I sat staring at the screen. Images of skin tones and crowds of people blurred the page; a courageous, booming voice seemed to fill the silent room where I sat. I had come face to face with these words before, but not like this. They’d never shaken me like this.
The sound of him echoing over a crowd was on loop, “I have a dream that one day little black boys and black girls will be holding hands with little white boys and white girls.”
I read it again. And again. I glanced at the clock. 11:17 AM. My time to figure out this lesson was dwindling.
At this point in my career, I’ve planned hundreds of lessons for English learners. Thousands of hours, no exaggeration, have been clocked with refugees and immigrants.
We’ve practiced some really hard grammar points and learned how to play some cultural games. We’ve practiced the hard math problems. My kiddos and I have had some practice managing our emotions and meltdowns in real time. We’ve talked about how to cope with some of the most confusing feelings going on inside of us.
Planning lessons, preparing contingencies, adapting in the moment, and teaching diverse classrooms is a part of my weekly rhythm. I know I’m still young, but I’m past a lot of my earliest classroom jitters.
But no lesson I’ve ever taught has felt as intimidating to me as yesterday’s lesson on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
He exemplified courage and commitment in the face of adversity. He remained faithful to his conviction of equality and sought change that would continue for generations. He was – is – a hero. He’s a role model we can all look to, a man of peace of wisdom. He’s the kind of person I want to teach my students about.
So why was I nervous to lead this lesson?
Because while I’m grateful for his legacy and the opportunity to honor him, it feels a shame that we ever came to that point in the first place.
How do you look at a classroom of children from 8 different countries, each beautifully wearing a different shade of skin, and explain that America hasn’t always been like this? How do you tell them that our history is tainted with the judgement of another person, just because of the color of their skin? How do you explain they wouldn’t have always been welcome here?
I couldn’t tell them this, but I know the truth: that one day, not all too long ago, our wonderfully diverse classroom would have been impossible.
I also know the harder truth: that many people still won’t welcome them here.
Although I don’t really get jitters before leading one of my classes anymore, I do often feel unqualified. I always need to remember that my ability to love and lead comes from the Lord. Not myself.
But yesterday, I felt deeply unqualified. I was keenly aware of my whiteness. It shook me more than it has before, especially this year.
How could I, a white girl from small town Tennessee, tell the story of a vile past at the hands of others who look like me with intent to harm innocent people who look like them?
How could I, this girl who has lost nothing compared to all my refugee students have lost, stand up and tell the history I wish could be undone? The same history that has not affected me like it has my colored, marginalized, and accused neighbors?
It felt unfair. To stand up in front of this beautifully colored class and talk about segregation – it was the hardest thing I’ve done in a while.
I’ve taught about Martin Luther King, Jr. before. I’ve heard his story for nearly a lifetime. But like many of you, I’m awakened to it for the first time now. It’s not just a story on a page about some man who made a big difference; it’s a cruel history still in the hard process of redemption.
I can’t change the fact that I am a white girl from small town Tennessee. I can change my actions though. I can stand up for what’s right even if my knees are shaking, I can teach a younger generation that they are valued, and I can do the work of creating diverse classrooms. I can commit myself to always learning more, to hearing every side. I can choose to not be blind.
Above all, I can humble myself. I can keep myself low before the Lord and keep working.
I’m not a perfect teacher, and despite what they might think, I don’t have many answers. However, my prayer is that they would know they are loved by this small-town white girl. My prayer is that when they are a little older and able to put together more of these complicated pieces, that they would remember how equal and fair our classroom was regardless of the nation’s messy history. My prayer is that when they remember me, they would remember felt safety.
There’s little that can be done about the deep sorrow I feel inside me; the past cannot be undone. My only consolation is knowing that the generous, unquestioning love I offer now could play a small role in changing the future.
During our lesson, one of our students raised her hand to share a thought. She said, “I like being friends with white and black people. Everyone is so nice. I like being friends with everyone.”
I remembered that line again –
“I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.”
Change is happening, even in the youngest of hearts. The work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was honored in our diverse classroom yesterday. I only hope he’d be proud of the sorrowful, yet hopeful, white girl too.
I’ve been asked a couple times over the last few weeks, “Who did you vote for?”
Not by my American friends. No, they’ve probably already assumed who I voted for. Most would choose the thrill of speculation over just asking the question.
