On my first day as an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) conversation group assistant at Project Hope, an agency that serves low-income mothers, I worked with two women in an intermediate-level class. One, from the Dominican Republic, has three young children, and wants to study to become a medical assistant. The other, a Somali woman, has raised five kids as a single mom; two are college graduates, one is in college, one will go to Boston University next year, and one is still in high school. She wants to be a nurse and work with cancer patients. For both women, the goal is to improve their English, so they can pass the GED, enroll in certificate programs for their chosen career paths, and lift their families out of poverty.
They attend ESOL classes several days a week. In class, they learn to read and write in English, and the conversation groups help them practice speaking and listening. Their teacher provided me with a list of questions that related to the topic they were working with that day: employment. The questions also touched on less specific concepts, such as "What did you dream of being when you were growing up?" At the teacher's request, we used some of those questions as the basis for brief writing exercises, and I reviewed and corrected grammar and punctuation.
After we worked through the "official" conversation topics, I asked the women if they had any questions for me, questions about me or my own childhood dreams (ballerina, of course), or anything else. Both of the women told me that it can be frustrating to make people understand them in everyday interactions. One woman brought up the very sensitive topic of visits to the doctor. Why, she asked, when she went in for a mammogram and then needed a biopsy, did the doctor not allow her daughter to translate for her and instead insist upon bringing in a translator from the hospital? Now this person (the translator) knows everything about me, the student said, and she felt completely uncomfortable about that. And then we were off and running on the topic of medical privacy, a concept that is complicated to discuss in any language.
The scheduled hour raced by, and I left feeling totally jazzed and ... satisfied. It took me a few months to find this work, and I have so much to learn, but it feels right.