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A linguistic assist to immigrants to America

The students always make me smile.

A group at a library.

A group at a library. Photo Credit: Getty Images / franckreporter

After teaching for 35 years in the North Shore school district, I “downsized” in retirement and agreed to teach English to immigrants at the Glen Cove Library two nights a week. It’s been a joy!

I started with three students, got as many as 10, but now have settled on what I call “the fabulous five.” They range in age from 23 to 65, one man and four women. They’ve come from El Salvador, Peru, Honduras, Colombia and the Dominican Republic.

With one exception, they are married, have children, and are working. Their responsibilities leave them with little free time, but they faithfully come to class. One student commutes daily from Glen Cove to Manhattan, and then comes straight to class from the train home.

The students always make me smile. On the first day, I asked what surprising things they had discovered about America. Isabelle, from Peru, thought for a moment and then said, “You Americans all stop at red lights!”

Another woman, sitting to my right, patted my hand recently, leaned in close and whispered, “You have great passion for me.”

Now, she is an attractive lady, but our relationship has been strictly business. I wasn’t envisioning us running off to Paris together. Then, it hit me. She was saying, “You have great patience with me.”

Blanca, a student from Honduras, arrives with her three young children. Actually, they arrive first, running in, waving to me as they dart to the children’s room as their often-exhausted mother trudges in behind. Blanca’s kids are adorable. I keep forgetting their names, so I call them Blanco, Blanki and Blankette. They giggle at this and their mom smiles.

There’s Nancy, a Salvadoran immigrant who works at a store in Greenvale. I once mentioned my disappointment about a photo album I couldn’t find at her store (I was told it was out of stock). The next class, Nancy presented me with the album — and wouldn’t accept reimbursement. The next week, she gave me a basket full of tomatoes she had grown herself.

I’ve been asked by friends whether I know the students’ immigration stories. I don’t ask. I’m here to help them learn English. Their lives often are not easy. Over the past year, one woman got divorced, and another’s husband suffered a stroke. A third’s husband, a truck driver, was in a horrific accident that left him homebound for more than nine months. But, these students rarely miss a class.

And, they have introduced me to others. I privately tutored one woman’s niece who was visiting for four months from Colombia.

Another student, Elena, a 42-year-old a divorced mother of three, arrived from the Dominican Republic in December. She calls me “Teach.” When Elena told her daughter, the delightfully precocious Anna, 10, who has picked up English quite quickly, that I would be tutoring her mother, Anna looked at me, looked at her mother, and then back at me before declaring, “Good luck with that!” Elena and I laughed.

She is good-natured and ambitious, with plans to open a perfume business (as she had in the Dominican Republic). In December, she is marrying an immigrant from Italy, and I’m invited to the wedding. When we part after each session, the mothering Elena urges me, “Drive safely, Teach.” I assure her, I will. After all, like a good American, I stop at red lights!

Reader Saul Schachter lives in Sea Cliff.

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