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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A Gift

Today, I have been awed to tears by the elegance of God.

On this, my three-year anniversary of moving to Alaska, I was given my heart’s desire. Happy moving-day to me!

My last posting briefly mentioned that I had to go observe a class at the Anchorage Literacy Project this afternoon. Classroom observation is both part of the training, and, to make sure potential volunteers really want to go forward.

I was feeling rushed, having had to drop Evan with a sitter who he vehemently objected to. This made it hard to break away. Then, I hit every light between South Anchorage and DeBarr (almost as far as a person can drive and still be in Anchorage), but at least I didn’t get lost.

Once in the ALP building (I got the last parking spot in the lot), I headed to the office of the Lori, the volunteer coordinator. I wandered past a class where I glimpsed the saffron robes of Buddhist monks. Oh man, I thought, this is going to be interesting.

Though I began the day assuming I would eventually tutor one-on-one, Lori seemed to think a “classroom” situation could be arranged. Until I had completed the training and spoken with the director, she encouraged me to “remain open.” Hmmm. So much for the “safe” route of working with just one person at a time in an intimate setting. A classroom would mean standing in front of eager pairs of non-fluent eyes. Frightening, to say the least.

The first class I observed had maybe twelve students. They were learning such esoteric concepts as the difference between “want” and “need” (why should I be surprised by the difficulty of this distinction? – I experience it every time I walk into Costco), and practicing the inclusion of the word “is” into sentences (as opposed to “Pencil on desk”). They studied a picture of a scenario, then spoke about how to “read” the nuances of the situation according to American custom (i.e. did Jimmy give Kitty the lily because he likes her or because he loves her).

Even after five minutes, it was very illuminating and I had the absolute conviction that this experience is probably going to teach me far more than any potential students might learn from me.

Of those twelve people, here are some of the countries represented: Uzbekistan, Taiwan, Thailand, Laos, Cuba, Peru, China, Cambodia, The Dominican Republic. Only one person had lived in America more than a year. Most have been here less than three months. There were men and women, young and old, single and married. Several looked upper-middle class and polished. One woman wore a maid uniform.

One woman discovered that the proper name for the footwear she had on was “boots.” One woman could not get the jist of playing “hangman”: she was completely paralyzed when it came her turn to pick a letter. One man was exploring the distinction of “this” and “that” over using “here” and “there.” They practiced the differentiation between prepositions (“on” versus “in”). They corrected each other. They were unafraid to speak out and make mistakes. And as inadequate as I felt as a potential teacher, just by virtue of being a native speaker, I was eons ahead. Who knew the English language and American colloquialisms were so non-intuitive?

The other class I observed (the one with the two monks), was for more advanced English speakers. It was a class on idioms. For those who don’t know (like me, five hours ago), an idiom is an: “expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements, as kick the bucket or hang one's head, or from the general grammatical rules of a language, as the table round for the round table, and that is not a constituent of a larger expression of like characteristics.”

They were discussing a story about Julia Butterfly Hill, who lived in a redwood tree for two years to protest their being cut down. This story was a springboard for discussing what things motivates a person; what this woman meant to accomplish; and what is worth sacrificing a great deal for. Side by side, different skin shades, different eye shape, different native tongues, cracked sideways jokes; a sense of unity amidst utterly different backgrounds became very apparent. One Buddhist monk compared the Butterfly-Hill story to monks who disappear into the caves of Thailand for many months and later return to the cities as “enlightened masters.” To this story, affirming nods from all and a spontaneous moment of reverential silence. Another sharply dressed woman said she would not be willing to live in a tree for two years even with her golf clubs, though she would be more than willing to play golf everyday for two years straight. Another woman indicated she could never live in a tree because she squirms too much when she sleeps and would probably fall out. Laughs from all.

And the whole time I’m thinking: there is something here. Something miraculous. Something hopeful. And I want desperately, despite fear and inexperience and ignorance, to be a part of it.

Later, on the drive to Ellie’s preschool, I cried off and on. There is no way to describe the way I was feeling except to compare it to two recent experiences. One was the way I felt last Saturday morning driving down Turnagain Arm to eat breakfast in Girdwood. The fog was just lifting, and the sun just breaking over the mountains, casting rainbows of silver, gold, lilac and orange. I have never seen anything more beautiful than the light and color of that morning. It was almost as if, for a moment, the world became transparent; a promise of something more solid, more real, and just around the very next bend. The other thing I compare the feeling to was when I recently read C. S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles for the very first time. I cried all the way through them, dumbfounded by Lewis’ spiritual vision, and as if those books were love-letters from God directly to me. Something very important had been found.

Something happened today. I still don’t know what, exactly. That will only be revealed one day at a time. But there it was, that promise, that kiss, that giving way to something absolute.

This was God’s gift to me.


At 9:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, how was that breakfast?? :)

Seriously, it sounds like the ALP is a great fit for you. How inspiring to watch these people learn things we take for granted.


At 3:12 PM, Blogger Liz in Seattle said...

My time in China, teaching English teachers, brought me many similar gifts. I'm greatly looking forward to hearing more of your adventure. Glory to God in all things, especially for his magnificent timing.


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