Learning English – More Than Words Can Express

By Michael Cudemo

My wife asked me to assist her this past weekend at a volunteer event in West Chester supporting the Global Celebration Luncheon for the Volunteer English Program, or VEP for short.  My job was simple.  Please video the two student speakers who were giving talks about learning English as their second language.  Point the camera, hit record and don’t mess up!  It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my year.  It was genuine, inspiring, emotional and uplifting.  And, it made me feel a bit ashamed of myself.

As an American, I take so many things for granted.  Our country is very large, but the English language is a common link across all 50 states.  I take for granted my ability to order food, ask about a medication, enjoy a movie, or simply ask for directions.  And before my video camera were two very bright, vibrant women sharing their experiences with a joyful sense of accomplishment.  Americans can be a jaded and cynical lot.  These two genuinely grateful students cut me to the quick, and provided me with a much needed attitude check.

The first student was from China.  She learned English in school and felt prepared to come to America to succeed.  Upon arrival, she immediately learned that she was ill-prepared for her new environment.  It is one thing to read the definition of courage in the dictionary, and quite another to visually see the embodiment of courage in a polite smiling human being.  This woman in front of me had the courage of a lion.  She reached out to an unknown organization and said:  “I need help!”  She was calm, confident and full of promise.  And then she said something simple and poignant:  “VEP changed my life!”  You could feel the impact.  These were not perfunctory words for her speech.  They were moving and emotional.  The student was giving back of herself.  Her tutor’s eyes were welling up with genuine pride at his student’s accomplishments.

The second student was from Columbia.  Her speech was like a warm hug.  She beamed as she talked about how she could now participate in her child’s education.  She was no longer ashamed to order meat at the food store and ask questions of her child’s doctor.  She was an accountant, but she spoke with an orator’s words as her encouragement to other students lifted the room.  She thanked her tutor for inspiring her to get past her many difficulties.  It was the most intimate thank you in a public setting that I had ever witnessed.  The priceless gift of a tutor’s time was repaid with the most heartfelt phrase: “a thousand times thank you!”

There is an expression:  “no one learns more than the teacher!”  I observed a room full of volunteer tutors and motivated students this past weekend.  I saw teachers who were constantly learning and students who were constantly teaching by example.  A full heart results when one truly gives of themselves.  An open mind can rise above any fear to ask for help.  I experienced a small community of hope this weekend.  I left with great inspiration from students who said:  “Yes I can!”  And, as a final note, the next time your spouse asks you to volunteer your time on a weekend – say thank you!

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