Crossing Borders for the Common Good
by Darby Lee Patterson
As some of you might remember, I detailed my varied work history in a former blog. Of course, "varied" is a nuanced term after holding 59 separate jobs, so far. But today, I am thinking about my favorite job (outside of journalism, where I spent most of my working life). It's a fond memory inspired by the overwhelming events perpetrated on Ukraine by Russian president-for-life Vladimir Putin.
For about two years, I was employed by school districts in Sacramento County to teach English as a Second Language (ESL). It was a job I found inspiring every day, important and enjoyable. My classes usually had about 20 students – adults sitting at child-sized desks, their eyes riveted on me and a blackboard. Among them was a Hmong woman with a terminal disease that was slowly claiming her strength and making it hard to communicate. Her name was Gracie. I knew she would not live long enough to fully use her newly-learned English skills, but she participated as if she'd one day be negotiating business deals in English.
Many students whose roots were in Southeast Asia had landed in California after dangerous and desperate journeys. Tac, from Vietnam, escaped with his family by launching a homemade raft in the dark of night and becoming part of the great migration of Boat People bound for California. My students included Russian emigres seeking religious freedom. Mexico and South America, Cambodia, Ukraine, Moldova, China, Iraq, and Iran were also represented by wide-eyed adults with one common purpose – to learn English and thrive in their new forever home.
The proficiency level of the majority was one notch above, "I no speak English." Since I had little formal training in the arena of teaching ESL (I was, however, accredited), I punted when I discovered almost none of what I was saying in class was understood. Drawings on the chalkboard, physically acting out words and sentences, dancing, music, and laughter became my teaching tools. Just for more fun, I wore my roller skates on a few days and hoped the principal didn't make a surprise visit.
One of our most effective and memorable lessons was learning the iconic American anthem "This Land is Your Land" by Woodie Guthrie. Together we acted out and pantomimed phrases – "ribbon of highway" was particularly challenging. I brought my guitar to class, and we learned to sing and understand the lyrics together. After a few months of practice, we landed at a statewide teachers' conference and performed. The State Superintendent of Schools Instruction sat in the front row, applauding. We all felt triumphant.
Here's how this relates to the events we're currently experiencing. My little classroom was a global village, filled with people speaking different languages and having incompatible religious beliefs. Some had been sworn enemies over bloody battle lines. And there we were – collecting Christmas gifts for needy children in their new community, singing songs, facing communication challenges, showing up every weekday, and learning together. Young men from Iran and Iraq sat side by side and collaborated, though their fathers and grandfathers had fought each other in battles fueled by beliefs and politics. Victoria, a devout Catholic from Mexico, patiently tutored an Islamic classmate wearing a hijab. Together, we recognized and honored ethnic and religious celebrations from each of their cultures.
Today, on a global scale, we are seeing the macrocosm of the dynamic in my classroom. The arrogance and ambition of Putin that's created a living hell for Ukrainians, has inspired a new dynamic. Countries around the world are stepping up and, together, facing the enemy of peace (as my students faced the enemy of communication in their new homeland).
The list of countries grows daily – Luxembourg, Sweden, and Switzerland – nations known for neutrality declared sanctions and sent military aid. Swift support also came from the U.K., Israel, Spain, Romania, Turkey, Greece, France, Belgium, Canada, Netherlands, Austria – and the list grows daily. Germany stepped away from its historic policy of not exporting weapons to countries in conflict. Significantly, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi agreed to help mediate a cease-fire with Russia.
The embattled President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy, demonstrated extraordinary humanity when he referred to Russian soldiers on his territory as "victims" with no understanding of why their boots are on his ground. Communications from Russian soldiers to loved ones at home indicated many thought they were on "a training mission."
As my humble experience with ESL classes demonstrated, – facing a common foe, we are more likely to survive if we create collaboration instead of conflict—acceptance rather than judgment. Hellen Keller expressed it simply and well: "Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much."
I wonder, if I'd had a young Vladimir in my class, afraid, desperate to learn English and create a life for himself and his family in America, would his nature have changed? Would he experience the power of the common good - discover that depending on others is a sign of strength, not weakness? I know, that's an idle and meandering thought in the face of a dark and unknown future. But, still, I'd like to teach that boy the meaning of those words - "This land was made for you and me."
Thanks for reading my rant today – I usually stay away from politics and divisive topics – but this event touches us all equally. By the way – many of my ESL students have excelled – Victoria became a medical translator, Tac a father and businessman, Olesea is a nurse. Others remain in touch and thrive in their new homeland.
Thanks so much to those of you who pass along my blog to friends and family – growing an audience is an integral part of feeling successful, and you are a big help to me. I appreciate you!
How about an opportunity to grab some free eBooks! Throughout March, there is a promotion in which you can choose as many books as you like absolutely FREE – My cozy mystery, "The Song of Jackass Creek" is part of the collection! Go forth and gather good reads. Pass the opportunity along to friends and family too. GO-GET-EM!