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A Lesson in Light and Blooms

Driving into the Jewish community center complex, I scanned my directions: Pass a large building on the left. Right at the Chai Apartments sign. Down a hill. Right again.

From the top of the hill, I saw three people outside a building. Rimma, Yefim, and Lazar, I figured. Melodie had told me they would help me. I eased my car into Melodie's space. By the time I turned off the engine, the three were beside my car, silent as the summer day.

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"Good morning!" I smiled.

Rimma grinned; Yefim and Lazar solemnly nodded. Taking my supplies from the trunk, and positioning me between them, Yefim and Lazar walked me toward the door. Rimma skittered along behind.

We paused outside the classroom. I heard voices talking, laughing. Noiselessly, we entered. Instantly a picture of our backyard beehive whirled into my thought. I was standing dangerously close to it and the bees, unnoticing, buzzed around me. Suddenly, one felt my presence. The buzzing ceased. The image vanished, and I found myself amid 23 Russian immigrants scrutinizing their substitute teacher of Beginning English.

No one smiled. These students hated change. Adrift from everything familiar, they rowed along through daily lives buffeted by confusion. Disruption was anathema.

I glanced around. The room, normally a cafeteria, was spacious. Large windows lined one wall, but the sunlight, frolicking outside, chose not to play here.

The students took their seats at tables arranged in a horseshoe in front of a blackboard.

"Good morning!" I tried to sound assured.

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"Gut morning," the students answered in one voice, their expressions matching the dreary room. Only Rimma smiled. After taking the name cards from a box, I moved from student to student, placing the cards as they pronounced their names.

The session passed awkwardly. I left disheartened. The students' despair over Melodie's absence - and my intrusion - was obvious. I saw Melodie on some Hawaiian beach for seven very long weeks.

Suddenly, our beehives rematerialized in my head. When the beekeeper delivered them that first night, he told us that the bees would need to orient themselves, for their instinct is to search for their old home. In the morning, they would circle, using the sun as a reference to become acclimated. Perhaps what these students most needed was light - light I could provide.

WHEN I got home, I spread the name cards on a table. Melodie had told me that the students took the same seats every day, so I mentally circled the class. The names flew from the cards to the faces, and soon I found that I knew them perfectly.

"You remember good"' proclaimed Tsilya the following morning, as I greeted each student: "Good morning, Brukha; Good morning, Polina, Josef, Sofia, Sasha, Arkady ...." Halfway through class, I noticed that Sasha squirmed, and Arkady dozed. "How about a five-minute break?" I asked, spreading my fingers to illustrate "five" and pointing to the clock. Everyone stared uncomprehendingly. The hive stirred as Sasha loudly translated "five-minute break" into "playtime" or "whatever." All understood. Several left the room.

"Gut plan," Sasha proclaimed. I won him that day.

I won Abram, a new student and former university professor, the next. At break time, he quietly informed me that the class was too easy.

"Is there another, harder?" he inquired. I promised to relocate him after class, as the higher level was in another building. After the break, we focused on prepositions of place. I showed a picture of Tony reading in his tub. The students studied new vocabulary: bathrobe, shower cap, shower head, shaving cup.... "Where's the shaving cup?" I asked. "Next to comb," replied Ida. The students shone. Abram liked the exercise so much he decided to stay.

I soon discovered that I loved these people. Abram was beautiful. Serenity settled over his gentle face. Samuel, short and plump, with a florid face and clear blue eyes, reminded me of one of those wooden wide-waisted Ukrainian nesting dolls. Invariably, he bustled into class late, murmuring, "Sorry. Please excuse."

Yefim, tall and slight, with uncontrollable hair, wore baggy pants and heavy, able-to-tell-tales shoes. He reveled in being the class's translator when I struggled too long to define a word.

Rimma was tiny, birdlike. Constantly out of her seat during class, she twittered about, erasing the board, helping me distributing handouts, or reprimanding a whispering student.

Tsilya, a large woman with a startling voice, unnerved me at first. For weeks, I assumed she never smiled. One day she proved me wrong. A textbook showed a family around their fireplace. "What is the girl doing?" I asked.

Tsilya volunteered, "The daughter is sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace and looking at the fire!" It was the longest English sentence she had ventured. Surprise flushed her face as the class clapped. Exuberant, she threw back her head and laughed until she couldn't catch her breath.

Polina, fluent in several languages, struggled with English. "English very hard," she would say, shaking her head. Her perpetually askew glasses contrasted with her otherwise meticulous appearance.

And there was Esfir, a pediatrician; Josef, a school administrator; Sonia, an engineer; Arkady, a research scientist, Betty, Veiga, Faina, Mikhail....

ONE Tuesday, toward the end of my assignment, Polina asked what my favorite color was. "Green," I replied. "No, no," she stammered, "your favorite color flower!" "Pink," I guessed.

As the final Friday neared, I knew I wanted to give these students some token of my fondness. But what could I purchase on my teacher's earnings for 23 students? For days I thought and thought.

When I entered the room that last day with my mysterious long box, my friends stood and applauded. A seven-layer Russian cake sat regal on the table, a vase of pink carnations beside it.

Ida carefully recited a speech of gratitude. Tears welled in my eyes.

The final class passed rapidly. Finally, I took out my gifts, red carnations with babies' breath. As I distributed them, looking into shining eyes and hugging each student, I fought the lump in my throat.

Polina beamed behind her tipsy glasses. "This is best day for me," she said, fingering her carnation. Sonia murmured, "Thank you, Janette, for teach us!" "You will come...?" Tsilya asked.

"I hope I can substitute again," I answered.

I packed my supplies. As I turned to wave good-bye, I realized I had seen few sights so grand. The students stood smiling among a field of red. Pageantry, chasing away the starkness I had noticed my first day, filled the room.

Sunlight danced everywhere.

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