Who's teaching whom?

By Jan Richman Schulman 01/31/2013

A number of years ago, I read an article about the Oxnard Public Library needing tutors for its Adult Literacy Program. I phoned, set up an interview and went to the Library to find out what would be required of me to become a tutor. I met the program coordinator, Barbara, and we arranged for me to attend a tutor training session that weekend. Approximately 20 other people attended. For the next few hours, I was “tutored” in an amazing training that taught me how much I had yet to learn about the English language. I came away feeling that I now knew so much. Little did I know.

I was paired with a young married mother of two. Alicia (not her real name) was adorable, spoke broken English, was attending the Oxnard Adult School and hoped to attain her GED. She explained to me that she had a reading list from the school and we sat down to select a book from that list. For whatever reason, we picked The Pearl by John Steinbeck. We read it, with her reading one paragraph out loud and me reading another.  She took the book home and I checked out a copy for myself. We came back the next week and we both had many questions about the story. This was not an easy book! We reread it aloud and began discussing it. We went over vocabulary, pronunciation, definitions, symbolism, metaphors. I would go back to Barbara time and again for guidance.

In the meantime, Alicia and I also worked on general conversation, with an emphasis on pronunciation and vocabulary. At one point (against the rules, I have to tell you), I invited her to lunch so that she would order IN ENGLISH from an all-English menu. Her young daughter (12 years old) came along. I knew that one of Alicia’s problems was her self-consciousness in public. She felt her English was poor and was afraid that people would laugh at her. I had to constantly reassure her that she was doing fine, was easy to understand and that nobody was going to say anything about her English skills while I was around. As Alicia and I spoke, I noticed her daughter becoming visibly upset. Finally she blurted: “Mama! Don’t speak English! You sound horrible!” I was shocked. “No,”  I said, “She does not sound horrible. Your mother is working very hard to learn English and she needs your encouragement and your patience. I am counting on you to help your mother with that.  Can you?” She grumbled something akin to “Yeah. OK.”

The waiter came and, seeing that he was a Spanish speaker, Alicia began to speak to him in Spanish.  He responded in kind. I reminded her that we were only going to speak English and asked the waiter to do the same with us. Our orders were given and we spent the rest of the lunch in general conversation in English. 

I researched that damned story for days, reading article after article about it until I felt I had grasped it for the most part. We reviewed it over and over again.  Then the day of her test arrived.  She was a nervous wreck, as was I.  She left the library for the Adult School.  I didn’t hear from her until the following week.

When she came in the next Monday, she was beaming. “You did it?” I asked.  “You passed ...?”

“Yes! I got an A on the quiz!” She decided to give me a speaking quiz. I could not even take a regular written test. ”  

My jaw dropped. A written quiz would have been so much easier for Alicia because it would have given her time to think through her answers and she would not be so self-conscious. She told me that the teacher was very impressed at how well she understood the story. I grabbed her hand and pulled her with me to the Literacy Program office to tell Barbara what had happened. We had a congratulatory moment, jumping up and down and (quietly in the library) cheering. I can’t remember a happier moment for me. I was so so proud of Alicia.

Alicia is no longer in the progam, but I know that she remembers that day and that feeling of accomplishment. I think of it and of her so often and I will never ever forget it! 

I now have a new adult learner who works very hard learning English. Once again, I find myself learning more than I can ever teach. She is a terrific young woman, a hardworking member of our community, and I love our sessions together.

(The Adult Literacy Program now has a new director, Deborah Fox, who is absolutely wonderful. I have a new adult learner whom I adore and whom I have been with for more than two years. I cannot state emphatically enough what a joy this experience has been for me! I know that I get so much more than I give. I am proud to live in Oxnard and participate in the Oxnard Public Library’s amazing Literacy Program.)

Jan Richman Schulman is a resident of Oxnard.


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