Elementary English For Novices in a New Land

Several years ago I got my first job teaching ESL -- English as a second language -- to adult immigrants in New York City.

President Reagan had announced the amnesty program for illegal aliens. Those who could prove they had resided a certain number of years in the United States would be granted citizenship if they either passed a simple immigration test for minimal proficiency in English or presented a certificate that they had completed 60 hours of instruction at a licensed school.

Most students had full-time jobs during the week, so the school had arranged for marathon weekend classes during the summer: six hours on Saturday and four on Sunday.

Little did I know what I had signed up for. I had a makeshift classroom with a small chalkboard on a wobbly stand. There was one slim textbook, and not enough copies to go around. Other than that, I was left to my own devices to supply the materials.

I often think back to that first hot Saturday in July when I met my new class, 35 adults from every corner of the globe. I will never forget the pressure of generating materials for those marathon weekends. I chuckle now as I recall frantically rifling through my bookshelves and dashing to the library for meaningful readings, poems, and songs, pulling out all the things that had touched me in my youth: the Gettysburg Address, the Twenty-Third Psalm, Oscar Wilde's ''The Selfish Giant,'' Emily Dickinson's ''Hope is a thing with feathers that perches in the soul,'' ''Speak to Us of Children'' from Gibran's ''The Prophet,'' Kipling's ''If,'' and, of course, lots of Robert Frost.

I spent hours in copyshops, trying to cram as much as possible on a printed page because the cost came out of my meager salary. Sometimes I'd rent a movie for Sunday afternoon and discover that my pupils had never seen Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance, didn't know ''Singing in the Rain'' or ''The Wizard of Oz.''

They didn't know New York was the first capital of the US or that the Brooklyn Bridge is the oldest suspension bridge in the world, so we made a historic walking tour of Lower Manhattan. No one had ever been to a museum, so we spent a Saturday afternoon at the American Museum of Natural History.

Few in the class had ever received a diploma, so when the course neared its end I knew our graduation had to be something special. We took the boat out to the Statue of Liberty, where I presented their beribboned diplomas and shook everyone's hand. I still recall that day. Everyone was dressed in Sunday best and was accompanied by proud family and friends.

That was years ago. I teach ESL for the board of education now, and I have lots of materials and copy machines. I've had hundreds of students, but I still think about that class. I remember their names and smiling faces: Nazim from Albania, Folani from Nigeria, Rita from Peru. I wonder where they are now and how they are faring. Do they ever think back to those hot summer weekends when we struggled through ''The Star Spangled Banner'' and sung ''You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.''

Yesterday afternoon, I stepped out of Macy's onto West 35th Street. The Garment District was in full swing: trucks unloading, racks of clothes rumbling along the sidewalks. I started toward Seventh Avenue to get a cab.

''Teacher! Teacher!'' called a loud voice from somewhere down the crowded sidewalk. A huge form came rushing toward me, pushing a rack of dresses.

I knew him instantly. Herminio, a Dominican, who lived somewhere up in the Bronx. He had been in that class.

''Hi, Herminio!'' I greeted him as he grabbed my hand and pumped it up and down.

He was radiant. ''Teacher, you remember me after all these years?''

''How could I ever forget you, Herminio. How's your wife?'' I asked, remembering his shy bride at graduation.

We played catch-up. They have two children now. He pulled photos from his wallet. They are saving to open a Dominican restaurant in the Bronx.

''Well, Teacher, so nice to see you,'' he smiled as he shook my hand one last time, ''but I gotta go,'' and he pushed his rack back up the street.

As I walked away, I wondered if he remembered any of the things we did that summer.

''Teacher!'' I heard a loud bellow from far down the street and turned around to look. Everyone else on the street turned to look, too.

He was standing in the middle of the sidewalk, leaning forward. ''You know why I gotta go?'' he bellowed. The question echoed off the buildings.

''No, Herminio,'' I leaned forward and bellowed back, ''Why do you have to go?''

''Because,'' he adjusted his stance, feet wide apart, a big smile on his face, ''I ... got ... miles ... to ... go ... before ... I ... esleep.'' He gave me a thumbs-up sign and a last big grin, and disappeared into the crowd. Every frantic minute of that summer was worth it.

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