Thursday, March 8, 2012

What if They Don't Smell Like Teen Spirit?

Last week, the children drew graphite mountains, tall EKG machine spikes spanning the page. Below the peaks were large bodies of water with large fish. The youngest girl fumbled for words as she pointed. "Burma."

I shook my head and smiled. It was rather obvious. Here in Louisiana, there are no hills, let alone mountains.

Near the water's edge she drew houses, small huts. We spoke two word sentences of fishing, of eating fish. Although our words were simple, halting, at least we could share more than we did four weeks ago when she started coming to ESL class with her grandmother.

Then, she didn't speak. Now, she asked the English name for each picture she drew; I spelled slowly so she could write down the letters, tapped my finger on the page when she mixed up "u" and "n."

House. Sun. Mountain. Fish.

Mom. Grandma. Sister. Uncle. Niece. Me.

Then, she drew a box with a person inside and pointed to heaven. Brother. Buried back in Burma, he still was remembered.

Aunt. Cancer. "The doctor took her to hospital," she explained, grimacing and holding her stomach in memory of her aunt's pain.

The world is small. Half a globe away and yet her family is marked just like mine by that word.

At the class' end, this little girl with the rounded cheeks drew a cross atop one hut and met my eyes. "Christian." She pointed to the cross and herself before repeating the word again, making sure I understood.

I sat amazed. This child who didn't know the word "crayons" knew "Christian" and "cancer."

I leaned around the table, tucking in close to her, and whispered a promise of crayons next week.


Last night, the three girls covered their notebook pages in flowers, not tulips and loopy petaled daisies like typical American children would draw but flowers that kept expanding outward from the center in symmetrical vector-like circles--Mendhi designs seen in the popular henna tattoos. They were beautiful.

And unlike the previous week of grey and white, this time, each girl took her new box of crayons to the drawing. There was no dumping of all twenty-four across the table. Each crayon was gingerly slipped out, then returned to its place before another was selected.


In just four weeks' time, I have fallen wildly in love with this group of people I am helping learn to speak English each Thursday evening.

Some in the group are from Yemen, some Burma, a few from Rwanda, two from Ethiopia.

They don't look like me. They don't smell freshly bathed like me. They haven't had the privilege of a good education like I have. Their smiles indicate they've likely never seen a dentist.

So what.

I often wonder what stories they could tell if we understood each other better. I know their lives have been more difficult than I can even conceive. I would expect that some could have deadly diseases lurking beneath their dark skin. Some could even die from those diseases.

But when I put a hand on their shoulders in friendship, when I stoop by them so close that we share the same oxygen, I offer not only my love but God's love. It's supernatural how fond I have grown of their faces, their shy smiles, their laughter.

Their eyes still flicker each time I mis-pronounce their names, but after four weeks, they've stopped correcting me. I guess they've determined I'm a lost cause, incapable of producing that guttural trill that I'm not sure I can even hear some of the time.

I try and they try. I learn and they learn. I laugh and they laugh. And through it all, God's love lights up the room, bringing two sides of the globe together.

Neither of us will ever be the same.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, Jennifer, what a wonderful thing. I love that you're doing this, able to take hands like this, "tuck in close" in this way. These experiences stretch us, bless us, bless through us. I'm so glad you have this opportunity to give through that kind and generous heart of yours.

    And yeah -- so what. So what if they are not like us. We are not like them. But we are connected.