My refugee students are different though. They’re not afraid to ask.
They’ve not asked with any hint of malice, judgement, or anger in their tones. I can’t hear a single tone of offense or unkindness in their voice. They’re just genuinely curious.
Americans know this question is personal – impolite even. Our reserved and individualized culture is so deeply woven within us, this question might surprise us coming from the wrong person. Our default answer to that big question might sound something like: my vote is my vote, and it’s none of your business unless I invite you into it.
Instead of getting offended by this question, I have to step into the shoes of a refugee.
This has been my first presidential election I’ve been a part of in my time working on the field with refugees and immigrants. I was surprised to learn how invested my students have been in this great, American process.This is their front row seat to democracy in action, and that’s not a thing to be taken lightly.
Refugees don’t know what it’s like to vote.
Many of the people who resettled here in the States fled broken, war-torn countries. They had no vote or say; they were forced to leave.
But here we are, a nation of free people who each have a responsibility to exercise our right to vote so that our nation doesn’t cave in. The foundational component of our nation is our human right to vote. Though we have not always exercised that well, we’re trying. America might not be perfect, but at least our citizens have a right to speak up. We get a say in the direction we want our country to go in.
Have you ever considered how incredible that thought is?
This is very different than other nations across the world. Take the refugee friends in our communities, for example. They’ve never had a say. No one has ever asked their opinion about who should be in office. In fact, they’ve been forced to leave their heart land because of corrupt government and powerful people who said they didn’t belong. Basic human rights are stripped from the refugee, including their voice and vote to create a safe, flourishing nation.
Our right to elect arguably the most powerful position in the world is a privilege. It’s a wonder to those who can’t participate.
They can’t vote, but they can care.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve seen my formers students from Hong Kong sharing articles on social media about the U.S. election. This is mind-blowing to me – to realize that an entire world is watching how this pans out. It so happens that some of our friends of other cultures are here on American soil, unable to vote but still fully invested in the election.
I can’t speak for my friends overseas, but I know one thing for certain: our refugee and immigrant friends on American soil care how this turns out. I’m going to state this bluntly –
They love this country.
Refugees who were resettled in the States are so grateful to be here. They wish no harm to come upon our nation, this place that we both call home. They hope for freedom, peace, and opportunity just as much as much as any natural-born citizen.
They’re here for the long run. They’re impacted by our vote just as much, if not more, than we are. What happens in this election might affect the world, but it affects us here on American soil first and foremost. And no one hopes for a safe place to build a life in more than those who have made the long, dangerous, tiring trek to be here.
The people asking these hard questions are filling in the cultural gaps and making our country richer.
Our friends from other countries might not get how impolite it is to ask someone who got their vote simply because their culture is different from American culture.
Our American hearts shrink up and lock up at a bold question from a stranger. But our refugee friends’ hearts might say, “I’m unashamed to ask and share because I belong to my community, and my community belongs to me too. We’re in this together.”
That doesn’t make them wrong. It doesn’t make us right either. It does make American soil all the richer, deeper for making space for differing opinions and perspectives.
I’m grateful for the courage of my refugee students to ask the awkward questions.
What an honor it is to be a part of a decision that will affect people for generations to come, including my refugee friends. I must not ever forget that most people in this world don’t get a voice; I’ll strive to do well with the one I’ve been given. It truly is a gift.
English learners asked me a hard question, and they might have given the most helpful perspective this entire election season.
I hope one day I get the privilege to ask, “Student, who did you vote for?” I hope they don’t take offense to the question. I’m sure they won’t think I’m rude for asking. In fact, I bet they’ll beam with pride at the opportunity to speak up and mark their vote on a ballot.
Sometimes your 1st graders will ask you to hang out, so you’ll say
where and they’ll say CiCi’s Pizza, and you’ll say when, and they’ll say
You’ll think it’s crazy, but you’ll commit to it.
So when you show up on Saturday morning – promptly at 10:30, the
exact time CiCi’s opens — the girls will be waiting in their apartment complex
parking lot. They’ll be wearing their African and church dresses with puffer,
winter jackets to protect them from the wind and sprinkling rain, even though
it’s over 70 degrees. Their faces will light up when they see you. They’ll wave
and run to your car, probably because a part of them feared you wouldn’t show
And before you know it, after checking in with parents and exchanging phone numbers, you’ll be buckling in 3 girls in booster seats in the backseat of your car. You’ll struggle, because goodness, can a car really hold 3 booster seats side by side? You’ll struggle a little more, and the girls will clap for you when you finally hear the click of the buckles. You’ll wonder how parents do it every time.
