Friday, December 18, 2015

Somebody Raised Him

As many of you know, I teach English as a Second Language. I teach Level 1, for beginners who have had at least some education in their home country, and Literacy 1, for students who have had no prior education, in any language. Literacy 1 students, or preliterate students, often speak native languages that have no written form. Dinka, spoken in South Sudan, falls into this category (or so I have been told). Others simply had no opportunity, whether because of poverty, or war, or because they were female in a society that didn't educate females. Whatever the reason, they present a whole slew of unique challenges. Some can't distinguish between a drawing and written language; the methods that work with children learning to read in their native language don't always work for these students.

In my Literacy 1 class, I have several students from Burma. One in particular stands out to me. Every time I hand something to him, or he hands something to me, he cups his right elbow with his left hand. He only ever uses his right hand to pass or accept things; in Southeast Asia, the left hand is "unclean," and it's not polite to use it for that kind of task. Cupping the elbow with the left hand is a traditional, respectful gesture in most of that region. It makes me a little homesick, if you can be homesick for a place you only lived for a year and a half. Every time he does it, it reminds me that somebody raised him.

Somebody raised him to be polite and respectful. Cupping his elbow is deeply ingrained behavior for him; somebody worked hard to raise a well-mannered adult. He's smart, and he catches on to new concepts quickly; somebody raised him to be curious and thoughtful about the world around him. He's a Muslim raised in Southeast Asia, so somebody raised him straddling two worlds, even before he came here to take on a third. He's never been to school before, in any country and he doesn't read in his native language. I'm still not sure what his native language is, because his English is pretty limited. Even though he's at a huge disadvantage, learning to read for the first time as an adult, and in a second language, he's putting a tremendous amount of effort into his education. He comes to class on time and rarely misses. When we practice numbers or the alphabet, his voice is loud and clear. Somebody raised him to be disciplined; he shows up to class even when it's snowing and cold. He's taking on a new country, and a new language, so someone raised him to be brave.

And somebody raised him to be happy. He smiles all the time and laughs easily. He thanks me every day. It's likely his childhood was difficult. He's short and slightly built, which could be genetic but could easily be a result of food scarcity during critical growing years. He was part of an unpopular minority in a country that doesn't tolerate diversity. If he's one of the Rohinga Muslims, which is likely, Burma doesn't consider him a citizen, even though he was born there. He'd have to prove his family settled there before 1823 to gain citizenship, and that's nearly impossible. His rights would have been nearly non-existent. According to Human Rights Watch, some Rohinga Muslims are forced into labor as young as seven, which could also explain why he never went to school. It's possible he spent a good portion of his childhood in one or more refugee camps, uncertain of the future. But somebody raised him to be resilient, to keep trying and be positive. He'll need that to thrive here. 

I don't know who raised him. It could have been a mother, father, uncle, aunt, or grandparent. I'll probably never know. He'll probably never see that person again, since traveling back to his homeland would be incredibly expensive and possibly unsafe. But every time he cups his right elbow, I smile; because it's such a polite gesture, because it makes me miss a country that holds a special place in my heart, and because it reminds me that he, and every one of my students, has a story - even if it's one I'll never know.