Completed comic

Here’s the completed comic, all four pages all together:


And here’s what I started writing yesterday afternoon, but couldn’t finish and post until today.

9 May 2007, 3pm, Sanamluang Cafe, LA
My literacy tutoring session went well today. I’m so pleased and grateful. I feel like things are coming together, and that’s reassuring.

The first time I spoke to Maria, two weeks ago, I fumbled. I had finally succeeded in reaching her on the phone, only to encounter an incomprehensible flow of Spanish. To begin with, I hate talking on the phone. I get awkward. So to suddenly find that my carefully thought-out list of things to say was now inaccessible, I just lost all my aplomb. In the end, after several false starts in English, I had to resort to Spanish to ask things like, “You want… learn… to read?” and “You can be at library, one, Tuesday?” After that exchange, I dreaded what Tuesday would bring!

Fortunately for my nerves, the program tells us to make our first meeting just a meet-and-greet, not a formal lesson. So I made it through our first half-hour together all right, though sweating and stammering. Face-to-face, Maria seemed to know more English, and this time I was mentally prepared to speak Spanish, but still, I had a hard time getting through my prepared list of interest questions (“Finish this sentence: I am good at ____.” Her answer: “los quehaceres de casa [household chores]”) and the program’s “roles and goals” form, which asks students why they would like to learn to read (I’m afraid I simply ignored certain goals, being unable to explain “read a book on recovery” or “join the PTA”). Maria understood some of what I was saying, but not much, and trying to bridge the difference just about wore me out. At the end of this harrowing process, she was clearly disappointed (though she hid it politely) that she wouldn’t be receiving a lesson that day. But I just couldn’t cope (cope: a word she learned today, which she asked about last week and I wasn’t able to explain fully until I brought a bilingual dictionary this afternoon).

I got home after this first meeting (this: another word she learned today, along with that) anxious and panicking, wondering how on earth I would ever be able to teach her English if we could only manage to communicate in Spanish. I hadn’t signed up for this, I thought. The program coordinators had assured us our students would be able to converse in English.

Luckily, between our first meeting and our first lesson, I was able to attend one of the program’s quarterly tutor information meetings, fortuitously titled, “My Student Is Not a Native English Speaker – What Do I Do?” I showed up at the Venice Library on the evening of the meeting, expecting to share my story and be rescued. Instead, I heard other tutors asking advice on how to help their Croatian student decipher their college chemistry textbook, or describing how they had found a way to communicate with their Korean student via an English-language Korean cookbook. I suddenly felt stupid for even going to the meeting. At least I could speak to Maria in her own language! What did I have to complain about? I remained quiet through the question-and-answer session.

After we were excused, however, I went up to the charming Venice Branch coordinator, a charismatic, kindly black man with graying hair, and explained my situation. I told him that since I spoke Spanish, it was often easier and more clear for me to speak to my student in Spanish, but that I feared she’d never learn English this way.

“It’s okay to use Spanish,” he assured me, “but I’ll tell you what you can do. If she needs something explained, you tell her, ‘Now we’re going to speak in Spanish for one minute.’ Then, after you tell it to her in Spanish, you repeat your explanation in English. For two minutes.”

“That’s a great, great idea!” I exclaimed.

“And there’s no charge!” he smiled back.

I left the library feeling better. Okay, so I wasn’t going to get any magic help, but I did have this excellent advice from Bill, and a packet of info he’d handed out, and I knew I certainly wasn’t alone. That would do to get on with.

Before Maria’s first lesson I planned assiduously, reading all my training and informational materials and budgeting plenty of time for the appropriate lesson in the assigned Challenger workbook. But then, when I sat down with her, Maria befuddled me again. She might not be able to speak very fluently, but she read surprisingly well. My planned lesson on consonants and vowels (“the silent e” in words like name, etc) was totally unnecessary; she didn’t make any of the mistakes I expected (and which my fourth-grade tutees back in Oakland, Mineisha and Classi, had made). None of the names, spellings, or contractions tripped her up. I was totally astonished. Why did she need to be in this program at all? She could clearly read! But then I asked her to explain to me the short (three-paragraph) story she’d just read, on Bob and his job. She had understood almost nothing. After painstaking, almost line-by-line explanation, we moved on to the next lesson and began the process over again. I left this first session totally drained and went to get ice cream.

That night, I planned our next lesson, bringing in some simple reading materials to give her a chance to practice with non-Challenger texts: selected Calvin and Hobbes strips and two passages from Fanny at Chez Panisse, a children’s book, one paragraph about vegetables and one page about entertaining a diner’s baby in the Chez Panisse kitchen. These materials turned out to be not quite as simple as I’d thought. Again, she wowed me with how easily she read. But again, I had to explain the meanings of the selections line by line, especially the Chez Panisse story, although the pictures in Calvin and Hobbes helped a lot. I left the session exhausted and despairing. I’m not a grammar teacher! I can’t teach ESL! How could I ever empower Maria to navigate her life in the US?

This week, though, I had a brain wave. During our first lesson together, I had asked Maria what made it hard to understand what she read.

“The little words,” she’d replied, miming with her thumb and pointer finger.

I knew what she meant. It’s the little words that constantly frustrate me when I’m trying to read in Spanish, French, or Portuguese. Vocabulary aside, these “little words” contribute so much to a sentence’s meaning, and it’s these little words that are particularly tricky to learn because they’re used so often in so many different ways. Maria might know the words “we,” “ready,” “six o’clock,” and “dinner,” but the sentence We won’t be ready for dinner until six o’clock is a total enigma to her because of the combination of “won’t be ready” and the words “for” and “until.” I could explain the sentence to her, but how would really teach her anything? All she would understand would be that particular combination of words, and even then, she might forget.

Yesterday I finally hit upon the idea of making flashcards with the program’s provided list of the 300 most common words in written English. This list, which begins with “the” and ends with “it’s,” makes up 65% of all written material; the first 100 words on the list comprise a full 50%. When I explained this to Maria yesterday, I saw her eyes widen. This was the closest thing to a magic solution I could offer her: mastery over these words, many of which are these same “little words” that so trouble her. The training packet tells us to introduce no more than ten words at a time, but I felt this would surely be too easy, so I planned other activities as well.

I was wrong again. These first ten words (the, of, and, a, to, in, is, you, that, and it) took us a full forty minutes at least. We went through them one at a time, and I asked her whether she knew what each word meant. Sometimes she did, but more often she only sort of knew , so then I would have to explain. Even knowing the corresponding word in Spanish didn’t always help, especially in the case of “to,” which the bilingual dictionary defined as “a, de, hasta que, para,” and something else I’ve forgotten. But the exercise was great. In defining “that,” Maria also learned “this,” and when I asked her to make a sentence using “is,” she gave me the opportunity to explain “are.” We got a surprising amount of mileage out of these ten simple words, and afterward, I could see it had been tremendously helpful. I sent her home to keep practicing with the flashcards. After this week, I hope, sentences like The cup of tea fell to the ground will no longer be as indecipherable.

I’ve only been a literacy tutor for a few weeks now, but already it has quite changed the way I understand the world around me. I’ve been literate for so many years, ever since I was probably about four, and I’ve picked up basic literacy in other languages as well — and not having traveled internationally, I’ve never had to deal with not being able to comprehend my surroundings. Now I’ve become so much more aware of how much we depend on words to explain our world to us, from the news to the phone book to even just the signs on the street. It’s literally a different world to people who can’t read or who can’t read English, and I find myself thinking of Maria and our lessons constantly these days as I move through my daily life, reading everything in sight.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at]