It is April 26 and Asif Mohammed and his wife Nadera Asif are about to complete class three. The couple has been taking evening classes in English as a Second Language (ESL) twice weekly for the past four months at Progreso Hispano, an immigrant advocacy organization on Route 1. Nadera Asif is from Afghanistan, but she immigrated to Pakistan in 1979 because her country was at war with Russia. There she met Mohammed, and in 2003 they immigrated with their children to the United States, where Mohammed’s experience as a marble polisher had led to a job offer. When joint pains forced Mohammed to leave his job, he became a cashier at Circuit City. But interacting with customers every day strained his English skills. Meanwhile, with the couple’s two sons away at college, Nadera, a housewife, decided to use her free time to get out of the house and improve her English. Together, the couple signed up for classes at Progreso Hispano.
They were placed in Shirley Richey’s advanced class. “The teacher is very good,” says Mohammed. Richey, like every other teacher at Progreso Hispano, is a volunteer. They work about ten hours a week teaching ESL. Beginning in January, they taught class from 7p.m. to 8:30 p.m. every Monday and Wednesday. The classes cost Progreso Hispano about $60 per person, estimates Cristina Schoendorf, the organization’s executive director. Students pay on a sliding scale according to their income, anywhere from $5 to $50. “Our ESL classes are always real popular because our teachers are so popular,” Schoendorf explained. The classes end in April and begin again in the fall. If they ran into the summer, attendance would peter out as seasonal spring and summer jobs became available.
IN TEACHER John Politte’s beginner class, half-a-dozen students are answering simple questions.
“How do you say ‘libro’ in English?” Politte asks.
“You say ‘book,’” the class intones together.
Cathy Krebs’s level four students are comfortable expressing their own thoughts in their new language. Each introduces himself to a visitor. Many take the opportunity to explain with they chose to take the ESL classes.
“I study English for more opportunity in this country,” said Marvin Rivera.
“I am happy with my classmates and my teacher,” said Nora Andrade. “She’s a nice, beautiful teacher.”
Krebs, a returned Peace Corps Volunteer and retired lawyer, smiles broadly as the students take turns standing and speaking. When they finish, she says, “I’m proud of you. [You’re] standing up and saying, ‘This is who I am.’”
The day’s lesson requires the class to interpret a cartoon strip, panel by panel. Krebs asks what the family is doing in the first panel.
Someone answers, “They are washing the t.v.”
Krebs nods. “Watching the t.v. Watching,” she says, stressing the hard “-ch” sound.
“It is the pronunciation that is hard,” says Andrade.
When the class ends, Schoendorf arrives with a stack of certificates stating that each student has completed the spring term of ESL classes. Most students hug Schoendorf and Krebs when they come to receive their certificate. After the presentations end, the important business begins. Emma Saavedra, an immigrant from Chile, removes the aluminum foil from a huge platter of tortilla wedges stuffed with cheese, refried beans, or pork. The students pass around soda and bags of chips.
As the students eat, they talk about their lives. Andrade, who quietly speaks the best English in the room, said she studied English in high school 35 years ago, but was unable to keep it up after graduation. “I couldn’t practice my English. But now I am living with an American couple.” The wife speaks Spanish, but the husband doesn’t. “This is good for me … I accompany them, especially her because she is suffering [from] Alzheimer’s.”
Saavedra is wearing a shirt that says “Soy de Chile Cachai!” which she translates as “I’m from Chile, so what!” She explains the challenges she faces in learning English. “It’s difficult for me because I work in the Hispanic restaurant. Everyone speaks Spanish. The Americans come, they want to speak Spanish.”
From across the table, Jose Manzanares gives her a suggestion. “Tell them, ‘Only English spoken here.’”