by Laura Dravenstott

Source: MindOut Conference

The blue-uniformed Chinese girl haunts me. She came to my English-as-a-Second-Language class at the detention center and sat at the table, studying her hands as the other women entered. When I began my introduction to the class in both English and Spanish, she stopped me with a gesture. “No Spanish,” she said.

I asked her if she spoke English, and she responded, “Only little, most Chinese.”

Stumped, I surveyed the class as they regarded me with mild curiosity. Six women from Spanish-speaking countries, three from Africa in head coverings and shawls of bedsheets, and the young Chinese woman all sat around the table. As the African women all spoke fairly good English, I could reach all in the room except for one.

Hands extended in apology, I said, “I don’t have any Chinese, I’m sorry. Only xie-xie,” which I knew as being Mandarin for thank you. Most of the class chuckled at my poor attempt, but the girl looked confused. Did she wonder if she was the butt of a joke?

As the class went on, we shared more amusement at my pathetic attempts to illustrate our text on the whiteboard. My students offered their own drawings, and encouraged one another to read aloud so they could get the chocolate bar reward. The recreation specialist at GEO Corp, who was not present that day, had allowed me to pass out candy for class participation. I was encouraged to be strict about enforcing the rules so that my students would conform to GEO Corp’s standards of classroom behavior.

The young Chinese girl was left out of the laughter, the drawing, and the chocolate. When I later told my supervisor about how much I regretted not giving my speechless Chinese student the chocolate, she had responded, “Oh, in that case, I would have given it to her.”

My sorrow expanded, and I asked if she could deliver the candy for me in the coming days. I don’t know if my student ever received her treat, and she was gone the next time I taught the women.

What was the girl’s story? How would it be to arrive in jail, alone, unable to communicate with another soul? Translators are scarce. There are few Chinese speakers, though I have met men and women from Nepal and Tibet.

I’m not supposed to ask about the women’s backgrounds, and I don’t dare break the rules. While my one hour per-week offers the women little other than laughter at my expense, it’s life-changing for me, and I don’t want to lose my volunteer badge. Through it all, I can’t forget the young Chinese woman, because I know that I failed her.