The first day of my return to full-time work starts later than it should have, as I struggle to get ready and dress the baby. I drop off 9-month-old Ricardito at the babysitter, herself a pregnant mother of two.
I am rushed into my classroom by the school's director. He introduces me to a class of 15 foreign students, who greet me: "Gud morrrning, teechir." At least seven countries, but only three languages, are represented. The students are beginners, but really wish to learn. All of them are high school graduates from their countries, supported in Washington by their families.
I am at a loss on how to explain "money order," except through translation. I say it in Spanish, and my Bolivians, Guatemalans and Peruvians write "giro" in the notebooks. I explain it in French to Mohammed from Algeria, who translates it into Arabic for my two in the back from the Sudan.
We review the present continuous tense with 20 common verbs, then take a break. The guard from the Iranian interests section, which shares the floor with my school, tries to interest his brand of Islam. The security there is so intense that only a few people at a time can enter the embassy, so a line of dark- eyed men and women in scarves winds down the corridor past my classroom. I overhear a Peruvian student commenting on how an Iranian woman in a full-length chador looks like the nuns from her old convent school in the Andes. I attempt to set her straight.
At 1:30, one job is over with for the day. Dito screams for joy when he sees me and we take a short nap together. When I wake up, I make ground beef, beans, rice and hand- made tortillas for my husband and 15 year- old brother-in-law's.
Dito seems to like being at the babysitter and my husband and I hope she'll continue to watch him even after she gives birth, but somehow I doubt it.
My daytime students are confused about six words that they claim sound identical: sheep, ship, cheap, chip, sheet and a bad word. I explain them and contrast their meanings, minus the dirty word.
I find out that one of my student's husband is the ambassador from her country. Despite her status, she's as unassuming and natural as the cleaning ladies I've also known from her country. Besides Spanish, she speaks the Indian dialect.
Registration begins for night school tonight, so I don't have to teach, just administer tests. I bring the baby, who I know will be a hit with the students. As I give placements tests, and help new students fill out registration forms, my little boy is held, cuddled, watched and amused by at least five different people, mostly men from his father's own country, El Salvador. Some of them certainly have small children back home, in towns named Aguacaliente, El Carmen, Intipuc,a and Chirilagua. There is a sadness in how they hold him, waiting to register for English classes and pay their $15 fee.
The men tell little about themselves, but when I hear they've been in this country for only a month, I can only imagine why they left El Salvador and how they suffered. The students usually don't talk about the war or their familes. Instead some tell me about their jobs as maids to Washington's wealthy, some of whom have helped them, and about others with liquor bottles under their beds. They tell me how hard they work, and despite D.C.'s high rent, they manage to send part of their minimum wage back home to their families.
The differences between my two groups of students are great. The morning students are all legal on student visas, and pay to study English 20 hours a week. They take good notes and make a great effort to learn English. Most plan on entering a university here once they master English sufficiently. All of them are high school graduates and will be "successful."
On my dictation, most do well, except Khaled from the Sudan. I suggest that he practice his handwriting, as it is almost illegible to all but an English as a second language teacher. He's bright and hopes to enter UDC in the fall.
I leave for work later than usual, so I can see my husband for more than just a few minutes. No one as yet has arrived for registration and the other teachers and I joke around with the school's custodian staff. They're angry because the school was recently vandalized, the kitchen broken into. Crime such as muggings really frighten my students a great deal. They are so surprised that the police seem indifferent.
Registration picks up. I interview an Aracely del Carmen S,anchez from a small village in La Uni,on, El Salvador. She's 22, with three children back home and has a fourth- grade education. Since she can't answer the second question on our beginner's oral exam, "Where do you live?" I stop the test and enroll her in level 1.
My next registrant is 38, a carpenter from Moraz,an, El Salvador. He's had nine years of schooling, which makes him more or less literate. He's a busboy in a glamorous Franch restaurant and I inform him that he cleans the tables of some of Washington's most influential men. He's not impressed, but he likes his job and makes good tips. He volunteers, "If God wants, I'll be able to bring my family here soon." I register him for level 2.
Five more people take the exam, all from El Salvador. We go home on time, the custodian letting us all out to walk together. Our street can be dangrous at night, so we walk in a group.
Somehow I always seem to be the last teacher to arrive at work. My students want to go over their homework on possessive adjectives, which is harder to figure out than we think, especially for my Spanish speakers.
We review the days of the week, months, dates and the alphabet out loud. Mohammed from Algeria has to spell his long last name, as does Sonia, her native city, Cochabamba, and Hector, Tegucigalpa, his country's capital.
It's the first night of class following registration, and my room, the level-1 classroom, is jammed. My 20 or so students have been in Washington for an average of six months, except two older ladies who have been here for ages, never learning English.
I start with common question: "What's your name?" "Where do you live?" Many can't say their addresses in English yet, nor do they remember their phone numbers. One student, Jos,e Antonio, has been here for three days, leaving behind four sisters and three brother in Nicaragua. He's no refugee, just an ordinary guy looking for any kind of job. He slowly repeats his address in English after me.
Rubidia, one of the few women, has a hard time saying her phone number. "My number phone," she insists, and I correct her. I get her to pronounce six like six and not sick. I ask 16-year-old Francis to ask Raul next to him, both from San Miguel, El Salvador, where he lives. He shouts to poor timid Raul, "Where joo lib?" It seems like he's interrogating a prisoner. Another shouts in Spanish, "Hey, man, are you a member of the guardia?" referring to the National Guard in El Salvador. They all laugh. I quietly restore order. Most of them can answer correctly my initial questions.
Wilfredo, from Morazan, El Salvador, answers with more confidence than the rest. He's only been here for two months, but says he learned some English back home.
Someone says we should be careful about talking about politics. I inform him that in this country no one will come and arrest you in the middle of the night for talking politics, that we have certain freedoms here.
A new student enters. He's 17 with a fourth-grade education who went to work at 10 to help support a large family and a widowed mother. I have heard this pattern repeated so many times that I'm not surprised. It's nothing new among my students that they've dropped out of school to help their families. I silently marvel at his courage.
They take dictation on family members and most do well. I notice, as they write their answers on the board, a child-like quality of much of the handwriting. Many can't write cursive. They only know how to print.
Carlos tells me that, "si Dios quiere," his older brothers will join him in this country, but it's so expensive to bring them here. Somehow I know he doesn't mean air fare, but a long journey by land through Central America, Mexico and up through Texas, then by bus to D.C., with no luggage, except maybe a Santa Biblia in hand. Carlos is going to have to bus a lot of tables to bring his brothers here, but they'll come.
Adalberto is absent, as is Mohammed from Algeria and the Chilean waiter who never seems to come anyway. My class continues to work on prepositions and the simple present tense. We review time and weather expressions, plus parts of the body. For some reason, time flies today and I'm home before I know it.