It’s only a 2 minute drive. Close enough to walk, and you probably would have walked if it wasn’t rainy. When they ask on that short drive over if they can roll the windows down and how much pizza they can eat, you’ll be so happy to tell them, “Yes, and as much as you want!”
And as you have a contest to see who can eat the most, you’ll play iSpy and teach them the words written on media scattered around the restaurant. They’ll ask you questions about life, and you’ll hold onto this moment, already excited to share these memories with them when they’re older.
You’ll be sad when their tummies are full, and realize it’s time to go back home. When they say on the drive to their apartment, “Ms. Brianna, are you driving us to Africa?” and giggle, your heart will break a little because they’re so little and have already been through so much.
What I’m Telling Myself Now
Really? This is crazy. I can’t believe I get the privilege of
walking with little ones, with the unwavering hope that they will rise with
resiliency into remarkable adults one day. Going to CiCi’s Pizza is a big deal,
and not something they get to do often. I really can’t believe I get to be the
one to stand in the gap, and do that for them.
But to be completely honest: it’s hard. This is my calling. And yet, a lot of times I don’t feel like going. I face inwardly, struggling to look through someone else’s lens. I just don’t want to go. I didn’t work it in my budget. My to-do list is long. Looking ahead, and knowing that these little moments have the potential to love these kiddos to a stable adulthood – it can feel hopeless.
I usually have to pep talk myself, and ask the Lord to help me. He
does, every time, and I’ve never left disappointed that I chose to give time to
It’s no surprise to me that I can’t love or serve well without God. That – I’ve known that for a while.
However, what I’m also learning is I can’t love or serve well without people.
Those booster seats? Given to me by mommas who didn’t need theirs anymore. When I called on help to become more accessible to my students, women stepped in and offered to literally just give me theirs. Within minutes, I had enough seats for my car and to share with coworkers striving for the accessibility.
The idea to go in the first place? God giving my girls the courage to ask to hang out. I don’t know why they want to hang out with an “old lady” like me, but I’m glad they asked. This is not my work; this is Christ at work in me and my students to help us build relationships.
Encouragement along the way? My incredible coworkers who consistently give so much of themselves to their work and our kids. They are walking testaments of the power our Father can weave through us if we show up, trusting him to provide our way. I look up to, and model much of my work after them. They are my wise counsel, and the ones I strive alongside.
And the motivation to go when I’m tempted to stay? Certainly born out of a prayer from family and friends who have surrounded me, and shown interest in my work. Undoubtedly, this is the answer of a God who has been faithful to both hear and act.
Go, But Not Alone
Do something today. Anything. Because we know that the enemy loves
to rip us from sweet moments. He knows that by tempting us to stay away from
the things we love – by filling us with exhaustion, fear, worry, and honestly,
lack of motivation – that he has blocks us from loving what we love to love.
It’s so stupid. Don’t fall for it. Do the thing on your heart, the
same one that you are the most least-willing to do today, knowing that it has
been planted for a reason. Don’t reason your way out of it. Show up. The fruit
waiting for you on the other side of it is so sweet.
We won’t make memories with our fast-growing 1st graders that make us eager to tell their older selves about this time together, if we don’t commit to going to CiCi’s Pizza in the first place.
And believe this: you need people to serve people.
Don’t go at it alone. You’ll go so much farther if you choose to
invite people in. Let them give you booster seats. Let them pray over you. Let
them ask question, and be patient enough to answer. Stand humbled and in awe of
those wiser and admirable around you.
It’s hard to serve and love well; it’s even harder to do it alone. There’s more to say. But the best, most simple thought I have for you on this rainy, cozy Saturday is to let people love you as you love people too.
Say You’re One of Them | Author: Uwem Akpan | Genre: Fiction
Paperback: 361 | Publisher: Back Bay Books (2008) | ISBN: 978-0-316-08637-0
“It was a time just to be a human being and to celebrate that. What mattered now was how to get people to lay down their weapons and biases, and how to live together.”
Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan, page 254
This book is not at all what I thought. But it had Oprah’s Book Club sticker on it, so I shouldhave expected it to pummel my heart to pieces.
