Two Cultures, One Goal


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

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2 comments on “Two Cultures, One Goal

  1. Steve Trauger on said:

    What a great story! I would hope that if when someone says “It’s my job, I’m a teacher” that that someone knows that even though (sadly) she or he may not ever be personally thanked for the service you provide, the doors you open, the worlds you help others discover, we ALL thank you. Inherently. And most exuberantly!

    • Thank you, Steve. What was most wonderful was seeing the thrill on the mom’s face when she realized her daughter can really read. Those moments don’t come often but they make teaching worth it. I appreciate your comment :)

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