M is among a group of women in our Thursday ESL class who entered marriage as a prepubescent girl and started having babies soon after. She never had the chance to attend school. Not one day. Before coming to this class at the age of about seventy, she had never held a writing utensil. She can now write her name, very wobbly but proudly.
A few of M's friends in the class seem worn out by life. Maybe they're just worn out from being immigrant-refugees, away from anything familiar, trying to adjust to a new life in their sunset years. It would make anyone pretty tired. They often complain of headaches, tapping their shaking heads with forlorn expressions. They don't participate much in class, seemingly embarrassed to answer. They drink coffee, listen, hug Abe, talk to each other.
M is different. She listens to every word the teacher says. She giggles when it's her turn, always leaning towards her friend T to give her the answer if she's not sure. And she's rarely ever sure so there's always a lot of leaning, whispering, turning back to the front and shouting the answer through a huge grin. Her pronunciation sounds often slurred, like she spikes her coffee with whiskey. Everyone laughs when it's her turn, the other women, the stoic men, the teacher and helpers. M is intelligent. M is hilarious. M is magic.
I was watching her a lot this Thursday. When our energetic teacher would jump and raise his fist to illustrate pronunciation, she would shout and raise her fist along with him. She didn't seem to notice that she was the only one doing this. This Thursday, I was seeing her as a school-girl, maybe age nine or ten, sitting in a classroom, practicing her reading or working division problems. She's always at the front. She has two white bows in her hair. Her face glistens from her walk to school in the warm Ethiopian sun. She gets in trouble for talking too much during class. She's the center of every game at recess.
A friend of mine once described Ethiopian children as "lit from within." M is in her seventies, but that light is still strong in her. Her seventy-year-old face is always lit, both on warm spring days and the constant drizzle of winter in Portland. M shines. My eyes welled up with tears watching her exuberance.
After class, the teacher was venting some of his frustration about the unsolicited teaching advice that he gets every week from the fella who also gives me unsolicited parenting advice. He was a teacher in Ethiopia, so he bluntly tells us everything we're doing wrong and how his need for explicit grammar instruction isn't being met. I told the teacher, "He has had his chance to learn. M hasn't. What you are doing in this class is righting a true injustice in her life."
I believe it. The chances of M attaining a level of English language proficiency leading to linguistic independence are slim. Who knows what level of fluency she will or won't reach? At least she knows that every Thursday morning, she gets to be ten-years-old again, attending school like every little girl should be able to do. That spark she has? Magic.