside you.