In a collection of 5 short stories, Akpan guides us through an emotional journey of life as an African child in the trenches of war and conflict, running and genocide, slavery and street life. Told through the perspective of children, Akpan places us in kid shoes walking through adult situations.
In a genius, moving work, Akpan has fictionalized some of the most real, complex conflicts plaguing the African continent. In doing so, he has placed us directly into places we only see in clips on a screen or read brief headlines about.
For those of us who are hundreds and hundreds of miles away, he has made these situations real through the art of storytelling. And I both hate him and love him for that.
A Writing Style That Honors His Culture
Akpan has a unique style, and each page flows poetically. His stories have given me a higher caliber for the fiction I read. Some of the most recent ficion I’ve gotten into suddenly feels lame compared to the way Say You’re One of Them reads.
Also, if you’re interested in world languages, this one is for you. Akpan has written true to the language of the people in his story. The dialogue can be tricky to follow, as its written in broken English and certainly doesn’t follow an accurate grammar. But, the speech is true to what we might actually hear if speaking to a nonnative English speaker.
Plus, Akpan has sprinkled in plenty of phrases and words in the heart language of his characters. Which certainly makes for a more interesting read, but is also more difficult to follow at times. I love that he has chosen to honor his fellow Africans by letting us into their own language.
I Expected Happy Endings
I guess I thought this would flow through one cohesive story, or at least that each chapter would relate to one another in one way. I was several pages into the second “chapter” before I realized that there was no connection between that “chapter” and the first.
Instead, I had just read a story. And the ending to it surely didn’t feel complete. I was still looking for the ending from the first “chapter” while I was reading the second, which I eventually realized was not a chapter but a whole different story in and of itself.
This was hard to grapple with. Man, I love a good happy ending with some kind of resolution. However, this book did not deliver that. In fact, none of the stories have an ending that you’d hope for.
But I can’t blame Akpan for that.
He is simply telling us about real situations on the African continent. As hard as it is to stomach, we have been waiting for innumerable conflicts to find closure for generations; they just haven’t yet.
I Left Feeling Both Completely Built and Torn
As a Westerner living in a developed world, reading through a lens of nearly uneducated children living in total poverty was hard.
I was inspired by the resiliency of the kids, but also emotionally depleted to witness their struggles. Their innocence reigned brilliantly, and though I celebrated that, it was heart-wrenching to see that same innocence violated.
I rooted for the kids, and felt a sense of pride when they succeeded in a small victory. I soon realized that these small spurts of victory were always quickly followed by a harder to defeat.
I was amazed by the conditions in which these families live in – huts, limited food, no shoes on their feet or vehicles to drive – and felt challenged to live on less too. But then I felt their loss when what little they had was taken away. I saw what riches can do to a person, especially a poverty-stricken person, and was confused about it.
Especially in the Largest Refugee Crisis in Modern History…
As a person who works with refugee families every day, I have to say: this book is profound because of the perspective it gives to the background of a refugee.
A refugee is a person who has fled their home based on well-grounded fear of persecution, war, genocide, or natural disaster. Usually because of things out of their control, such as race, ethnicity, religious or political preferences. It’s easy to skim through that definition, until you let it sink in, and start really considering what the journey of a refugee looks like.
Especially as the U.S. commits to bringing a record low number of refugees into the States this year, I believe reading the stories of fleeing is more important now than it has ever been. I don’t have to clarify this, but I will: there is a gross misunderstanding of who a refugee actually is.
Refugees are not the enemy. They are the targeted, the unwanted, the hated, the ones pushed aside for the selfish, horrifying gain of others. They are, really, people born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Refugees are the vulnerable, making decisions from a place of survival without the time, energy, or resources to consider thriving.
And when unprotected children are placed in this number of chaos and terror, and when we read the story of kids running away totally alone from something they don’t even understand, it creates a different kind of compassion within us.
It’s a compassion that moves with an urgency to see justice against their enemies (who are really our enemies too), and a passion to bring them into a fold of protection. To guard them, and restore them back to believing that they are valuable and welcomed. Have some of the world’s children ever heard that?
No, I can’t solve all the world conflicts and I can’t help all the millions of refugees displaced from their homes now. I can’t even help the thousands who will flee their homes today alone. I don’t mean to be rude, but I doubt you can either.
