Thursday, September 23, 2010

Somebody Else's Accomplishment (in which I get just a little bit sappy)


Kim, who I'm guessing is about 35 years old, came to the United States several years ago with her American husband, started learning English, and got a job at one of the airplane manufacturing plants in town. Two years ago she lost her job and hasn't been able to find another because she doesn't have a high school diploma. So of course she started studying for her GED. She enrolled at the Goodwill Education and Training Center about a year ago, and I and other tutors have been working with her all that time.

That she stuck with the program for a year is impressive in and of itself. A lot--maybe most--of the people who enroll come for a month or two and then get worn out and quit. Studying for a GED is hard work. It's overwhelming to realize that you'll have to pass five separate tests on math, science, social studies, reading, and writing. From a purely academic perspective, for most people it's a lot easier to graduate from high school than to pass the GED exam. Earning a GED is a major accomplishment that, as far as I'm concerned, far surpasses a high school diploma. A student who has a GED has shown dedication, bravery, and a great deal of intelligence.

So Kim worked hard for a year. Math comes easily to her, and she was able to master science and social studies once she understood that those questions follow their own "formulas." She wrote dozens upon dozens of practice essays and, although the English grammar was always shaky, she has learned to write good, coherent essays.

It was the reading that kept tripping her up. The reading test provides several selections from English literature from all periods ranging from Shakespeare to Wordsworth to Toni Morrison. This is stuff that native English speakers struggle with. Imagine that you are still learning English and are suddenly expected to tell the difference when the author is being literal or using figurative language, much less understand colloquialisms like "in trouble." We ran across that one yesterday when we were practicing. She had missed almost all the questions on the selection from Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio because she didn't know that when one of the characters said he got a girl "in trouble," he meant he had gotten her pregnant.

That kind of problem was hugely discouraging for Kim. Every time she ran into a colloquialism like that she would diligently memorize it--but contemporary English has thousands of colloquialisms. Throw in the antiquated colloquialisms that we don't use anymore but that show up in literature from Romeo and Juliet to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and you've discovered the perfect recipe to discourage an ESL student from thinking she will ever be able to pass the GED. I know I was discouraged.

Kim and I worked together yesterday afternoon and then we left, me to hang out with elementary school kids playing soccer and helping them with subtraction at GoZones and Kim to take the reading test for the second time. As we were leaving, Kim asked me to pray for her to pass and I did. I don't go around praying all the time, or admitting it when I do, but oh boy you betcha I prayed. I begged the universe to jump in and help Kim pass her test.

She did pass. Not because Kim and Kim's husband and I and Shawn, the receptionist at the GETC, prayed, but because that woman worked her ass off. She passed because even when she was discouraged to the point of tears, she kept going. Even when I was worried that she'd never be able to pass, she knew she could. I am inspired and amazed by just a few people; the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi top the list. Getting a GED might seem like a small thing compared with spearheading the Civil Rights Movement or leading a salt march, but Kim is on that list now, too, because, just like them, she looked at something that seemed impossible and did it anyway.

See, I told you I was going to get sappy.