A reflection on mutual understanding between teacher and student
I was close to finishing up the speaking part of the pre-test for the new students in my adult English as a Second Language Class. The next student to speak with me was Kopila, a young woman I recognized from last semester. She was in the classroom across the hall but we were together in a writer’s workshop. There were always smiles from her. I could tell from her accent that she was South Asian, but from her features she could have been South American or North African. After she began talking, I remembered reading that Nepal was her country of origin. I briefly thought of my father who had so wanted to go to Nepal, for reasons that I never quite knew or understood. Now, wasn’t the time to wonder, it was time for me to focus on my student.
The speaking test we use, begins with a choice of questions that students had looked at the day before and written some notes on, to prepare. Kopila had chosen to talk about “a person who was special to her.”
She told me: “I want to tell you about my parents. I have parents back home but when I came here I was adopted, by my special mom and dad. They took me in, helped me, and supported me throughout the most difficult time in my life. I am so grateful to mom and dad, Rob and Margot, for all that they have done.”
“Rob and Margot? . . . I know them . . . I know your story.” It all came rushing back to me and I continued: “My father knew Rob,” I explained “Because he was my father’s doctor, and friend, and teacher. When all of the emails went out about you, I helped my father with the responses because he wasn’t able to use the computer well. I remember this, and your story.”
Somehow Kopila understood this talking to myself. We both stood up at the same time, from opposite sides of the table, and hugged each other.
In fact, my father loved to tell a story especially if it moved him deeply in some way. He had explained part of the background (sometimes that was his favorite part) that was not in the email or website, and some of those details are still quite clear. Maybe because my father thought that I would relate more to this immigrant story than some of his other, long, academic stories, or maybe because in similar and yet different ways it affected us both deeply, so it was still fresh in my mind. To be sure, I don’t remember everyone’s profession, or the number of siblings in the family, as my father regularly and remarkably would have. However, the main idea of this particular story had stayed with me.
When Rob and Margot travelled to Nepal after retirement, they became friends with a young man who had been their guide, and they spent memorable times hiking and talking with him. They told him that they would help him with school, and if he was ever able to get a visa to the U.S., he should come to Washington DC where he would have their support. He was able to immigrate to DC, and they took in their dear friend, this time to include his wife, Kopila, and their newborn son. The recently arrived family was just beginning to adjust, they were dealing with the obstacles of jobs, housing, and learning English. All was new and still taking shape when tragedy struck. The husband was in a horrible accident here in the city streets. He was brought to the hospital in a coma, where he remained for months. It was during that time that Rob and Margot set up a website and campaign for donations to help this young family. As a recently immigrated family, they did not have enough health insurance, the hospital wanted to release him to long-term care for rehabilitation, and therefore money was needed.
My father asked me to electronically send a donation from him, and then asked me once in a while to read him the updates. For a time, after he saw Rob, he would inform me about the news of this family and it became very important to him. Meanwhile there were other misfortunes that occurred to my father’s friends, so I never did learn what had happened to this Nepalese family. Rob and Margot’s daughter got cancer and they moved in to help her and her children outside of the city. It was a very long painful ordeal. Then Rob’s chronic illness returned, also quite serious, and sadly, he was not able to beat it.
Maybe my father had met Kopila when he went to Margot’s house after Rob’s death.
I don’t know. I can’t ask him or describe to him my meeting of Kopila, the woman whom he helped and worried about several years ago. I can’t share with him my joy of seeing her survival and her determination to improve her English and make a better life. My father had died that summer and with him passed away untold numbers of questions, stories, and opinions that I now have to imagine.
In the classroom, my student continued with her speaking test. Kopila’s was describing the devotion of these people, her parents, who were special to her. She told me that the donation campaign Rob and Margot set up succeeded, her husband had eventually awakened from the coma, was able to do a little rehabilitation, and gain a small number of life skills.
She told me that she and her son had been at the hospital during that time, every day. Rob and Margot were there very often as well, along with another couple who later took her and her son into their home. It was during that time that doctors gave her the option to remove the tubes from him, those tubes that were keeping him alive. She was told that he would never be the same man again due to the traumatic brain injury. She chose not to let him die. That was only one of the heart wrenching and difficult decisions that she had to make. She decided, after the rehab, when the donation money ran out and there was no more therapy possible, that it was best for her husband to return to Nepal. There he could live with his parents and family who could always be around to help him daily. This is the care she learned would be necessary for him, for the rest of his life. She told me all of this, still with that lovely smile.
“That was over a year ago. Now we speak on the phone often. He is sweet and playful. Like a little boy.”
All of the choices that she had to make overpowered me, but she told me that she was okay because of her parents and family taking her in. Kopila said that her son calls Margot grandma. They were going to have dinner with Mom/Grandma they Sunday.
I want to hear from Kopila any information that she may have learned about my father.
It seems so perfect that I am now Kopila’s teacher and that my father was Rob’s teacher. I want so badly to tell my father about this meeting that, for sure, was meant to be. I long to see his smile at our shared love of discovery, learning, and of the strength of people. Instead, the picture I have is of us, two women, me and Kopila. We stand next to each other; want to comfort one another on the loss of our two fathers; we try; yet we both have so many regrets.
As a teacher of English to adult language learners, Ruth Ticktin encourages students to write. As a writer herself, she collects stories, arranges words, and tells slice-of-life tales.