Saturday, April 14, 2012


A normal week, a mid-quarter week, holds at least two timed writing practices. I meet with other writers, set a timer for thirty minutes and let it flow (or trickle or slosh). But not these past two weeks. I whine to my clever friend and dedicated writing partner, Pam Hobart Carter, about my lack of writing, lack of progress on my latest project, lack of time. Pam sends me her sage response: “Many famous and accomplished writers do not write every day. It is a pattern we’ve had touted as if it were the natural and sole road to success. It is only one of the roads.” And I let myself off the hook.

I examine my writing cycle, a cycle that mirrors the three-quarter academic cycle. I write like a maniac during quarter breaks, but when a new quarter begins there are several weeks when I am consumed by work. When I am not writing, I teach. I can say that among writers. At work, I say I write when I’m not teaching. It’s all in where you want to put the emphasis.

A student once asked if I preferred writing or teaching ESL to adult refugees and immigrants. I struggled for an answer. I love both. How could I not? Each quarter I face a tiny United Nations and I get to be Ban Ki-moon, but with greater powers and perhaps more direct, hands on support.

Spring quarter began two weeks ago. Two weeks of dropping and adding and moving the waitlist have passed. Students preregister for these tuition-free college classes, but life changes in a flash for those living on the edge: their boss switches their minimum wage work schedule, a family member falls ill, there’s no money for childcare, there’s a death back home.

I’m teaching two classes this quarter. There are twenty-five students in my 8:00 a.m. class.  Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras. Tonga. Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar. Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia. Iraq and Bulgaria. Twelve nations. In the 11:00 a.m. class there are thirty students. Liberia in West Africa, Morocco to the north, Ethiopia and Somalia to the east. Iraq and Iran. Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, China and Korea. Mexico and El Salvador. Another dozen countries, a few new ones thrown into the mix.

Languages: Arabic, Amharic, Bulgarian, Burmese, Cambodian, Chinese, Farsi, French, Italian, Khmer, Korean, Kunama, Moroccan, Oromo, Somali, Spanish, Swahili, Tigrinya, Tongan, Vietnamese. Twenty languages. Twenty-one when we add English. The number is far greater than the number of home countries because unlike most Americans, these immigrants often speak two or three languages before they arrive on our shores.

How many of us have the privilege of that kind of daily international interaction? I watch and listen as these students negotiate a path begun long ago (or perhaps not so long ago) and faraway when they first made the decision to leave behind all they know and love: home and family, culture and language. Or when that decision was forced upon them by war, violence, famine or religious persecution. All come to America in search of safety and freedom. Concepts that seem to lose their depth of meaning in the complacency of middle class comfort.

As I hear the stumbling conversations, as I look into the eyes behind the veils, as I see the scars, both physical and emotional, I am daily reminded of my amazing good fortune to have the opportunity to work with these survivors. In this tiny microcosm of ages from early twenties to late forties, of educational levels from primary school to university graduates, of religious beliefs and cultural traditions, we build a peaceful community based on a shared goal – to learn the English language. If only all international goals were so unified and all conflict resolution so simple as in my own United Nations. I remember Pam’s words, quiet my whining about finding time to write each day, and enjoy my other life’s work.


Mindy Halleck said...

No beating yourself up, and Pam is right; many, many successful writers do not write every day. We tend to burrow in and think there should be nothing that keeps us from our writing, but in truth, life is a collection of funky hats. I, myself wear many hats that steer me away from my writing. I’m the CEO of my small company, the QIG; Queen of Inept Gardening, CSS; Chief Slug Slayer, WOA; Wife of an adventurer, MD; Mommy-dearest, THG; Tragically Hip Grandma, DOD; Daughter of the damned, and SOL; Sister of the lost. And you my friend wear a hat that changes lives. Good on you! You are a GUN; Goddess of the United Nations! (I’m finished with the corny acronyms now.) See you at L's. Mindy

arleen said...

Love the acronyms, Mindy! But not so sure I like being a GUN. Not a big fan of guns myself!