The word “alley” brings to mind city neighborhoods and a mix of people living in close community. In Minneapolis I lived in an inner city neighborhood with that kind of alley running behind my house, and it drew me into community activism and politics, and inspired me to write a novel Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost Things.
Now, I live in Central New York in a little old Cape Cod house set back from the road by majestic sugar maples and a horseshoe driveway. There’s nothing like the alley we had in Minneapolis. Here in suburban Syracuse we have a little saltbox barn, a small lake, and a wetland with a mix of wildlife living as close to my cat as instinct will allow. He will chase anything except maybe the deer.
I work at a community college in Syracuse where I am an English tutor. The Writing Center has become my metaphorical “alley.” We serve a mix of students not unlike an inner city neighborhood, drawing a diverse group of people seeking a better life. I work with students from the rural and urban communities of New York, who have never had to write, or (for whatever reason) have never learned to write an academic essay.
Many students, however,came to Syracuse from all parts of the world seeking refuge from war, persecution, and poverty. They speak English as a second language (ESL) and English classes can be very challenging. Imagine being a student from Vietnam or Bosnia, Nepal or Cuba—being asked to analyze American poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, or to write about social justice themes in the movie “The Grapes of Wrath.” Now, imagine that the English language is as new to you as Spanish One is to an American middle-schooler. Not to make my work sound more heroic than it is, but my job is to help people meet college level writing standards that many native English speakers have trouble meeting. Fortunately, in the process of working with all of these students, I get to hear their stories . . .
I Love My Vacuum Cleaner
She was a 41-year old housewife from Managua, coming to community college in hopes of becoming a social worker. A single mother with three children, she was on her own in America, and the hours she spent in classes were hard for her because they took her away from her family. When her English teacher suggested that she needed to spend some time with a writing tutor, she nodded politely, went into the hallway, and burst into tears. To her, our first session was about as welcome as a root canal. She let me know right away that she was here to “get good English” out of me, the way one squeezes the juice out of a grapefruit.
I took a deep breath, “So, what is the assignment we’re working on here?” I began. She sighed and began absently shuffling papers in her folder.
“Look,” she said at last, “I have to write about an object that has special meaning to me. I have no idea. I am not sentimental,” she declared.
“Well,” I said, “do you have anything from Nicaragua, maybe something from your mother, or your grandmother, a keepsake maybe? A favorite something?”
“No,” she answered without hesitation, “We are not like that.”
I smiled and looked around the room, stumped.
“Okay. No keepsakes,” I mused, “how about something practical? Is there anything that has special meaning just because it’s so darn useful to you as a working mother trying to go back to school?”
Her face lit up, and she looked me in the eye for the first time.
“I love my vacuum cleaner!” she exclaimed, “I really do. It was very expensive, but it’s worth it. It changed my life.”
“Really?” I laughed.
“Oh, yes,” she went one animatedly, “It is very special because of the filter. It’s called HEPA, and I got it because my son’s asthma was so bad. The County helped me get it, and oh, I just love it. Do you think I could write about my vacuum cleaner?”
“It has special meaning to you, doesn’t it? That was the assignment,” I said.
She looked worried, “Most people are writing about a special ring or a book or something like that, but this machine is saving my son’s life. I don’t know what I would do without it. You don’t think it’s funny to write about a vacuum cleaner?”
“What’s wrong with funny? Besides, that’s not all there is to it,” I said.
“Okay, I want to write it,” she said. So, I helped her organize her thoughts and map out the content of the paragraphs, and she went on her way.
A couple of weeks later, a colleague approached me in the hall, waving a paper.
“I love my vacuum cleaner!” she exclaimed.
She told me that the essay had been a real triumph for my student. Her success made me very happy to be doing what I do.