"What do you suppose the words 'scandal' and 'dockworker' mean? And the phrase 'self-imposed exile' -- what does that mean?"
Marjorie Pinsky posed the questions to her students, who were poring over the morning newspaper.
With each correct answer, the students bubbled with enthusiasm and a sense of accomplishment -- not unusual in a classroom. But this class consists not of youngsters, but of adults who have come to this country knowing little or no English.
While immigrant children learn the language of their adopted home in school, adult immigrants come to the Gordon Adult Education Center in Georgetown to do the same thing before or after work.
Formerly a junior high school, Gordon is now the District's only public school that teaches English and job skills to the city's growing adult immigrant population.
The school also offers support services such as counseling for personal and family problems and for cultural shocks.
"The overall goal of the school is to provide non-English speaking adults with the basic skills in language, cultural understanding and job placement so that they may become productive, contributing citizens in the mainstream of American society," said principal Sonia Guiterrez.
Janis Cromer, a school system spokesman, said, "The Gordon Center provides an invaluable service to our community, especially in light of the growing non-English speaking population in Washington."
The school's 1,600 students, who hail from 90 countries, speak 50 languages.
The students range from newly arrived refugees from rural war-torn El Salvador to snappily dressed employes from Embassy Row to naturalized American citizens who want to improve the adopted language they have spoken for years.
Most are from El Salvador, Ethiopia and the continent of Asia, said Jay Castano, an assistant principal. They are taught by a staff of 17 full-time and 19 part-time teachers.
There are more students than the school is supposed to accommodate. "We try to serve as many as possible," Guiterrez said. "For example, only 15 students should be in a language class, but we allow 30-35," she said. There is a waiting list of more than 400.
Because of the demand, she said, school system officials are trying to find a second building. "I see people who are so needy -- some actually kneel and plead with me to enroll them," she said.
Edwin Vargas, 24, is among the large contingent of part-time students at Gordon. He came to this country from El Salvador three years ago and lives with his sister in Bethesda.
"I work from 4 p.m. until 1 a.m.," said Vargas, a house cleaning supervisor at the Watergate hotel. "But I manage to finish my homework because it's important. My dream is to have a career in business administration, and I must learn English to make that dream come true.
"We also learn American customs," he added. "Gordon is great because of the opportunity it gives us."
Wansu Chen, 67, gained her citizenship 22 years ago but has never felt completely comfortable with English. Her husband, she said, "did not allow English to be spoken in our household because he feared we would forget our language." She enrolled in Gordon to better communicate with her children.
Juana Diaz, who came here from El Salvador, credits Gordon with helping her to pass the American citizenship test on Oct. 29. Two weeks later she brought her teacher, Cuemile Dunn, a bouquet of flowers and told the class that the test included such questions as, "Who was the first U.S. president?," "What are the colors of the flag?," and "What are the three branches of government?"
Gordon closed as a junior high school in 1978 and was reborn later that year as the product of the merger of the Americanization School and the Program of English Instruction for Latin Americans, which had been located at the Wilson Center, 1470 Irving St. NW, in the heart of the Hispanic community. But PEILA but needed a new location for its growing enrollment.
The teachers are as motivated as the students. Dunn holds citizen classes during the summer to help immigrants who want to take their citizenship test as soon as possible. "I feel I'm helping people who truly are in need," she said simply.
Her husband, Temple, an organist and choir director, helps by playing patriotic songs for the students to sing. "This inspires the students and familiarizes them with the songs," Dunn said.
Karin Navas, whose 9:30 a.m. English class is filled with Salvadorans who have little formal education, said, "There is no teacher burnout because these are good people who make you feel you're doing a good job. I receive a great deal of personal fulfillment teaching these students," she added.
Navas, who has taught at Gordon for three years, continued, "These students are honest, hard-working, motivated people. All of them must work to survive -- there are more dishwashers here than I have met in my entire life."
The school system pays the teachers and buys supplies, "but we raise money through various activities, such as food fairs and dances, to acquire the other things we need," principal Guiterrez said.
Her only complaint is about the building's condition. "When it rains, the cafeteria sometimes floods," she said. "Heavy rains sometime prevent use of the front entrance." She added that the auditorium had to be closed because downpours caused plaster to fall from the the ceiling and floors to buckle.
Improvement of the building, she said, is part of her five-year plan. "If I can get this school in top shape and acquire at least one more building," she said with a smile, "I'll be happy."