But, what we can do is seek to understand their story and make it known. I can tell the stories of people who have courageously left, and made impossible decisions just to take a few more breaths. I can tell you about the resiliency of the most vulnerable people in the world today, and through their journeys, show you just a glimpse of their passion for life and desire for safety.
Sometimes the most powerful, and honest, form of advocacy is storytelling.
In Short: Read It, but Read with Wisdom
The dialogue and language barriers will force you to read this more slowly. Be okay with that. Honestly, it’s a blessing because these stories are too emotionally difficult to rush through.
Every story shook me, some more violently than others. Akpan spared us many details, but still painted a picture of what it feels like to ride a refugee bus or to watch a sister fall into prostitution. He illustrated what could possibly lead an uncle to sell his family into slavery, and what it truly feels like to be a Muslim on a bus full of Christians and wizards.
We think we know about these things; we don’t have a clue.
I left each page feeling emotionally spent. When I finished the last story, I was grumpy. I gave Travis short and snappy responses, and was acting like a brat for at least an hour on a road trip with my family. Then it clicked: I have to process this. I have to give myself time to settle these feelings, and to recover from this book.
It was a hard read.
But, it’s important too. I applaud Akpan for giving us a glimpse into lives we can barely imagine. Say You’re One of Them is beautiful, stunning, awe-inspiring – it’s all of this, and more, because of the voice it gives to the unheard voices and the untold stories.
And these small – yet not so small – voices unify us with a passion to create a safer world for children to live in. I’m going to meet my own refugee kids at after school today a little more gently and compassion filled, because Akpan has told a story of their history that they’ve yet to understand. The journey to that realization is not easy, but it’s a worthwhile pursuit that has changed my perspective.
I thought I understood the journey of a refugee, but I didn’t have a clue. Thank you, Uwem Akpan, for penning these hard words. I am better for it.
We tightened the laces and practiced the art of walking on blades.
We probably looked like a mismatched group – a few white women with nearly 40 middle school students representing multiple countries around the world. Brown skin, black skin, white skin. Tall socks with athletic shorts covered some, and others had come in hoodies and gloves.
Despite whatever differences appeared on the outside, we had
at least one thing in common: an hour of ice skating ahead of us. Just on the
other side of the glass outstretched an empty rink, glowing bright white from
the reflection of the lights above. And there we waited on that weird
rubber-like floor, a buzz of eager anticipation filling our space.
When the gates opened, we took turns stepping out onto the
ice. Most students entered with timidity holding on to the sides of the rink
and reaching for stronger hands, but a few boldly set out and headed for the
center of the smooth ice.
I clumsily moved across the ice, calling after students,
offering encouragement and a hand along the way. As I went between students, I
noticed the boy in the purple hoodie at the gate.
As I helped others, I kept glancing back at him. Watching, I realized that at the gate was a war between going and staying. Clutching the wall, he’d cross the threshold to put one skate on the ice just to quickly bring it back to the safety of the floor. This went on for nearly half an hour. He’d get tired, sit on the bench, and jump up just a couple minutes later to return to the war at the gate. Over and over. Classmates and friends came and went, but for the most part, he was alone.
He waited there.
I skated over to him, hoping I’d reach him before he left
the gate for the bench outside again. I made it over to him in time to see his
nervous routine up close. “No, no! It’s scary!” he’d say, as soon as the single
blade hit the ice. There was no one else there to encourage that second blade
to meet the other. Only the boy in the purple hoodie, who was both talking
himself into and out of ice skating.
Much later in the day, long after we’d left, I would think about this moment. How many times have I battled with this tension of wanting yet not wanting? How often have I simultaneously danced with courage and fear? How familiar did this routine of flirting with leaving the safety of the gate look in my own life?
But in this moment, I thought only of convincing him to come.
I knew he’d regret it later if he didn’t. “I’ll stay with you,” I promised him,
as I led him to the wall. Getting his first foot on the ice was pretty easy,
but it was the second foot that struggled.
“No, no! It’s too scary!” he repeated, clumsily turning
around to meet the gate again. There he went with that dance again. He clutched
the wall, and I reached out.
“Come on, I’ll go with you. The wall will be on your right,
and I’ll be on your left. Let’s make it to that line. Then, if you don’t like
it, we’ll turn around and come back,” I told him, pointing to a line on the ice
just a couple yards away.
