Something strange happened today. Something that very seldom happens to me. And when it does, it happens gradually and almost imperceptibly. Subconsciously even. Today, I felt a shift in my perspective. A small, subtle shift. But a shift nonetheless.
A few weeks ago, I volunteered to tutor immigrants at a community center not far from where I live. All the immigrants are getting ready for the naturalization interview, their penultimate step towards US citizenship. This community center provides free English-language lessons, lessons that will hopefully help them pass their interviews and become US citizens.
Today was my first time with this group. I’ve taught English to immigrants many times before, so the experience itself was nothing new. There was the familiar excitement of meeting new people, learning where they are from and what brought them to the US. There was the camaraderie borne of communion, of sharing my own story, telling of my own experiences as an immigrant, an outsider.
It was a small class, with about a dozen or so students, all roughly middle-aged. Each volunteer was assigned a small group of two or three students. I was matched up with Ferdinand and Isabella (not their real names). The routine was pretty simple. No need for materials or a lesson plan. They had their citizenship booklets and workbooks full of US history and various writing exercises. We would work from those.
After introductions and the customary initial awkwardness, Ferdinand and Isabella seemed to loosen up. I started out with basic questions: what have you been working on in the class? Is there anything particular you’d like to work on? Both wanted to practise speaking. So we moved on to questions about them. Both are from a small Central American country. Both are divorced with children. Ferdinand has four from two previous wives. Isabella has two from her previous husband. They live in Europe. Isabella used to live in Europe with her sons but they’re grown now. I also learned that she and Ferdinand are married: he for the third time and she for the second.
Moving on to the more structured part of the lesson, I asked them both to write down a list of five things they liked about their country of birth. They talked about the weather (Isabella likes it hot), the food, the people, and the beach. Ferdinand said he likes the colors of the flag. I asked him what it was about the flag that he liked and he replied that as a kid in school, he’d have to look at the flag and pledge loyalty to it—just like in the US. Then he went to say that in his country of birth, you were allowed to look at the flag and maybe touch it. But you could not tear it or set fire to it. If you did, the army would take you away and . . . he made one hand into a fist and pounded it into the open palm of the other. Sometimes, a gesture speaks louder than words.
For the next part of the lesson, I had them ask each other questions about what they liked about the US. Isabella likes that there are people of many different nationalities. Ferdinand likes Atlantic City. And New York. He also likes the freedom, because he believes people should be able to express themselves without being pounded by the army. Isabella also likes that there are many opportunities here to have a good life. And she revealed that she would like to own a beauty salon someday. Ferdinand talked about how becoming a citizen would improve his chances of getting a better job. We continued to converse in this vein . . . while a realization slowly formed in my mind.
At several points in the hour-long lesson, I was deeply moved by this middle-aged couple, so different in so many ways yet so united in their belief in the potential of this country. He had come to the US as a young man in the ’70s but had chosen to return home, only to come back to the US six years ago. She had left her birth country at 15 and spent the better part of two decades in Europe, before making her way to the US. They had both lived elsewhere but had chosen to make the US their home.
And that’s when it hit me. This country’s strength, I realized, lies not in what it is, or even claims to be—lord knows, it falls far short of many of those claims. Rather, it lies in people like Ferdinand and Isabella, ordinary people whose desire for a better life gives them the strength to hope, the courage to follow their dreams wherever they may lead, and the determination to do whatever it takes to make them come true.