Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Words that saved the day

"You have to reach people where they're at,"m she said vehemently. Yes, it was a woman who spoke those words -- not a man; of that much I am sure. But I still have no name to attach to the voice. Who made that remark, and when and where did I hear it? To this day I don't know, but I wish I did.

Another question. If I hadn't met Anne, would I have recalled even that one sentence? Maybe, maybe not. Speculation set aside, however, it really was on account of Anne that those words came back to me, so let me tell you a little bit about her.

About these ads

Anne was a little girl from Hong Kong who had recently come to live in the United States. I got to know her when I was a volunteer at her school. I had been assigned to teach her, along with several other youngsters from Hong Kong, as well as from Puerto Rico, how to speak and write English.

At first allm the children were problems. They crept into the teachers' conference room like so many lost, mistreated kittens, and I -- supposedly fully trained and prepared for any situation -- was unable to teach them a thing. Those first few classes seemed to drag all the way into eternity, and at the end of each of them we all straggled out feeling miserable.

One day, however, I happened to think of all the Dr. Seuss books I used to read to youngsters. The comical figures, dancing all over the pages, inevitably succeeded in turning even the most petulant, tearstreaked tiny face into smiles.

So I borrowed some of his books from the library and brought them, along with a lot of high hopes, to the next class. Sure enough, little fingers everywhere pointed at thehilarious illustrations. The room became filled with laughter, and the children's fear and shyness began to fade away. Very soon they were leaping and bounding into English.

All except Anne, that is. Anne sat there like a little tombstone. No smiles , no laughs, nothing. "Culture shock," her classroom teacher once whispered to me in ominous tones.

I decided the answer was to go earlier to school and teach Anne privately. Still there was no improvement. Over the span of three months, "and" and "the" were the only two words she had managed to learn of the english language.

One awful night, all the doubts and fears I had about ever being able to teach Anne, loomed up and confronted me like an insurmountable mountain. The prospect of being a sure-fire failure wasn't a pretty view.

About these ads

As I lay there in bed staring up woodenly at the ceiling, suddenly that forgotten sentence stepped forward out of the cobwebs of past years and spoke to me. "You have to reach people where they're at."m What? Did I hear that right? Where is Anne at?Yes. Well, she's nowhere. She's absolutely nowhere in her knowledge of english. I turned over on my side and dismissed the thought. Ridiculous.

Fifteen minutes later though, like so many pesky mosquitoes which refused to be chased away, those words were still with me. "You have to reach people where they're at."m OK, I admitted sourly, so she knows how to read and say "and" and "the." Anybody, even Anne, can do that much. I flounced grumpily around some more on my bed.

Then, ever so quietly, the significance of that most absurdly simple fact dawned on me. Yes, Anne was literally at "and" and "the" in jer knowledge of English. Instead of appreciating her grasp of those words as a veritable Mount Everest of knowledge, as no doubt Anne saw it, I had been looking down at her accomplishment as a nothing, or at best, a mere molehill. In short, I had been trying to reach Anne from where I wasm instead of from where she was.m

The next morning I marched doggedly to school with a display of determination I realy didn't feel. The thought of what I was about to do made me feel ridiculous and foolish and, worse yet, I had no assurance that it would work. Nevetheless I gritted my teeth and proceeded. For one solid hour I made Anne read the only two tiny words she knew, "and" and "the," and I accompanied her efforts with plenty of whoops of praise.

The crazy plan worked. By the end of the hour I had reached, and to my great surprise, even had accepted Anne where she was atm in her pathetically miniscule knowledge of English. When she left that day she bounded out the door with the first smile I had ever seen on her face.

Well, that was the end of my little human tombstone, and the beginning of Anne. Teaching her was effortless after that, and by the end of the year she was helping me teach the other children.

I still have the problem I started with however, and that is, I would like to know who originally said to me, "you have to reach people where they're at."m would the speaker of those words please stand up?

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.