Hand still outstretched toward him, he took it after barely a single thought. And in that one moment, he made the choice to let his desire to try the new, hard thing; he overpowered the fear that told him to stay.
His hand squeezed mine and his eyes were fixed on his feet, we made it to that line slowly.
“Look, you did it! Do you think we can make it to there?” I
said, pointing to a picture just a few yards further on the rink’s wall.
He nodded and we set off, again arriving within seconds.
Having left the dance at the gate, this is how we got around
the entire rink: I’d point to a goal, he’d fix his gaze on it, and we’d go
there together. Repeat.
Somewhere halfway around the rink, I challenged him to turn
around to see how far we’d come. He cautiously turned, still gripping my hand
and the wall, and let out a small shriek. “Oh my – no!” he groaned, a smile of accomplishment
spreading over his apprehensive voice.
I smiled back, “You’re doing awesome. Do you want to keep
“I try,” he said. Those words became his anthem during these
laps around the rink. He repeated them over and over.
I try. Okay. I try.
We were on our second time around the rink when he fell for
the first time. We were still moving slow, so he landed softly. He exclaimed, “OW!
I chuckled to myself and clapped for him, “Yay! You did it!
You fell for the first time!” I reached out my hand to help lift him up. The
same fear that held him at the gate threatened to keep his bottom sitting on
the ice. But he made a statement to fear when he got back to his feet, dusted
off, and set his focus toward the next goal.
I stayed with him. We started making people our focus points.
We’d fix our eyes on another teacher, and skate over to them to show them how
much we had skated. Eventually, that led us to the center of the rink. Another
friend had joined us by then, and the boys laughed and helped each other. But I
kept to my promise, and I didn’t leave his side.
When the loud buzzer echoed loudly in the icy room and 00:00
flashed overhead, he looked up confused.
“Time to go?” he asked. I nodded, and we went to the gate
together; he was one of the last kids to get off the ice. (A combination of being
a very slow skater and being disappointed to leave so soon.)
But what my friend in the purple hoodie couldn’t see yet is
how those few minutes changed him. A different kid came off the ice that
morning. This wasn’t the same boy that had let fear make up his mind; he stood
a little more courageous.
He could have stayed at the gate, and never come out on the ice.
In some ways, it would have been easier to say no. He didn’t have to keep going after that first goal was met – after all, we weren’t that far from the gate. Even when he fell, the pain of the moment wanted to keep him down. When we turned around that first time midway around the rink, fear wanted him to go back to the starting point and stay there.
But he didn’t listen. Instead, in brief moments of decision, he chose to keep going. Over and over.
In a hour of declaration led by a middle schooler set on being
brave, perseverance rang victorious as we accomplished the hard task of
successfully ice skating.
Hey, honestly. I needed that lesson as much as he did.
I needed to witness again what it looks like when courage
speaks louder than fear, and the kind of good, faithful friend perseverance is
to us. It molds and refines us, giving reward to our work and assuring us it’s
not pointless. Without perseverance, giving up would be easy and we’d always be
stuck with the feeling of regretting what we didn’t do.
So, here’s to another day of leaving the gate.
This is where we say yes to courage, silencing our fears long enough to take the first step on the ice. We’re afraid of falling and our clumsiness, yes, but not ruled by it. We do the difficult thing. We listen to the whisper. The whisper that tells us to do exactly what scares us the most in that moment, knowing that the whisper has more beautiful reasons for calling us out. We’d regret missing it.
The longer we practice listening to that voice, the
more recognizable it becomes. Here’s where we set our eyes on a goal – no matter
how small – and keep going. We stand up, dust off, and skate again believing
that the ground hurts a little less with every fall.
No matter what your first (or even continuing) steps look
like today, not one of them is without purpose. Even if the best thing they can
offer is giving courage the louder voice, then it’s worth it. You are being
refined. Just like my friend in the purple hoodie, you get to come back a
little taller after it.
You don’t realize how late you work until you schedule a
meeting an hour after you’re supposed to be off. But that’s the time that the mother
you need to meet with comes home from her 12 hour shift, so you commit. Not
necessarily because you want to, but because it’s the only way to step into the
lives of these people you want to know.
