Rock Skiing

“And how stands the city [on a hill] on this winter night?…After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.

— From President Ronald Reagan’ Farewell Address, 1989

Of the many things I don’t understand about the Executive Order banning refugees, there is this: how can you look at a photograph of a family fleeing Syria and say that they cannot come here? It is easier to discriminate against people you don’t know. Is it possible that President Trump has never met a Muslim, never met a refugee? I doubt it. I think he’s just racist.

I, on the other hand, have met Muslims and refugees. Many of them. I have worked with various refugee populations on and off for most of my adult life. In 1994, my first year out of college, I lived in Denver for 5 months.

While there I held an assortment of paid and volunteer jobs. I worked as a teacher’s aide at a day care center, and did some babysitting on the side. I wrote and edited articles for Colorado Women News magazine. I wrote a grant proposal for a group of lawyers doing pro bono work on affordable housing. And I was a tutor for a “talk time” conversation practice group for ESL students.

Our talk time group met in a dilapidated classroom of an old building in downtown Denver. The students were refugees and immigrants from Asia, Eastern Europe, Central America, Mexico. Each session, we divided into groups and were given conversation topics. At the start of our first meeting, the lead teacher made a skiing analogy. Here in Colorado, she explained, the snow is plentiful and forgiving. The sun shines over 300 days of the year.

The best skiers are the ones who learn to ski in other parts of the country, like New England. There, you ski in unforgiving cold. It’s common to ski on ice, or encounter rocks that poke up out of the snow.

“Learning English is like skiing on rocks,” she said. “Everything is easy after this.”

One conversation prompt that I remember is when we discussed the phrase “pet peeve.” I was partnered with a teenaged girl who’d recently arrived from Vietnam. She was in the advanced class, and seemed like she’d been rock skiing for awhile. I struggled to explain what a “pet peeve” meant – something unimportant that bothers you. I thought of the two men I shared a house with, friends of a college friend of mine.

“After they get a dish out of the cupboard, they leave the cupboard door open. It drives me crazy.”

“Oh,” she said. “Like when my sister leaves a light on after she leaves the room. I hate that. It’s a waste of electricity!”

Did we talk about other pet peeves, so that my student understood they weren’t limited to housekeeping irritations? I don’t remember. I do remember that Talk Time volunteer was my favorite of the positions I held while living in Denver. I loved the energy exuded by everyone in that class. They were so excited to learn English well enough that they could get jobs, go to school, conduct the various transactions of their new American lives. As a volunteer, I knew little about the situations that had led them to come to the United States, and nothing about all of the hoops they’d jumped through just to be allowed to board the plane.

I wonder where that woman is now – does she still live in Denver? Did she become a citizen? Does she still have family in Vietnam, or anyone trying hard to get to the U.S.? Maybe she has children, and admonishes them to turn off the lights when they leave the room. Maybe they’ve become skiers there in Colorado, where the snow is champagne powder and the sun shines all winter long.

7 thoughts on “Rock Skiing

  1. Katie Buttenwieser

    Good analogy, Janet! I didn’t remember that Talk Time was among the many worthwhile things that you did while you were in Denver. Love, Mom

  2. Larry Cheek

    A lovely essay, Janet.

    I taught adult ESL as a volunteer for several years. I had Chinese, Koreans, Russians, Latin Americans, and Arabs in my classes. I learned a great deal from them—including character.

    I frequently assigned my students to come to class prepared to talk about an incident from the last week where they’d had to speak English in an unstructured situation. My favorite came from a young Chinese woman who had adopted the Americanized name Nancy:

    A few days earlier, Nancy had made a shopping run to Uwajimaya, the Asian supermarket in downtown Seattle. When she tried to leave the pay parking lot, she found herself without enough cash. The attendant told her to find an automatic teller and use her bank card to get cash. She said she didn’t know how: her husband hadn’t given her the PIN. As impatient drivers lined up behind, the attendant snapped, “Just get out of here!”

    The next day, Nancy told us, she drove from Bellevue to the Seattle lot again—a round trip of about 40 miles—and found the same lot attendant and paid him the $5 parking fee. She also gave him a plate of cookies she’d baked that morning to thank him.

    She told this story without a trace of self-serving humblebrag.

    I had always believed, in the abstract, that immigrants enrich our American culture. At that moment it quit being an abstraction and became a fact, a certainty—one with a beating heart and a human face.

    BTW, I wrote an essay about this incident and sold it to a magazine. I still feel a slight twinge of guilt for commercializing it, but perhaps there’s redemption in teaching as an unpaid volunteer for seven years. And perhaps in sharing a story that might have contributed in some small way to enhancing acceptance and appreciation for people from other cultures.

    Which we sure need today.

    —Larry Cheek

  3. Thanks for sharing your experience and giving refugees a human face. My mother is a WWII refugee. Her family narrowly escaped the Holocaust in Poland. They were refugees in Siberia for about 5 years when she was born. When the war ended, they lived in a displaced persons camp in Germany for 5 years while they waited for a family to take them. I wish we learned from history.

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