How long did it take you? Five minutes? Did you have to get a copy of the alphabet to check? Did you write them down? Or perhaps, like me, you did it in your head in about three seconds (maybe I’m slow).
As a hyperliterate person myself, I’m not even aware that I know the alphabet. It’s just there. I take it for granted. Today I went to observe a class to teach English to people learning it as a second language. The emphasis of this class was on reading, and the teacher was trying to teach skills to help the students use the dictionary.
The class opened with putting words in alphabetical order. It came as quite an eye-opener to me to discover just how difficult this was. With the words I listed up above, did you have trouble deciding between “cream” and “create”? They’re so much alike, after all, the first four letters the same. Did you almost instantly jump to the end to see that “m” comes before “t”?
I visited this class because I intend to become, as a volunteer, a literacy tutor. For the next two Saturdays I must attend class, which I had to pay for, by the way, and we must also observe six hours of class. Thus I was there this morning (and pretty tired, after working at the asbestos job until midnight last night). I’ve done a lot of volunteering in the past, I feel better about my place in the world when I do it, and literacy tutoring makes use of my background. There were three of us observing the class this morning, and we also spent time working directly with the students. I loved it.
The class, meeting at 10 in the morning, had eight students, seven women and one man. Was this because the women had more interest in learning? Was it because the men were at work? I don’t know. Almost every student was over thirty years old, in some cases quite a bit older, every student was very dark complexioned, and four of the women wore large colorful head scarves.
I didn’t hear anyone speak much, but I got the impression that they would struggle with a very complicated conversation. This was not easy for them, but there they were. They made the effort to find a class, sign up, and attend it. I not only sympathized with them, I identified with their struggle. Watching them slowly write the words as they put them in alphabetical order (or didn’t put them in alphabetical order), as they looked at the alphabet across the top of the page to figure out what the order was—this all took me back to my own work learning Russian. I remember trying to look words up in the dictionary (about 10,000 hours of flipping pages in that damned dictionary), wondering where the hell the letter Щ came. Somewhere near the end, but not exactly the end, and uh… I remember very well how it was, feeling that I would never, ever, ever learn that impossible language.
I also realized working with these students that when they looked at the alphabet, starting with “A” and then looked at a list of words that included “apple”, well, A and a don’t look remotely alike, do they?
The people in the class looked like the people in my neighborhood. Every day I see dark-skinned women walking down the sidewalk, wearing colorful wraparound skirts, with head scarves. My little village to the east of Atlanta is known for immigrants (yesterday I discovered a store across the street with complete skinned goat carcasses hanging behind a glass window in a refrigerated room). So many people coming here to make a new life, just like it’s always been in this country. Just like my ancestors.
At the end of class I especially enjoyed working with one woman who seemed to catch on rather well. I also flatter myself that I know something about teaching. I saw that she had henna flowers drawn on her hand and wrist, and I said something about them, then I showed her my own rose tattoo on the wrist. In a few minutes, one of the words she was supposed to look up in the dictionary was flower, and she like “Like a flower tattoo”.