Vocabulary for Real Life: Another Story from ESL Class

 “Guess – chures, guess – chures.”

“No, remember how we pronounced it: JEST-chures.”

“Ah, yes…”

Helping my level four students acquire a facility with new vocabulary is part of my work, and one of the words we had a couple of weeks ago was gestures, which we defined as “hand movements that have meaning.”

Most days, as we’re learning a new grammar skill or learning to write a paragraph, I let my students break into groups and help each other with their work. One day a couple of weeks ago, as I had my students writing sentences to practice a new grammar skill, I watched as two Ethiopian men who sit near the front of the room interacted as I answered a question for them.  I don’t remember what they had asked but I do remember what happened as I tried to clear up their confusion. As I helped them, one of the men, a younger guy close to my age who I’ll call Addisu, began to explain to the other, an older man in his late 60’s who I’ll call Temesgen, what I had said.  As Addisu spoke, I noticed his right arm extend across his chest and over to Temesgen’s paper (he was sitting close to the elder man’s right side) where he began to erase one of the mistakes Temesgen had made in one of his sentences. As I continued to explain what Temesgen’s mistake was, Addisu then noticed that the elder man had made the same mistake in each of his sentences.  Arm still extended across his chest as though he were about to embrace him, Addisu proceeded to erase each of the mistakes in Temesgen’s other sentences as well. All this time, the elder gentleman sat listening to the younger man, letting him use his eraser on his paper.  There was no shame or embarrassment (even for a proud man like Temesgen), either in having someone help him or in having someone else so close and in his space.

This easy-to-pass-over moment in what was an otherwise normal morning of teaching stopped me where I was. As I watched Addisu help a man who was probably old enough to be his dad learn his grammar, I caught sight of something profound: a gesture–a younger man helping an older man understand a grammar concept that he wasn’t getting, going out of his way to make sure an elder had what he needed before he tended to his own work.

We live in what Pope Francis has called a “throwaway culture,” where the insatiable appetite of consumerism, which we are all subject to, influences us to always be looking for the next thing, or the new and more interesting thing.  That which is no longer interesting or new is simply replaced and we move on, leaving the old and outdated behind.

What interests me most in working with people from places like Ethiopia, the Congo, and Iraq–all countries that are still largely uninfluenced by our consumeristic ways–is how I can learn from these cultures–and even how many of their cultural norms are more in line with what I believe as a Christian than what I see here in my own country.  In these communities, I see people devoted to neighborliness, graciousness, and hope. In their cultures, community is still prioritized: the good of the other is my good too.  It’s not a zero sum game.  And in most cases, what is new or more interesting is not more important than helping my neighbor.

And so there I was. That one small gesture by Addisu stopped me that day long enough to humble me into remembering that I have a lot to learn from my students.  They may come to me because they want to speak and read English, but I need them in my life to help crack open the hardened shell of individualism that has formed a protective layer around me from years of trying to get ahead and make a name for myself.  I’m thankful that I get to do this everyday and be a witness to their grace and generosity.