PSA: To the awesome people I volunteer with – I am not actually as gifted as you guys think. I’m just throwing that out there…
“So, Safiya, how’s your French?” Actually, they call me Sofia here (and pretty much everywhere else. I learned it’s best to simplify when your name has unusual spelling). I want to say, “Well, it’s negligible to non-existent.” But that doesn’t seem to be the right answer. Not for the most consistent volunteer in this particular room, who speaks the most Spanish, the most computer, and the most previous public school (again – I’m being relative to this room: this building is full of people who speak MUCH more fluent Spanish than me, but they are not in this room. Also I’m not sure if they speak as much computer). In this room, when there’s a question, everybody looks at me. So I guess I have to have an answer: “Ummm….well….”
The 2 teachers of the Basic class are both retired educators. They served their time primarily in elementary schools, but all of us public servants know the drill (how to make magic out of nothing and pull miracles out of the air. Also where to post helpful signs). And this is a center filled with public servants. They were thrilled when I knew to set out computers and headphones ahead of their class’ arrival (public school teachers know that lab time is precious; we try not to waste it on set up and clean up). They were thrilled when I could solve pretty much any computer issue, mostly by speaking sweetly to the machine (I might be a Computer Whisperer). And they were thrilled that I am so chill, you can pretty much ask anything of me for the 2 hours I am here (like expecting me to assist a kindly man who needs help filling out some medical forms. Do I look like I know how to ask someone if they had a ventral hernia in Spanish? Do I even know what half these terms are in English???) I’m here to help. I might go find the volunteer coordinator and give her that good side eye (she finds this extremely funny), but we’ll make it work.
And today, apparently, I’ll need to make it work in French. “We have complete faith in you,” they chirp with great cheer and confidence, try to sweeten the pot with the promise of donuts, and leave me to assist 2 new students, one of whom has a strangely familiar air of polite sullenness (it makes sense later when I learn he’s 16 – oh yeah, the Adolescent Slump. I tried to teach kids out of that for 7 years). I mean, we make it happen. He’s a savvy kid with a better grasp of English than he lets on, he speaks computer pretty well, so it’s not as much of a struggle as it could have been. Just like asking someone their medical history in Spanish was not as much of a struggle as it could have been. Just like the day I was literally sprinting between 3 different classrooms, functioning as librarian, lab teacher, and guest instructor in the Spanish Literacy class, was not as much of a struggle as it could have been. Not when your day job typically involves running on fumes and building genuine alliances out of columns of smoke.
Today when I leave, I pass Elvis, who is the only male in the Basic class (Father Jack jokes with him that he is like Mary, “blessed among women”). He waves and says, “Bye, Sofia!” And I remember: it is never about how smart you are, or how gifted you’re not or how many languages you may or may not speak/understand. It’s almost always about how willing you are to try, to embrace people because you believe that you can understand them if you want to, and to make people comfortable with learning by laughing at your own mistakes.
Elvis’ SUV is just a trail of white smoke by the time I reach the corner. I wonder what they’ll ask me to do next time.