Monday, March 14, 2016

Where Black and White Meets Color

Sometimes grammar can just be too much.  

That’s why this week, we did something a little different for my beginner ESL class at the Indo American Center. After learning the names of various fruits—banana, cherry, pineapple, kiwi— the students and I did a fruits basket coloring page.

Adult coloring boks are kind of a fad right now, one that I so far haven’t really gotten into. But the students really seem to enjoy it, and as I sat coloring with them, I started to see why. 

In a world where problems can seem so nebulous and events so random, the structure of coloring in the lines is refreshing. The only decision you have to make is, should I do this peach first or the pear? Should my grapes be red or green? There is something very satisfying about taking a half hour out of the week and letting your world shrink to the size of a piece of paper, your only task to take something drab and colorless and make it beautiful.

This is especially important for the class I teach because most of the students are refugees.  Not only are they trying to navigate the mammoth task of living in a foreign country where they don’t speak the language or have a strong support system, but many of them are also recovering from the whatever traumatic events forced them to leave home. One student described being tortured in a Burmese prison, pulling down the collar of his shirt to reveal long scars puckering the skin of his chest. He used his hands and face to supplement the few English words he could summon up—no money, pain, hungry— describing men shooting guns, people dying in front of him. For him, coloring provided an opportunity to temporarily escape from problems bigger than I can even conceptualize. 

Of all the students though, Linda enjoyed coloring the most. Linda is from Iraq, a member of one of the Christian minority groups that have been systematically persecuted in that country. Once the avid note-taker and vocal participant, the last two weeks she could hardly make it through a class period without crying. Today, though, she stayed in her seat long after all the other students had gone, determined to finish every last apple leaf and cherry stem. I sat with her and we colored together in silence for nearly twenty minutes. This was the first time I had seen her smile in two weeks.  

That was a really significant moment for me. There’s really so little I can do for Linda.. I can’t even ask her what’s wrong in words that she can understand. But at least I could give her a little bit of space and time away from whatever terrible things make a grown woman come to her English class crying every day. 

I used to have this idea that I needed to do something big and grand to change the world. However, my experience this year is teaching me more and more every day that making the world a better place  really happens in ways so small and mundane they can seem like nothing. 

In other news, this weekend I attended the St. Patrick's Day parade (featuring troupes of bagpipers, Irish dancers, and various marching bands) and witnessed the Chicago River dyed bright green. It seemed like the entire city went nuts for St. Patrick's Day, Irish and non-Irish alike. 

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