The difficulty, I think, in describing my Augustinian volunteer service experience in the Bronx is that my emotions are almost always contradictory to each other, a jumbled mess swirling around inside my brain all the time.
In one day, or even one hour, heck sometimes in one moment, I often feel equally inspired and helpless, equally frustrated and joyful, equally privileged and disadvantaged. There are moments when I feel completely out of place and other moments when I know that I am exactly where I belong.
I’m most certain of the fact that I am exactly where I am meant to be when I’m in my classroom, teaching ESL to adult immigrants who made their way to the Bronx from all parts of the world. In a classroom where it would appear that there is so much that is different and that is foreign, I couldn’t feel more at home. Both of my two daily classes are comprised of a mix of people who are young, middle-aged, and elderly. There are people who are native speakers of Spanish, Albanian, Vietnamese, Albanian, French, Chinese, and Cambodian. Some are single, others married, some divorced, and others say “it’s complicated.” Many have children, some have grandchildren, and others still define themselves as children.
But the lovely thing about these classes is that all the uniqueness that defines us and makes us so different from one another, is exactly what brings us together as one beautiful whole. In being different from one another, we come together simply as who we are, and it is from this point that we build bonds of a common humanity and a united effort towards a common goal. Our goal of course is to learn English, but throughout the year I have also realized that we are working towards other less obvious goals as well. We are helping build a confidence in each student to live with dignity and self assurance in a country where they often feel isolated and separated from what is familiar and comfortable.
Have we accomplished our goals this year? I wish I could invite all of you to step into our classroom and decide for yourself. If you walked into the classroom the students would likely introduce themselves and tell you where they are from and then ask you a dozen or more questions about yourself to get to know you, to get to know you really well. “Where are you from? How old are you? Do you have children? Are you married? Why not? Do you have a boyfriend? Why not? Do you like to play sports? What food do you like?” My classes are beginner level, the first level that we offer at St. Rita’s, and some of these students could not even tell you their name when they first walked through the door.
Hard work and a lot of support from each other is what has made them so successful in learning the foundations of the English language and using it in daily life. I have been most blown away by the support that they give each other, and it is that support that has helped us in reaching our other goal of building confidence. It may surprise you, but some of the strongest relationships that have been built are across nationalities and languages.
In my morning class you will likely see the young Cambodian girl leaning over and asking the Mexican mother for help. You will see the older Vietnamese woman presenting her answers in front of the class, and she is doing it despite her shyness and hesitance because she is being encouraged by the rest of the class. Before returning to her seat she will receive a high five from her best friend in the class, a younger Dominican guy who she always sits next to.
In my afternoon class you will find the eccentric middle-aged Dominican lady telling a story about her childhood boyfriend, using more hand gestures and facial expressions and random sound effects than she actually uses English words, but still the main details of the story are grasped by everyone and the entire classes is laughing so hard they are nearly crying. Later you will see the excitement on the faces of all of the Albanian and Spanish-speaking students when they realize that yet another word is the same in both of their languages. And you will also see the way the entire class responds with love, support and empathy when one woman talks about the loss of her husband, or another talks about her sick sister miles across the Atlantic, or another talks about deeply missing family members that they have not been able to return to Mexico to see in over 15 years, a sacrifice they make by living in America.
Everyone here at St. Rita’s has contributed to making this a space of shared joys and shared struggle, reminiscent of how I would describe family relationships and exactly how I would describe some of my best friendships. We are from different backgrounds and we have different experiences to share, but yet we are more than “teacher” or “student” when we are here in our class. Sometimes we are “sister,” “hermano,” “granddaughter,” “friend,” “amigita,” “cousin,” “daughter,” or any other expression for friend or family.
There are many times when I feel challenged and frustrated, helpless and even hopeless about certain things, but I am experiencing those emotions with people who I consider to be as close as family and friends. My co-workers, my neighbors, and especially my students and my community members are all a part of my family and support here who have made me feel as though this place and this moment is my home. Exactly where I belong.
Bronx, NY 2010-2011