After teaching English as a Second Language at Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest NJ for 25 years, I am finally leaving. Well, not exactly “leaving,” but rather “moving on.” All right, truth be told, I am not actually “moving on,” either. I am following the Emigre Services department as JVS leaves its facility at 111 Prospect St. in East Orange to its new facility — about a nine-minute walk away — at 7 Glenwood Ave.
Goodbye, basement classroom with its frayed (a result of its being well-used) United States wall map and its piles of dusty papers and posters (also well-used). Hello, classroom #130, with its shiny new student desks with metal trays for backpacks and coats (no more tripping over purses and bags and toes as I weave my way through the classroom). Hello, new computer, smart board, and freshly painted walls.
My daughter asked me if it’s hard to leave the old building. “After all, Mom, 25 years!” Leaving the physical space, that’s easy; I can, without shedding a tear, say goodbye: adios, shalom, au revoir, wadaeaan (Arabic), lamtumire (Albanian), proshchay (Russian), do pobachennya (Ukrainian). After purging many of my old materials, I have packed only the essentials and placed them in a tower of cartons and plastic yellow bins. Have iPads, will travel.
It’s the hundreds and hundreds of stories and the faces of the emigres and refugees, the political asylum-seeker that can’t be left behind or dumped in a box and labeled with stickers. They are now part of me, like my blue eyes and Brooklyn accent. Fortunately, they will travel with me to the new digs and beyond. It’s not really Khoda Hafez (goodbye in Urdu) at all.
Ah, these students and their stories! In 1991, when I arrived at JVS as a substitute teacher, the classrooms were bursting with people primarily from Russia and Ukraine. Many wore suits and skirts to classes, which were held five days a week from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The men shook hands with each other every morning, as if to signify that a new day or a new friend meant something special. To them, it did.
The students brought me flowers for every occasion, always an odd number and never yellow. (Even numbers, it seems, are bad luck, and yellow is for funerals, I learned.) Sometimes there was a communications problem. When we had a guest speaker about domestic violence, they wondered: Why all the fuss about “violins?”
When the Indian Ocean tsunami killed 230,000-280,000 people in 14 countries, on Dec. 26, 2004, we cried with the students from Sri Lanka, one of the hardest-hit countries. On Jan. 12, 2010, when a magnitude 7 earthquake ravaged Haiti, we cried again with our Haitian students. We had always discouraged cell phone use in class but during this heart-wrenching period, we said, “Keep your cell phones on. Maybe you’ll hear from someone.”
Meanwhile, the Africans came for JVS services from such struggling countries as Ethiopia, Eritrea, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Togo, and Benin. I am ashamed to say I had to refer to a map too often to find their countries of origin. They were fleeing genocides in Darfur, Sudan. They came in every shade of black and brown, elderly and sick, young and healthy, pregnant, with and without parents and children. They came because they believed that our Statue of Liberty — the Mother of Exiles — and our government welcomed them.
After a quarter century at the same job, as I worry about the new political landscape, I can’t help but reflect on all these people and what our program has meant and means to them and me. Is it tiresome for me to begin each class with alphabet and calendar practice? How much pronunciation practice and citizenship information can I cram into what is now only a 12-hour week? I am only one person; I don’t have winter coats and gloves, food and job opportunities to offer everyone.
What I do have is encouragement. I can’t leave that behind in the old building, nor can I forsake it. I can congratulate the student who just got her driver’s license. I can give hugs when students show me their new library cards. I can look the other way when a student nods off in class because I know he is working full-time, raising a family, and faithfully coming to class.
Last week “the huddled masses yearning to be free” arrived at 7 Glenwood Ave. They carried backpacks and pocketbooks full of notebooks and pencils, tears, hopes, and dreams. I’ll continue to greet my students with the alphabet, the calendar, and my own tears for their past, my hopes and dreams for their futures. I’ll have some extra pencils, too. After all, I’m the teacher in the new classroom, representing their new country, with the JVS welcome mat out at our new home.