Even so, it doesn’t stop you from soaking up the way the
light of the setting sun makes everything golden as you’re walking to that
meeting, knowing it’ll be dark when you trace this sidewalk and pass these cars
I knocked on the door at the top of the stairs at least 3
different times before it opened. One thing I’ve learned in this line of work
is the necessity of patience and persistence. That’s what I need most day in
and day out.
One of the daughters greeted me, and in typical African fashion, motioned for me to come in. “Welcome,” she said, opening the door wider as she announced my arrival to the others in the room.
I stepped in and sat on the seat the family motioned toward.
As I found my place, I locked eyes with the one I’d come to see. I put my hand
out toward her, the mother. “I’m happy
to meet you,” I told her, asking for her name and sharing mine too.
I felt bad. Honestly. This was the first time I’d ever met this woman, and I had come to tell her about her daughter’s difficulties in our after school program. But, I stepped in with the gentlest smile and voice I could offer. I’m getting better at these conversations, but I haven’t quite mastered how to not have an awkward start to bad news. The start feels so awkward.
I thanked her for letting me come over after a long day of
work, and asked her about her job. She told me she does housekeeping for a
local hotel. I told her my brother works at a hotel too. She brightened some
and said, “Oh. Housekeeping too?”
I stumbled and told her no. In some weird way, I wanted her
to be encouraged that there’s no shame in working at a hotel. Many people – African
or American – do this, and do it well. But as I started talking, I realized how
insensitive I sounded by telling her that he’s actually the boss of the housekeepers.
I let that topic quieten, wishing I hadn’t brought it up in the first place.
Immediately I knew she was a gracious woman and that despite
the weird start, talking to her was easy. She turned off the TV, and leaned
closer on the couch to listen. I spoke slowly and clearly, enunciating words I
don’t usually. She listened and nodded her head as I told her about some of the
habits and concerns I had seen. I told her about a specific incident that had
caused me to ask her daughter to take a break from the program for a few days.
When I finished, she looked toward her daughter
reflectively. There was a pause, and I broke it by asking her what she thought.
She turned back to me briefly to tell me she was going to talk to her daughter,
before looking toward her again and speaking in their native tongue. She spoke quietly,
slowly, gently. Her daughter sat, eyes on her hands as she picked at her nails.
This reminded me of my own mother, as I listened to the tone
of voice and watched the way the woman gently reprimanded her child. Sure, I
hadn’t a clue what was being said as these two shared an intimate moment together.
But it sounded like a familiar voice I’d heard before – not in Swahili, but in
English. I remembered back to when I was much younger, and I heard my mom’s own
voice as she called me out, teaching me better ways. It was never easy, and it
took me years to understand the why behind some of those talks.
As strange as it sounds, witnessing this conversation between this mother and daughter pair gave me comfort. I think in some ways, being reminded of my own mother filled me with memories that I never thought I could look on with warmth.
I waited for them in my own quiet, resting in the reminiscing. I’ve seen this in my own life, in my own mother. We had these conversations 8, 10, 12 years ago. Times are different, and my mother and I and this woman and her daughter all bear different skin colors, names, and stories. But the piece that makes us human – the need to love and be loved, to teach and be taught – outruns differences we thought we could pick from the outside.
When it was quiet again, the mother thanked me several
times. She even went so far as to ask me to bring my other staff members to her
home, so she and her daughter could apologize to them too. The concern and
thankfulness in her eyes was understood without words.
This student had a bad day, but she’s going to make it. As
long as her mother is there to unashamedly call her out and lead her out of
wrongs, she’s going to be fine.
From the time I stepped through the doorway to the end of
our conversation, barely 40 minutes passed. I was ready to go home, and was just
about to rise from my seat when I was stopped by another question.
“You need food?” the mother asked me.
“Please,” I told her. Culturally speaking, I didn’t want to
run the risk of my “no” being misunderstood, nor did I want her to think I wasn’t
grateful for the offer. In times like these, I just say yes. Yes to all the
food. Even if I need to go quickly, I’ve learned that it’s better to eat fast
than to decline an invitation like this. It’s easier to scarf down food and pay
thanks to the cook, than it is to leap across cultural and language barriers to
try to explain your “no.”
And that’s how I came to accept that it would be longer
before I got home, and found a seat at the wooden kitchen table.
She offered me different juices to drink, and set a steaming
bowl in front of me. She came and sat beside at the table too, but I was the
only one with food. She filled our juice glasses as I immediately started
eating, and we spent the first few minutes of my meal trying to figure out what
I was eating.
