Two elderly black women sit together with short pencils and workbooks and packets spread in front of them. One woman has a composition book, where she writes notes in tiny, neat handwriting – conserving space, documenting things she should remember. They talk and laugh with a Hispanic man who could be their grandson and me, their tutor, young enough to be their granddaughter.
They ask tentative questions about pronouns and verb tenses, participles and how to use semi-colons. Sometimes relearning with them, I explain and give examples and the light slowly shines brighter in their eyes. Pronouns are especially difficult. These women, who have spoken this language their entire lives and have used pronouns for just as long, have a rough time differentiating between demonstrative and personal, reflexive and reflective, he/she/themselves/they/who.
The woman with the composition book takes deliberate notes and slowly, slowly answers more and more questions on her own – completing her packet, page by page. When she hands it over to me to check her answers, she averts her eyes. #1 – correct. #2 – correct. #3…#4…#5… When I joke, “You cheated, didn’t you?” The woman laughs nervously and smiles a confident smile of understanding. She hugs me. With a catch in her throat and tears in my own eyes, she thanks me. Thank you for helping me understand. Thank you for making this make sense. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
The same women ask me questions – where do you live, how old are you, where did you go to high school, to college. We talk about our families. The young man tells us about moving to the United States from Mexico when he was eight years old. He tells us about the dog who attacked him in Mexico and left scars on the back of his head. He tells us about leaving high school at sixteen – “To go to work. You have to help. You have to feed your families. To pay bills, you know?”
And the women – Pauline is seventy-five and the other, Gloria, is sixty. I would have guessed much younger.
Pauline lived in England for many years. She raised three children. Her youngest – “her baby” – passed away already. All of them went to college. Seventy-five years old and she needs her GED. To keep her busy. To keep her learning. For her pride. Because society puts such a value on education and degrees and certificates and pieces of paper that she does not feel accomplished without her education.
“I have to keep learning, keep going or it’s over.”
Gloria operated heavy machinery for years and years and years. Her wrist is sometimes wrapped, tight and painful – her doctor says she might have arthritis. She raised five children. Five children with degrees and diplomas. Her grandson teases her and taunts her. He is thirteen and tells his grandmother that he will have his diploma before her.
“I have to beat him,” Gloria said.
Gloria explains that she feels ashamed that she doesn’t have her high school education. A woman who has worked, doing hard manual labor for her entire life and raised five children is ashamed.
She tells the three of us, “My daughter told me that she admires me.”
One of the nuns who founded our community center rushes into the room during GED class one night. Students are spread out at round tables, huddled over their workbooks and packets, learning how to construct sentences or multiply fractions. Some are old, many are younger than you might guess. Some barely speak English. I sit at a table with three young Hispanic women, one of them pregnant, a boy in first grade and a young Hispanic man.
The sister is visibly excited. She greets students, asks them how their class is going. Then she makes an announcement to the class. There was a march and a rally downtown that afternoon. People rallied in support of immigration reform – hundreds marched and a select few sat in the middle of the road, to block traffic, to draw attention. Civil disobedience. The sister was moved, she was excited. She tells the students about watching people you know be arrested, how as U.S. citizens you can do that – you can participate in civil disobedience and be arrested without the greater worry of being sent away forever.
A woman at my table whispers, “They did that for us.” Her whisper grows louder and she pauses, places her pen down and holds her pregnant stomach. “They did that for us.”
The students speak in Spanish for a few moments. Most are there to earn their GED so they will qualify for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). So that they will have a chance at getting a job, getting their education and will move one step down the long road to citizenship. A chance without worry of being deported.
“They did that for us,” she says again. “That is why I am doing this. For a chance.”