This story was written by one of our volunteer in-home tutors. We hope her words bless you as much as they bless us.
Every day means something on a certain level — that’s what I tell myself on those many tedious days when I have to muster up the courage to get on that “L” platform in February or when I’m looking at my packed schedule wondering how I’m going to get everything done if I keep my weekly tutoring appointment. I tell myself: every day means something. But, today didn’t just mean something in the greeting card, cat poster, motivational way. Today was different. Today meant something more.
We were working on prefixes, so it was supposed to be a rather boring day. Even still, my student was eager to learn. She bent over the page and, every muscle tense, set to work deciphering the fine print of the tedious language that refused to call her its master. As she copied a list of words into her notebook, a look came into her eye that struck me. I could see her desperate desire to internalize everything I was teaching her. A pained cry escaped her lips followed by a short desperate prayer in her own tongue. She grasped the paper with both hands as if attempting to force it into submission. As far as she’s come, fifty-five is still a difficult age to learn a language.
I stepped in and began to read to her, stopping now and again to explain the words she didn’t know — which were many. I spoke slowly and sounded out the words so each syllable was audible to her untrained ear. At the same time, I was careful not to make it too choppy, else she might pick up the strange annunciation and copy it, thus making her newly discovered vocabulary unintelligible.
As I stressed about doing everything right for her, my student sighed, rubbed her exhausted eyes, then got up, and walked into the kitchen. She returned with a plate of pork with rice and a small dish of butter cookies. I smiled and thanked her. “Eat! Eat!” she said — her way of telling me “Thank You” for teaching her.
As I munched on the food, I looked around the familiar living room. Two years ago when I first started coming here, my student’s family had just moved in. The living room where we study was sparsely furnished — a low couch and a woven matt were the only items to speak of. Today, the room was cluttered with the varied paraphernalia of an active and vibrant family.
Attracted by the cookies, my student’s little granddaughter — a bright-eyed, twirling, girl with the tendency to randomly burst into trills of “Let it go! Let it Go!” — climbed onto my lap. When I first started coming here, this little girl was an only child. Now, she has two bright-eyed, siblings, both of whom I held in my arms as tiny babies but are now learning to walk.
After I gave the granddaughter a cookie and sent her on her way, my student and I began chatting in simple, broken English. I told her about the project I was working on for a college class. She told me a story about a cousin whose daughter is a budding musician back home in Burma. When I first started coming here, my student and I barely spoke to each other. Our time together was mostly awkward, halting attempts at making ourselves understood, scattered with overly long periods of encouraging smiles. Today, we chattered away. It didn’t matter that we cheerily skipped through the sentences in a way that wasn’t entirely grammatically correct. We knew what we meant and that was what mattered.
In that moment, I realized that prefixes and suffixes, while good and helpful, had never been the point. I felt this sudden need to tell her how important the last two years had been to me. The words tumbled out of my mouth: it was a privilege to see her family build their life up from scratch; it was a complete joy to watch her family grow. Above all, I truly appreciated her friendship and admired her strong determination.
My student looked back at me with a tear in her eye. “Teacher,” she said, “I see you as part of my family.”
With that, I knew, while every day meant something to her, today meant something more to me.