Speaking their language

Language fascinates me. I remember, as a child, thinking that the best thing in the world would be the ability to speak any language, to be able to talk with anyone whatever language they speak. Wherever in the world I would be, I would speak the local language. We would understand each other. Not surprising, in college I majored in French and studied Spanish and Italian.

Language acquisition comes naturally to me. Some people have “an ear” for music. I have an ear for language. That “ear” lets me slip easily into the rhythms, patterns, and tones of the language or dialect spoken around me. I’ve been asked by French-speaking visitors from France how long I’ve been in the U.S. Whether with friends in New York or Yinglish-speaking friends in Los Angeles, I’m one of them. In the late 70s, when I had students from Iran, I began to learn Farsi. I will never forget the thrill of being in a group of young students and becoming aware that I understood the conversation. I was one of them.

Recently, I began thinking that this ability may be about more than language. It may be about understanding, being aware of and sensitive to the feelings of others. It’s called empathy. I gravitate to the person in a group who is marginalized for any reason. I connect with the outsider—not because I try, but because it happens. The outsider’s story often has a depth and breadth that enriches my life. If I share what I’ve learned about the outsider with others in the group,  changes in the group’s attitude toward the outsider begin to take place.

Joe Hansen was vice principal at the high school where I had my first job as the school librarian. Joe was viewed by some of the younger teachers as rigid, narrow-minded, conservative, old fashion, and out of touch with the students of the early 70s. Joe dropped by the library often. We became acquainted. I learned he was a Marine Corps officer in World War II. He told me how he lost his left arm in an explosion. He told me about growing up in Pennsylvania during The Depression. He told me about his early days as a history teacher at the school after the war. I laughed at stories of his experiences with students. He regaled me with tales of his exploits and escapades with a group of ex-GIs, all of them now teachers.

Bob McRitchie, one of  my colleagues among the “younger” teachers, thought Joe was irrelevant. Bob and Joe had clashed in the past. As a result, Bob had little use for Joe. Bob taught U.S. history and asked me to help him locate and organize resources about The Great Depression.

“You should talk to Joe,” I said. He grew up in Pennsylvania in The Depression and knows a lot about it. He has great stories that the kids will love.”

Bob was skeptical. I related one or two of Joe’s Depression era experiences and a couple of his young teacher escapades. Bob was impressed. He invited Joe to talk to his class about The Depression.

“He was fantastic,” an enthusiastic Bob told me later. “The kids really got into it. He made The Depression real to them.”

Joe was equally pleased. “They loved it,” he said. “I had those kids eating out of the palm of my hand.”

It was a win for everyone.

Everyone has a history and a story (or stories) to tell. No matter where I’ve lived or worked, my life has been blessed by people who talked to me about who they are, where they’ve been, what they saw, heard, did. I don’t know how or why it happens. I just listen.

Maybe I speak their language.

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