Reading for Real Change
First-year MDivs Rachelle Renee Brown and Miranda-Lynn Gartin up and left lucrative marketing careers in Ohio and California because they wanted to make a difference in the world. Little did these corporate exiles know that teaching English literacy to an immigrant Burmese family—a mom and dad with four children who had spent most or all of their lives in a Thai refugee camp—would make a world of difference disappear.
Brown and Gartin were paired last August with the Wah family by Refugee Family Services and Candler’s Contextual Education program, which places students in social service, clinical, and ecclesial settings to gain practical ministry experience. Both students felt confident when they signed up to work with the Refugee/Immigration Program. Gartin had taught literacy in Honduras and Guatemala and felt certain this experience would help her teach others. Brown assumed her fluency in Spanish would be an asset.
They began to feel like strangers in a strange land, though, when they found out the family was from Burma and spoke the language Karen, and their phone call to set up their first visit was greeted with “wrong number” and a disconnect. Yet this mutual disorientation quickly became their common ground. They discovered it at the Wah family home in Clarkston, Ga., which Brown and Gartin set out to find— despite the phone disconnect—and then came to eagerly anticipate each week.
“It has been transformative because I learned we’re not all that different, and that was a huge bonding experience,” said Gartin, who for the first time in her life was no longer within driving distance of her family. “The Wahs became my first network of friends here.”
Brown says the experience has been humbling and convicting, especially the Wahs “positivity and hunger for education.”
“It’s shown me the opportunities we have and can share with others,” she said, adding but “what’s really impacted me is being allowed into the family time they tuck away for learning together every Wednesday afternoon.”
Still, there is no denying the stark differences. Brown quit her Procter and Gamble job, sold her home and headed to Candler, in part because she was inspired by the school’s “Real people making a real difference in the real world” message. Gartin, from California, gave up the luxury retail industry and moved across the country for Candler’s Episcopal Studies program.
The Wahs fled Burma for their safety and came to the U.S. with no jobs, no home, no country—and almost no English language skills.
“They had left their country and lost everything, so literacy was only a minor issue when we first met,” says Gartin. “We immediately saw that they needed the basics of survival in a new culture.”
Brown and Gartin realized standard literacy tools were too advanced for the family’s situation, so they figured out a new approach, pulling from their experiences of how they learned to read, understand and speak foreign languages, and acclimate to unfamiliar cultures. They created a customized curriculum based on the family’s needs: phone skills, proper greetings, protocols for calling in sick to work or school. And they came up with their own tools: hand-made flash cards, labels for the furniture, early reader books, useful Web games. They also helped the parents decipher the gimmicks that come in junk mail and review the children’s homework and teachers’ notes.
The family received these gifts with total grace, a demonstration of their Christian faith the students had rarely encountered. “Working with the Wahs has changed my perspective on everything, especially Christianity,” says Brown. “Their definition is different from mine—peace at all costs even if it requires self-sacrifice.”
The mutual respect—and joyful camaraderie—is most obvious during circle time, when Mr. Wah Say (father), Ler Paw (mother), Po Ray (21-year-old son), Richard (18-year-old son), Plaw (16-year-old son), and Gracy (six-year-old daughter) gather on the floor with Brown and Gartin to share what has transpired since their last “class.” During a recent visit, they also worked on a recurring problem—“wrong number, hang up” episodes. Brown and Gartin took turns holding a pinkie finger and thumb to their ear to simulate a phone and pretended to call each member of the family.
“Ring-ring,” Brown said to Mr. Wah Say, who put his pinkie and thumb to his ear to answer, smiling and eyes twinkling in the good-natured fun of the exercise. Giggles came from all of his children as they watched.
“Hello?” he said.
“Hello, Mr. Wah Say. This is your English teacher, Rachelle. How are you?”
“Good,” he said and nothing more. His oldest son, Po Ray, leaned over to offer further instructions in Karen. He continued, “How are you?”
“Fine, thank you. I’m calling to remind you that we’re coming to visit you today. OK?”
“All right then. We’ll see you soon. Bye.”
“So,” Brown continued, looking around the circle, “who hung up when I called earlier today?”
Plaw reluctantly raised his hand. “I did,” he said, more giggles all around. “Sorry.”
After circle, they broke into groups. Brown worked with Mr. Wah Say and Gracy on learning individual words and then how to read those words in full sentences and stories. Gartin led the mother and sons in reading aloud from books and talking about what they learned. On alternate weeks, they spend their time playing Uno or Yahtzee instead.
The Wahs’ reading and speaking skills have improved tremendously since Brown and Gartin started working with them. Mr. Wah Say knew no English and can now speak his address, call his workplace, and read sentences.
“He says he’s too old to learn, but he’s the one I’m most proud of,” says Brown.
Plaw and Gracy are getting good grades in school, and Richard, who works with his father at a chicken processing plant, is making solid progress. But it’s Ler Paw and Po Ray, who also have been taking English as a Second Language (ESL) courses, who are excelling. Po Ray has been promoted from the stockroom to the kitchen at his restaurant job, and he’s now training to be a cook because he can read recipes. His mother has completed the sixth and final level of the ESL coursework and is ready to take the GED exam.
The biggest sign of progress, though, is the family-like relationship the students are sharing with their fellow “foreigners,” one they say will extend after their Con Ed assignment ends.
“Their literacy has grown organically from our friendship,” says Gartin. “We realized early on that just studying together wasn’t working, so we became friends.”
They celebrate together, sharing cupcakes and chocolate chip cookies when Ler Paw “graduated” from ESL. In games of Uno and Yahtzee, the Wahs team up against their teachers, a dissension that feels like real family fun to Gartin. This summer, she and her husband are inviting the Wahs to their home for dinner. In the meantime, the sons have added Gartin and Brown as Facebook friends.
But the most telling moment occurred in early April when Ler Paw and Po Ray followed their teachers out to the parking lot after the week’s class was over.
“My mother wants to know if you have your car keys,” Po Ray said in perfect English. Just like their own mothers, Ler Paw was checking to make sure they hadn’t locked the keys in the car like they did last time, which had required a call to AAA.
“Yes, I have them! Thank you!” Brown said, getting into the car.
Gartin started to tear up from the sophistication of the communication—but mostly from the level of caring. “We’ve come such a long way!” she said. “I can’t say anymore or I’ll cry.”
Not only have these strangers helped each other adjust to their new land, they’ve found the comfort of home again, too.
April Bogle is laughing her way through Anne Lamott’s Some Assembly Required.