One of my main goals in teaching my English classes is simply to get students talking. If you’ve ever studied another language, you probably know that one of the most inhibiting factors of the learning process is experiencing the fear of making a mistake. And you will always make mistakes; as a result, many second language learners are afraid to even open their mouths.
In an attempt to slowly assuage this fear, I give my students a prompt at the beginning of each class—usually a question or something that starts like, “Tell me about a time when you…”—and we listen to each of them respond, English only (!).
The other day, my prompt was this: Tell me about the best day of your life.
This is clearly no casual thought to ponder, but, to my surprise, my students answered quickly and with much conviction.
Mohammad (a 60-year-old Iranian man) began by sharing that the best day of his life was the day the 10-year-long war between Iran and Iraq ended (he was still living in Iran at the time). He said there were parties in the streets, dancing, celebrating, tears of joy and relief—a weight lifted. Mohammad doesn’t drink, so he didn’t partake of the festivities in that sense. He simply relaxed quietly with his wife and let the idea of peace take hold.
Ruby spoke next. She said her best day was the day her brother gave her a balloon. She said that in her town in Mexico, children receive—in addition to little toys and trinkets—a balloon at Christmas time. She was saddened every year because her parents couldn’t afford toys, trinkets, or balloons. She always thought, ‘why not me?’ When her older brother was old enough to work outside the home (which probably means he was 12 or so), he bought her and her other siblings each a big balloon at Christmas. To hear her talk about it, to hear the absolute gratitude in her voice, you’d think he gave them each a vital organ.
Miguel’s best day was the day his parents contacted him—out of the blue—from Juarez, a border town near Texas. They didn’t live there, but they were passing through on their way to come visit him in the United States. He’d been living here for 16 years at the time and hadn’t seen them even once since. They called to tell him they were coming, and he heard from them once a day in the days that followed, as they drew nearer to Northern California: “We’re in Arizona now,” “We’re in Los Angeles,” “We’re on our way.” Miguel’s smile during the recounting of the story was priceless.
I found my students’ responses to be truly humbling. The best day of my life was probably my 25th birthday, only because it happened to fall on the same day I realized a long-time goal of graduating from college. My family was in town for the commencement ceremony, and I was surrounded by lifelong friends as well as friends from my program. Yeah, that was a pretty damned good day.
But to me, it doesn't begin to compare. Many, many people have the goal of graduating from high school or college; millions of people do so every year.
Just imagine the kind of joy Mohammad must have felt to witness the end of a ten-year-long war. Just imagine! Ten years ago, I was just about to graduate from high school. The thought of all the years since having been spent in fear and anguish—with war as a thought to wake up and fall asleep to—is confounding.
The thought of a balloon gift bringing me the joy of a lifetime, the thought of not having seen my family for 16 years because I had to leave the country and slave away at minimum wage jobs (with the constant threat of deportation to worry about) to support them, these are things I am far from having the capacity to absorb. These are things that make me revere my students, who are now undertaking the difficult task of learning another language as adults.I think they probably have no idea how much I admire their steadfastness and their courage. What really affects me is the fact that they never, ever complain. I see their lives as being full of struggles I’ve never been even close to experiencing and often wonder if I’d be able to handle. For them it’s just life, just the proverbial lemons that come with the territory, and they don't even think to stop and feel sorry for themselves because they’re too busy making lemonade. They are some of the most amazing people I'm fortunate enough to know.