Trying to ‘esplain’

At Indian Creek, everyone knows I'm a reporter. But I'm also the only born-here American many families know, which makes me the go-to person for problems ranging from malfunctioning camcorders to puzzling school forms. At Bill's house, where his parents are making substantial progress in English, this usually means explaining confusing paperwork.

At Indian Creek, everyone knows I'm a reporter. But I'm also the only born-here American many families know, which makes me the go-to person for problems ranging from malfunctioning camcorders to puzzling school forms. At Bill's house, where his parents are making substantial progress in English, this usually means explaining confusing paperwork.

But at Thayoomoo's place, where her mom, Nyonyo, is starting from scratch with English, it's all over the map. The first day I came to her house, ostensibly to talk about Burma (Myanmar), she asked me to help her practice for the Georgia driver's written exam. Or, more precisely, she poked a battered driver's manual at me and said, "You hep."

I tried, for hours, with a thick pile of drawings and extensive pantomime. Mostly she looked baffled. I did manage, I think, to convey the meaning of "slippery," by taking repeated spills on the carpet. At least, by the time I left, she was saying "flippery" and laughing, which seemed like progress.

The next time I came over, she hauled out a tall jar of coins, and said, "You esplain." It turned out, in three years in the US, she'd never understood how many quarters make a dollar, or even that a dollar was just multiples of change. She had saved some of Thayoomoo's first-grade worksheets on the subject, but couldn't make sense of them.

In the meantime, after calling literally every local chain store, I'd brought along the only Lonely Planet Burmese phrasebook in metro Atlanta. This proved invaluable, because it had the word "equal" in the glossary, which, translated, is pronounced "tu-nyi-deh."With tu-nyi-deh, all things were possible. We took full advantage of the dry-erase board mounted on the living-room wall. Nyonyo and her 5-year-old son sat together on the carpet by the low table, guarding little stacks of pennies and dimes from the baby, who delighted in scattering them.

In two hours, they had mastered pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters - and hints of multiples, the concept of fractions, and the base-10 numeral system. I'm no teacher, but they were quick, and ridiculously grateful. "Now I go store," Nyonyo said proudly.

I drove home thinking what an idiot I was. Of course "hydroplaning" was a stretch, for someone who didn't know the word "dime."

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