I currently work part-time as a tutor at a college. Classes just started last week, so the tutoring center has been very quiet. Most of the students I have been working with lately are ESL students, because their courses began about two weeks before the spring semester officially started.
I’m getting good at these ESL sessions. I also find them extremely gratifying. Of all the activist stuff I’ve done in my life, of all the things I’ve taught in the past, few things have been more gratifying than helping immigrants learn the language so that they can achieve their goals in this country.
Moreover, I find these sessions extremely humbling. Since we’re right next door to Mexico, most of my ESL students are Mexican. They come from all walks of life: housewives whose goal it is to speak English by the time they’re 50, teenagers who are trying to become fluent enough to eventually get their degree, adults who already have already earned advanced degrees but now find themselves back at square one, trying to learn English and get a degree in the U.S.
I complain a lot. Not all at once, and not always aloud, but I definitely complain a lot. I complain about the concerts and book signings and art house films I’m missing in New York. I complain about having to to carefully budget so that I can make one biggish splurge a month, like buying enough fabric to experiment on a new sewing pattern, or finally getting that poor stray mama cat in my backyard spayed once and for all (keeping my fingers crossed for next week). I complain about the lack of selection at all the local public libraries.
I complain about having a master’s degree and not being able to find a full-time job, much less one with benefits. I complain about being tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. I complain about having to sleep on the living room couch since I couldn’t bring my bed back down with me from New York. I sure as hell complain about living back at home with my parents. I complain that this is not where I saw myself being at this point in my life. And then on top of all that, I complain about all kinds of other horrible things going on in the world (see: blog).
Today I spent nearly two hours working on vocabulary and pronunciation with an ESL student. I was exhausted by the end of those two hours. Turns out, he had been there at least 6 hours before we’d even begun. It was his day off work, and he had to get his schoolwork taken care of.
He asked me in the middle of the session if I’d been born in the U.S. Was English my first language?
He smiled at me then, enviously. “You’re very lucky.”
A while after that session ended, I had another student come in for help on an assignment. He was young, energetic, and eager to hear any suggestions I could give him.
He later confided that he’d been out of school for several years due to a disability, but was now well and eager to jump back into his studies, work hard, and later move to New York to fulfill his dreams. His enthusiasm was infectious.
It’s days like these that snap me back to reality and put my privilege in check.