A Holiday Story

When I made the move from office worker to teaching English as a Second Language to adults, U.S. holidays took on a new meaning.  When I worked in San Francisco’s financial district, my busy work schedule barely gave me time to think about the holidays, and any celebrating I did was done in a rush, with no pauses for reflection.  As a teacher I was also extremely busy, but teaching about holidays was part of my job, part of orienting my students to the culture of the United States.  So I thought about the holidays more in order to explain them coherently to my students, and I experienced them more deeply because I experienced them with my students.

Thanksgiving turned out to be one of the more interesting holidays to teach, because, being a holiday unique to the United States, it was the most unknown to the students.  Turkey was well known to the students from Mexico and Central America, but cranberry sauce was a mystery.  “What is this?” they would ask suspiciously, poking it with their forks, “Is it frog hearts?” The students seemed to identify with the Thanksgiving story of newcomers struggling to survive in a harsh new environment.  One Thanksgiving when I was teaching an afternoon class in a center for Southeast Asian refugees, I found a message on the blackboard written by a student from one of the morning classes: “The Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic Ocean to come to America. We crossed the Mekong River, but we came too.”  And one of my Mexican students asked me the best question I ever heard about Thanksgiving: “Is this the day you thank the Indians for saving you?”   I was hard put to explain to him why that was not exactly the meaning of the holiday, after all, everything in the traditional story seems to point that way, but then the holiday veers off into a general thankfulness so that we somehow don’t have to acknowledge our indebtedness to our fellow man.  I was left to wonder whether this would be a better country if the official meaning of Thanksgiving was the one my student had drawn from the story.

While I was preparing my own Thanksgiving turkey this year, I was reminded of another turkey, but I’m pretty sure it was a Christmas and not a Thanksgiving turkey.  It arrived frozen solid as a rock in a truck filled with other frozen-hard turkeys at the center where I taught, and was handed to the student with whom this story is concerned in a white plastic bag so she could carry it home without freezing her hands.

The student in question was a quiet woman in her mid-30s.  She had joined the class fairly recently, perhaps a month ago, and I was concerned about her irregular attendance.  She came very sporadically, and when she did come, she usually arrived late, left early or both. However, she seemed happy to be in class while she was there, though she always sat in the back, hovering near the door and never really seeming to settle in.  Her expression was sweet but anxious, and, although she had a gentle and appealing manner, she didn’t seem to make friends in the class, even among the other Spanish speakers, which was unusual.  While she was probably naturally shy, I guessed that some trouble in her life was the cause of her irregular attendance, tense expression and failure to bond with the other students.   But the few times I had a chance to talk to her, she seemed a little intimidated, so I didn’t have much hope that I could gain her trust enough to find out what was happening.  She spoke very little English, and, unless her attendance improved, was unlikely to learn much more.

Spotty as her attendance was, she happened to be there on the day all the students filled out a form to see if they qualified for a free Christmas turkey from the charitable organization that partnered with the adult school at the site where I was teaching.  Like most of the students, she qualified, and she also happened to be there on the day the turkeys were distributed.  The turkeys were handed out several days before we broke for the winter holidays so they would have time to thaw out before it was time to make them into Christmas dinner.

The day after the turkey give-away, my shy student was uncharacteristically early.  In fact, she was the first one there.  I so little expected to see her that it took me a few moments to realize who she was.  It was a muted December morning: grey sky, grey sidewalk, the black asphalt of 24th Street, a little flower bed tended by the volunteers at the church where the classes met, the plants going unattractively deciduous. In this chill and unpromising environment, she radiated peace and contentment.  It was the first time I had seen her face looking relaxed. 

She had come early to ask if there could be a little party at break time.  For the first time, I saw that she was holding an enormous pan, and she pulled back a white cloth to show me row on row of steaming tamales: Turkey tamales.

Of course we had a party that day, and for that day she was a star, no longer at the margins.  Everyone thanked her and praised her cooking, which was delicious.  She accepted everyone’s attentions with reticent grace.  As I enjoyed my own warm, fragrant tamale, I puzzled how she could have turned that rock-like turkey into this comforting treat overnight.  Almost certainly, she had not slept or rested since receiving the bird the previous day.

I wish I could say that this was a turning point for her, that after this day she started coming to class regularly, making friends, and learning English.  In reality, I don’t think I ever saw her again.  We broke for the holidays a few days later, and she did not return.  In the policy-speak of adult education, she failed to persist, and in the eyes of policy makers, I suppose she represents a dismal failure of the adult education system, perhaps of me as a teacher.  But however tenuous her connection to her English class was,  the class did give her access to a special food and a community to share it with, even if only for one day.   Although she was not a conventional success for adult education,  I think of her just as much as I think of other students who went on to academic success when I consider why adult education is important.  Wherever she is now, I hope she is enjoying a holiday as joyous as her generosity deserves.


2 Responses

  1. Exquisitely told, wisely chosen, grounding, humbling, real and therefore inspiring.

  2. Thank you, Kristen. A lovely, moving story.

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