Finding dignity in English class

Every class starts with a conversation question.

Today it was: Did you ever meet your great grandparents?

It gave me a chance to introduce the word great in a new context. It also provided a space for them to share more about their lives, if they wanted.

I tread carefully when it comes to talking about family. You never really know what stories might come out. I once made the mistake of asking students to share about if they were married. One student was caught off guard by the question and began to weep. She found comfort in another student, who was from a different country, ethnic group, and religion. I go back to that moment often.

Should I not have asked that question? Did she react that way because she knew she was in a safe place?

I don’t have an answer, but I learned an important lesson that day. I learned that the trauma of my students is in no way erased. For many of them, it is lurking just beneath the surface and it is a battle to contain it.

On this day, it seemed okay to ask about great grandparents. So we started to talk. Some of the students were great grandmothers themselves. One of these great grandmothers said, “My mother told me that she didn’t want to live anymore if she wasn’t able to go to the farm and work.” Her mother grew tobacco. True to her word, the day she wasn’t able to go to the farm, she died.

Others shared their stories and experiences about grandparents and great grandparents who had died when they weren’t able to work anymore. I stood up and walked to the board and wrote this word: Dignity.

They read it, wrote it in their notebooks, then looked at me expectantly.

“Dignity means that you deserve honor and respect. When someone gets old, maybe they feel embarrassed because they cannot take care of themselves anymore. Someone else has to feed them and give them a bath. They lose a little bit of dignity when they cannot be independent.”

It was quiet.

“I understand.” One student spoke up, then hesitated. I looked at her, nodded and waited. She is younger than me. She has a daughter who is 2 years old. I’ve never heard her speak of a husband. She lives with her brother and elderly mother.

“When I lived in my country, I had a good job. Now I clean up dirty dishes after people are done eating. In my country I could understand everyone, and they understood me. Now, I have to learn a new language. I am lost here.” She smiled, but her eyes were sad.  “I don’t feel respected here.”

We sat together in silence and let her words sink in.

I finally said, “Your dignity doesn’t come from your job. Your dignity isn’t from your car or your house. It’s not about what you look like, or how you talk. You have dignity because you are human.” They nodded.

“We were created by God. By Allah.” One woman, who is Muslim, said.

The others nodded.

Muslim, Christian, Hindi, Somali, Congolese, and Nepali.  We sat as the restorative words went deep into the hearts that had suffered hurt, and ethnic cleansing, and war, and trauma and unwanted transition.

In that moment they weren’t lost, they were safe in a room of others who understood their story. They were right where they were supposed to be.

They sat up a little bit straighter.



Written by Katie Pham, Project Worthmore English Teacher

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