By tutor Donna Dello Buono
I haven’t been a tutor for that long…just a couple of months. And, due to the most pressing student needs, I wasn’t matched with someone whom I thought would be the ideal candidate for me as an inexperienced tutor; an individual at a more advanced level in English. However, the big lesson I learned in even this very short time is that it doesn’t matter. With a willing student, the program works, regardless of that person’s capabilities in English and regardless of my knowledge as a tutor.
I was matched with the loveliest of young Mexican mothers, Noemi, who has 3 strapping sons, ages 10, 8 and 4. Her husband works and she doesn’t drive, so her requirement was that she be given a tutor willing to go to her home with children in tow. I couldn’t even imagine how that would work, having to combine her babysitting with learning English. Well, Mom had that all under control. Her boys are so well-behaved, and they look after each other while we are meeting and also serve as a sounding board for her studies between our sessions. This will change soon with two sons going back to school and the youngest at home, but I don’t think that will present any problems at all.
Noemi tested as a “high beginner”. She can read English by sounding it out, but her comprehension is limited. She is challenged with areas of pronunciation, and we’ve hardly been able to conduct an actual conversation without hand gestures, pointing to rooms/objects for better clarification, and even, when desperate, calling on her oldest son to assist with a basic word or two that would facilitate her understanding of an entire concept. After our first meeting, I immediately bought each of us a Spanish/English dictionary, and it has been invaluable in getting across the one word that will open up the door for my being able to explain something in English and for her to truly absorb it. All that being said, we became friends from the very first session, when we hugged and she thanked me repeatedly for trying to help her. As we all know, emotions go beyond words in any language.
This brings me to the point of this blog. Some of Noemi’s major goals are to obtain the skills to communicate with her sons’ teachers, help them with their homework and also read to them in English. So, we’ve tackled the easiest one first….reading to her boys. We end every meeting the same way and on a high note. I asked Noemi at our first session to pick out a childhood book that she’d enjoy reading to her children. She brought out Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes. “Perfect!” I thought. Not a novel or a complicated story, but a collection of small, manageable achievements. And, when she chooses one that rhymes, it helps her with English pronunciation even more. I’m not sure she understands what she is conveying, but there are pictures to help. This mom has already, in such a short time, met one of her meaningful family objectives. She chooses one nursery rhyme to conclude each of our sessions, reads it to me, and then reads it to her boys between our meetings. They help her to better pronounce the words as well as comprehend them. It has now become one of “our things.” Then we hug, which is also now one of “our things.”
Before I close, one more amazing event just happened when Noemi had to cancel our session at the last minute. She called me from the hospital, as her mother had been admitted due to stomach problems. Now, this may sound more concerning than amazing, but the hurdle we overcame as student and tutor is that she and I had the conversation with only each other over the phone…no child interpreter, no hand gestures, no pointing to objects, no dictionary…nothing but talking one-on-one. She was able to make me understand that her mother was being examined, she didn’t know when she would be home and asked if we could wait till our next scheduled day to meet. Then we reviewed the upcoming meeting time with clarity, even though it was a day out of our norm. MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENT! The last point I made to Noemi before we hung up was that, aside from the unfortunate circumstances, she and I had just had a complete exchange, all by ourselves. That was just about the most rewarding tutoring session we didn’t have!