2017: To A Very Good Year

Some years ago, I had the supreme privilege of teaching a beginning English language course to immigrants and refugees who hoped to one day become citizens of this country.

Having left the classroom, at least as a professional educator, I found myself missing what drew me to it: people. And so I went back, but on my own terms.

It would only be for one semester. It would be volunteer based, because part of me always felt cheap getting paid to do what I loved. It would be in a different environment. And this time, I would make sure to know what I was walking into before I committed to anything. Lessons learned from the first gig – and then some.

After many months of searching, the next gig found me. It was about a five minute drive from my 9-5, in a part of town people wanted “revitalized.” We know what that means … but that’s another post.

That first day I was terrified. These weren’t kids I was teaching. These were adults. With loads more life experience under their belts. Many could have been my parents. Some even  my grandparents.

None of them spoke English. Meanwhile, I spoke not a word of their languages, knew nothing of their cultures or families or past experiences. We had a lot of work to do, all of us.

Butterflies in my stomach, in the door, up a few flights of stairs, and around the corner I went. I walked in the room. And I was humbled.

There my students were, sitting in their seats with packets and piles of paper, all unopened, looking as uncertain as me. In a split, terrifying moment, the weight of what we were trying to do hit me. Like a sack of bricks.

What if I fail them? These human beings are entrusting part of their futures with me! They have families and jobs and needs and dreams … who am I to teach them anything?

Days and months passed. Lessons came and went. Gradually, we covered the required content and some key life content too. And yes, they graduated.

After two years in this “only one semester, let’s see how it goes” gig, a few students took their tests and their oaths as citizens. One even sent me a picture. I cried when I got it.

But before then, there were other victories. At the end of each course, I used to ask each student to tell me one thing they learned as part of a survey. Many focused on grammar or civics lessons, or something else they needed to pass their tests. All helpful. All good to hear, knowing they had taken what they needed.

Only one student ever refused to answer. I stopped him on the way out the door, trying to understand if I had done something wrong, trying to understand his position.

“No,” he said, “in this class I learn something different. In this class I learn never give up.”

As we all begin another year together on this earth, I’d like to encourage everyone to take a page from this student’s book.

And with that, here are my wishes for you in 2017:

  1. That we would all have the strength to continue fighting whatever good fight we have chosen.
  2. That we would all have the support of loving, caring communities to encourage us on that path. No one can do it alone. No one.
  3. That we would all have the clarity of mind and the purity of spirit to recognize that sometimes the things we need are already right in front of us.

A blessed, happy and healthy New Year to each and every one of you. Go make 2016 jealous.

Ryan Vale McGonigle

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