“This is a green banana,” she said, “Not a yellow banana. We
cook green bananas. We eat yellow bananas.”
I think it was a plantain. We never quite figured out the
meat. The mother went through great lengths and arm motions to show me that it
wasn’t ground meat, like we eat in America. This was straight off the bone, and
definitely not pork or beef.
As I continued eating, I asked questions. She returned her own answers and questions back to me. She wouldn’t admit it, but her English was very good. Imperfect, yes. But possible for the most impatient speaker to follow.
“Did you study English in Africa?” I asked her.
“No. Only in America,” she said. I followed up with asking when
her family came to the States. She pinpointed an exact date in summer 2017. I
stared in amazement at her at the realization that she had taught herself enough
English to carry on a wonderful conversation in barely 2 years.
“Learning English is hard. We need to learn, but there is no
time. I work 6 AM to 6 PM. There is no time to learn,” she said. I understood
more why she was so adamant in helping her daughter straighten up. She knows
what her 10-year-old daughter can’t fully grasp right now: that she has an opportunity
to structured education and a support team of people to help her succeed even
beyond her school day. She gets to practice and learn English. It’s her only
job right now, and it’s free to her. That’s a huge deal to a refugee family rebuilding.
We kept talking. I learned that her husband was a school
principal in Africa, and now works at a factory. She told me about how she came
from the Congo, but it was a country of war. She told me about how her family
sought a country of peace and made their way to a camp in Tanzania.
“When did you leave your country?” I asked.
“1996,” she said simply. It was over two decades ago, but I heard
the way she talked about her home – the place where was born, was raised for a few
short years, and still thinks about today. I heard her voice when she called
the Congo her home. She had left when she was 8 years old, but I knew she remembered
it every day.
When my own mom called me while I was still eating, I
silenced the call and explained that my family is on vacation right now. The
mother I shared the table with praised God when I told her about my parents’
wedding last weekend, and I wish you could have heard all her questions about
the engagement and marriage traditions in America. She listened intently, laughed
and said wow. I understood her surprise more when she told me about how African
marriage traditions are very different.
“How much does a man pay a woman’s father to marry her?” she
asked me. Her jaw dropped when I told her nothing. He just asks for permission.
“That’s it? And what if the father says no?” she continued.
“Hm, I don’t know. I guess the man probably just marries the
girl anyway,” I told her. We laughed more, recognizing how different both of
our cultures are. And we just kept talking until the clock neared 9:00.
“My friend, thank you for dinner,” I told her as I got up to
leave. My purse sat on my shoulder, and I carried a sandwich bag of my leftover
food. I always think that stepping into these homes is the most awkward part,
but actually, I think leaving is. It’s hard to say goodbye. It’s hard to leave,
knowing that you might be the only American to sit and talk with them all week.
I’m always the one to pipe up and say it’s time to leave. None of the families I’ve ever sat with have told me it’s time to leave. I’m always the one who says it, and every time, I catch a glimpse of their eyes shifting. To disappointment? To sadness? To feeling lonely again? I can’t name it, but I can see it and feel it. And every time, I feel a twinge of guilt for leaving.
My prediction was right. As I waved goodbye and stepped back
over the threshold, I was met by darkness. I walked to my car under the
streetlights, feeling the weight of exhaustion compound with every step I took.
I sent my usual message to let Travis know I was coming home to him and had
some food. I sent my boss a quick update text regarding the conversation with
the family, assuring her it had been successful. Then I put the car in reverse,
backed out, and started for home.
Sometimes I get tired of these late nights. Leaving most mornings knowing you’ll be ready for bed when you get back is hard. Honestly, even missing the little things feels like a sacrifice. Like watching the golden glow from the back porch, listening from your kitchen to the slow traffic on I-24 and hearing it gradually speed up as the evening gets later, and greeting Travis at the front door.
I miss those moments when I don’t have them, but hold them close when I do get them. I’m always grateful for the times I get to rest and be at home. I’m an introvert, and that’s what we do. But for today, I’m okay with holding onto what I get to do instead. The conversations and the people are worth my time – anyone’s time, for that matter.
Missing sunsets is a small cost compared to the worth of listening
to their stories and getting to be the one to tell them, “You are strong and
you are loved.”