Sitting in her Bronx basement apartment Emilie explains that the Doctor proclaimed her too old to have another child. But she shrugs and says that the Doctor doesn’t know, that God is the one to decide. And I agree with her, ‘yes, God willing.’ We’re sitting together on her futon sofa, which, like all of their furniture and the T.V. that chimes in the background, was found on the sidewalk. I ask her if she’d like to continue with the lesson and turn another page.
“J,” I point to the letter. Emilie guesses, might this letter be “F?” I show her the letter F, and tell her the correct pronunciation for the letter J. And then we work through J words next to the images, like jewelry, jack-o-lantern, and jump rope. I’m starting to feel desperate. I’m sitting next to a woman, almost 50, who desires to have a baby, who has already lived through many tragic years and who struggles continuously with her new life. She wants to work yet, she also wants to continue to be available to cook beautiful meals for her husband and his son. She doesn’t speak much English, and she cannot read at all. And I want to know, how do you teach such a competent, wise and enduring woman the ABC’s?
As we are talking she goes to the oven to check on the baked fish that she has prepared for Good Friday. She would like me to stay, but I am doing the Master Cleanse – and I feel rude, but I had told her this morning that I was fasting so that she wouldn’t prepare extra food. But Emilie figured I was fasting for Lent, and it would be over at the day’s break. Then she asks whether I am Christian or Protestant. And I tell her that it’s complicated, that I am neither and both...That God is everywhere. And she agrees, and then says, ‘but you must choose.’ And the time is ticking by the minute, and we aren’t even half way through the alphabet. In Africa we choose one religion, so that we can pass it down to our children, and tell them ‘ This is what I believe.’ And I tell her that I want to pass the choice down to my children, and ask if we should continue.
“H” Hippopotamus. Home. I watch her eyes on the images next to the word, trying to read it’s meaning and I realize that I have very little idea what it is like to be illiterate, and that the last time I learned the English alphabet was about 20 years ago. And I think back to last year, when I was trying to learn Arabic, and I stumbled over the letters clumsily, craving harmony with my eye and mouth, but feeling completely lost, out of sync, and slow. It was one of the most challenging experiences I have had in the classroom. But that was my choice, and I am a student who wanted to learn Arabic. Emilie needs to learn English because she has come to America and must find work. I look at her tired eyes, straining to create meaning and although I want her to learn, I also remind us both to laugh and take the letters and these ridiculous pictures lightly. And I mouth “H” and tell her that her fish smells delicious, and it makes me ‘H’ungry.