The thirty-nine ESL students, dark eyed and dark complexioned, each took their turn telling me their name and their country of origin. Mexico. El Salvador. Honduras. Cuba. Peru. Colombia. Ecuador. Lebanon. India. China. Korea.
This is Los Angeles, home to more than 224 languages, not including regional dialects. It was my job, as a guest speaker at the community college, to present the notion of improving English language skills through creative writing. It’s been my experience that when speakers of a new language let go of the need for perfect grammar, their skills skyrocket. After all, language is about communicating thoughts and ideas. It’s not about being perfect. But would these adult students, I wondered, feel comfortable enough with themselves and with each other to write from the heart and share their work? I had no way of knowing.
First, I asked them what percentage of my spoken words they understood. 100 percent? 75? 50? Less than 50? Once it was established that most of them understood much of what I was saying, I wrote five prompts on the whiteboard and asked them to choose one:
What memories are brought about by the smell of freshly brewed coffee?
What makes you feel alive?
What wounds have not healed?
What do you see when you look into your partner’s eyes?
What is no longer important to you that once was?
They began to write, tentatively at first, and then with greater conviction. Fifteen minutes later, I gently asked them to stop writing. “No, please,” a woman from Colombia said. “I am inspired!”
After a few more minutes of writing, I asked for volunteers, explaining that it was important to read their work aloud, to feel the sound of this new language, to find a rhythm to the new words, and most importantly, to experience the joy of communication. The air conditioner hummed as I waited, and I worried that perhaps I was indeed asking too much of them. It was only the third class meeting and they didn’t yet know each other. Furthermore, they probably weren’t accustomed to sharing personal stories with strangers. What would happen, I wondered, if they refused to share their work? How would I fill the three hours allotted for my presentation? And then, a hand went up. “Thank you,” I said. “Please, let’s all hear what you wrote.”
The young man hesitated, then read, “The love of my family makes me feel alive.” A round of spontaneous applause arose from the others in the room, followed by more volunteers who were ready to share.
The inspired woman from Colombia wrote that the smell of coffee was “the essence of my land.” Along with the scent of coffee in her village, she wrote, “I smell earth. I smell hands. I smell heart.” More applause, and then an impromptu discussion in English began, a playful competition between the students from Colombia, Peru, and Cuba about whose homeland makes the richest coffee. I watched with joy as these students, who barely knew each other, challenged themselves to find new words in order to be understood. They finally agreed that all three countries roasted their own equally delicious beans, and they laughed when a student from Mexico suggested their coffee would taste even better with some tequila mixed in.
We moved on to the next student. A man looked at his wife sitting beside him and read to her about the love he feels when he looks into her eyes. She smiled back at him, and we all enjoyed the sweetness of the moment. A young man from Mexico raised his hand. “I arrived in Los Angeles,” he read, “with dreams in my backpack.” I repeated the line for everyone to hear. Dreams in my backpack. Did they feel the same way?
Yes, they did.
A recurring theme emerged in the room as more and more students read their words. They felt safe in this new country, prideful as their children learned English in school and had opportunities that they could not have had at the same age. Based on the prompts offered, the students wrote about their love of nature, their appreciation of the Pacific Ocean in such close proximity, and the joy they felt hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains. “With the breeze in my face,” one man said. They wrote about the love they felt for their parents, spouses and children, their gratitude for the support they feel every time they call home. They missed their homeland, the “old times” and their rustic homes in the countryside, but they were grateful for this chance to start again.
I was amazed by their optimism, a feeling that I as an American don’t always share. But by seeing America through their eyes, through their words, I understood their excitement, their recognition of the freedom I often take for granted. And I was reminded that my own grandparents traveled by boat to Ellis Island more than a century ago with their own tattered suitcases filled with the hope of a better life.
Every student readily shared their work, except for one woman who had just arrived in California with no English words as yet in her vocabulary. At evening’s end, when the students lined up so that I could sign their copy of my book, Accidental Poetry: Improve Your English Through Creative Writing, and to offer me a much appreciated good-bye hug, it became clear that every one of them arrived in America with dreams in their backpack, and on this particular evening, they realized they were not alone.
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