Two Cultures, One Goal

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.

Reach across barriers to help a child.

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.

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