Late one afternoon last week in my classroom, where the remnants of the day’s lesson on connotation and denotation still remained in bright turquoise marker on my whiteboard, a mom stopped in for an impromptu conference.
I was happily surprised. I love meeting with the parents of the middle-schoolers in my English as a Second Language classes, but given the logistics of them needing to pre-schedule a time when our interpreter, Mr. Hassan, is free, I’m generally the one calling them (with his help) to set up a time, not the other way around.
Lelah’s mom, accompanied by Mr. Hassan, wore a beautiful orange and maroon hijab wrapped tightly and elegantly around her head, held at her throat by a small, round brooch. I tucked my hair behind my ears and invited them to sit with me at a group of desks that had served as a literature discussion circle earlier in the day.
“I’m Mrs. Morrow, Lelah’s reading teacher.” (I’d stopped introducing myself to parents as an ESL teacher several years ago when a parent informed me that his daughter was already fluent in Somali, Arabic, and Swahili, making English her fourth language.)
Mr. Hassan duly translated. I held out my hand to shake hers in greeting.
I’d offended a number of fathers my first few years of teaching, reaching to shake their hands as was expected in my culture, but a sign of disrespect from a woman to a man in theirs.
At the same time, I’d also discovered that the mothers treasured an affectionate joining of hands, a sign of common understanding that we came to the table as equals.
She squeezed my plain, white hand between hers, still beautifully decorated with henna flowers from the recent Eid celebration, and responded in a long jumble of Somali.
After 18 years of teaching Somali and Mai Mai students, I wished I knew more than the eight words I’ve picked up: please, thank you, good morning, sit down, be quiet, yes, no and come here, but the heavy emphasis on multiple consonants without vowels and guttural inflections made it more difficult to learn than the lexically similar Spanish.
As we settled into the hard, plastic chairs at the shiny, faux-birch topped desks, she continued her dialogue with Mr. Hassan, barely taking a breath as she raised her dark eyes to peer at me.
Unlike colleagues who squirm at the vast silences and long chunks of unfamiliar speech that come with interpretation, I relish the lulls as a time to observe parents who have lived a life so different from mine that I imagine there can’t possibly be any similarities between us.
They’ve lived on at least two continents, and I’ve never lived more than three hours from my parents. They fear swine, yet my grandfather, a pig farmer, gave my sister and me a runt to raise as a family pet. I graduated from college twice; thanks to a civil war in their homeland, some of them have never had the chance to attend primary school.
By the way her hands gestured and her voice grew loud, I imagined I’d inadvertently offended Lelah. I thought back over the last few weeks with her. We’d talked about a few books she’d finished; she’d written and fluently read several short but structurally sound paragraphs to me. We’d discussed her entering high school in less than six months and what study habits she needed to start now to be successful…
A choke of surprise from Mr. Hassan startled me from my introspection.
“Mom”, he started, as he affectionately calls all mothers with whom we confer, “has a question about Lelah.” There’s an unusual bit of humor in his otherwise serious dark eyes that I haven’t seen before.
“Sure,” I shrug, wishing I knew more than those eight words so I had an inkling of what I was in for.
“The other day, Mom came into the living room and the television was on and the computer was on. Lelah was in the room on the couch reading a book.”
My attempt at drawing a conclusion came up empty.
The smile in his voice amplified. “Lelah was on the couch reading a book,” he repeated, whether for my benefit or Mom’s, I didn’t know.
“Mom was angry because Lelah can’t read. She asked Lelah why she was pretending to read. Lelah said she isn’t pretending anymore and that she knows how to read now. Is that true? Mom says that Lelah is faking her reading because she wants Mom to think she can read when she really can’t.”
“Lelah can read.” Processing the situation took me a moment, but the response did not.
Parents of every student deserve honesty, whether they want it or not. I sometimes use simpler words or add in extra niceties, but no matter what cultural differences, honesty is universal.
“She can’t read this,” I explained, grabbing my copy of “Among the Hidden” from my desk and handing it to him.
“But she can read this.” I plucked a few chapter books from a reading basket on my shelf.
“She’s learning, slowly. When she transferred to this school in October, she struggled with second-grade books, but she reads and writes for me every day.”
Mr. Hassan spread the books on Mom’s desk, pointing to each and explaining what I’d said in a way I hoped would not upset her about the level of the texts. To someone familiar with the texts of the eighth-grade school year, like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Diary of Anne Frank,” these chapter books seemed unthinkable.
I wanted Mom to see the difficulty that lay ahead of Lelah if she didn’t continue reading independently–as well as the place from where she’d come.
Most importantly, I wanted Mom to see in Lelah what I saw: a budding student who really was a reader.
Several emotions flickered across Mom’s face when Mr. Hassan finished. The silence in the room grew to a level that nearly made me squirm. Mom started to speak in what I thought would be a litany of angry responses to my counter of her suspicions. Instead, she reached across the books for my hand.
“Tank you.” She continued in a slower, more thoughtful version of her Somali, keeping my hand tightly in her henna-streaked hands. When she stopped, Mr. Hassan picked up.
“Mom wants to thank you. She don’t believe when Lelah said she could read because she knows Lelah can’t read. She come to U.S. school in second grade and she never learned to read.”
Mom’s piercing brown stare that had moments ago made me nervous now eased into soft gratitude, as though she understood Mr. Hassan’s explanation.
“Mom buys lots of books for Lelah to read at home, but Lelah never read books before. Mom says thank you for teaching her to read.”
“That’s my job,” I quipped, earning a smile from both Mr. Hassan (and Mom, in translation.)
At the same time that I felt my heart broken by the realization that this girl had spent 13 years of her life not being able to read, I felt hopeful at her confidence to take up reading on her own.
“Let Mom know it’s her job to keep Lelah reading at home. She can take any of my books, but Mom needs to turn off the television and computer and make her read.”
Mom nodded even before Mr. Hassan began, as if she’d been given the first step in a process she’d never been able to begin herself. When she squeezed my hands between hers one last time, we didn’t need an interpreter to tell us what we’d done together, separately.
We’d given Lelah a future without speaking a word.
Beth Morrow is an educator, author and co-program director for Camp Hamwi, a week-long residential camp for teenagers with diabetes. She can be reached at email@example.com.