Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Teacher Ideas: New York Stories

Image by Sterlin Joe Levy (
From Kevin, here's another collection of student stories. According to him, "the stories are a bit sadder than some others but a good read all the same."

New York Stories, by Kevin Lathrop

People encounter New York City on their own. As teachers, we help our students gain the language to make sense of their experiences and gain control of their lives here. Students in Level Three on Saturday told true stories that could happen only in New York.

Luis introduced his story with a warm greeting to his classmates. The events he recounted took place two months after he arrived in the city. His sister was in high school. One day she invited him to Forty-Second Street to do some shopping. He and his family lived in the Bronx, and they would make the trip downtown together. Luis told his sister he only had two dollars and fifty cents, not enough for the return subway ride, and she said, “It’s okay. I will pay two-fifty before we come back home.”

Luis replied, “Yes, no problem.” They took the train from Fordham Road to Forty-Second Street. His sister had a student pass for the subway. On Forty-Second Street, she bought bags, shoes, a tee-shirt and several other things. Carried away, she spent all her money and had none left for Luis to take the train (apparently the need for help he’d mentioned earlier had slipped her mind). They couldn’t walk home because it was too far to the Bronx.

Luis learned how things stood only when they reached the train station. His sister had passed through the turnstile with her student card and was waiting for him to join her. Luis dealt with the problem creatively. Rather than take her to task for the mistake, he announced he would to jump over the barrier - after all, he didn’t have money and, as he put it, couldn’t swim to Fordham Road from Times Square!

Luis leapt the turnstile after looking around to see if any police were near.  Moments later, a woman called to him, “Come here!” Luis thought she knew him - if she called him, she must know him! But she didn’t know him, after all. He remembers her saying, “I’m a police officer.” She was in plain clothes and Luis was in shock.

“Let me see your ID,” the cop demanded.

Since Luis had been in New York for just two months, he couldn’t speak English. He explained his language problem in Spanish. To his surprise, the policewoman understood and replied in his mother tongue.

You have to explain why you didn’t pay your fare,” she said.

Luis did so, and the cop said, “Where are you from?”

“The Dominican Republic,” he answered.

“I’m from the D.R. too,” the officer revealed. She repeated her request for an ID and Luis explained that he hadn’t had a chance to get one in his short time in New York.

“I’ll let you go this time,” the policewoman said. Luis looked at his sister, standing on the opposite side of the turnstile, seeming to disavow knowledge of her brother. Luis said he found some wisdom in the experience and offered his classmates advice. “If you don’t have money for a fare, ask your friend to drive you.” At first, some in the group misunderstood and thought Luis was welcoming them to call and borrow money from him. “No, that’s not what I meant,” Luis clarified. “In the first place, you don’t have my number.”

Aichath’s story was about her first days in New York. She had come from Africa and was meeting her sister-in-law here. Her husband was in Iowa. It was April, 2013. At that time Aichath didn’t work so she could not pay her phone bill by herself. Her sister-in-law had promised her brother to pay for his wife’s phone bill, but she hadn’t done so for a long time. When the phone company cut off her service, Aichath lived without a phone for a full month. She could not work that year because she didn’t have work permission. As a result, she fell into dire financial straits.  Without a phone, she could not call her family in Africa or her husband in Iowa. Earlier, she had called her mother and father to send her money, and now she couldn’t.

Not hearing from Aichath, her parents began to worry.  Her husband contacted a cousin of his in New York and asked her to ask his sister what was wrong with Aichath’s phone. The cousin came to visit and said, “What happened? Aichath doesn’t have a phone.”

Aichath’s sister-in-law answered brusquely, “This is America. Nobody supports someone else for a long time. Aichath has to get a job and take care of herself.”

The cousin called Aichath’s husband back and said the same thing. Aichath’s husband said, “What’s wrong with you? You promised me you would pay for her cell phone.”

Aichath’s sister-in-law reflected on her behavior and offered to continue paying for Aichath’s phone service, but that arrangement continued just three weeks, after which Aichath’s husband moved from Iowa to New York and he and Aichath moved into a new apartment together. Aichath described her early struggles with some pride. Strife, misunderstanding had brought her to the brink of despair but she had persevered. Taking an English class was her latest step to improve her life, pit her strength against the considerable challenges she still faces.

Erika’s greeting to her classmates was humorous. She began by explaining the dismissive concept expressed by the English figure of speech “Whatever.” Her story that followed was a bad and real situation she felt characteristic of New York, a city in which people tend to compete too much and cooperate too little. The time was 2008 and the place was a pharmacy.

Erika was very sick. She went to the pharmacy and handed the pharmacist a prescription for medication. The worker asked a question about it that Erika didn’t understand. Erika asked if she spoke Spanish and the pharmacist said no. Erika explained the prescription was important because she was really, really sick. She had a fever and headache. However, for some reason the pharmacist refused to fill the prescription without clarification from Erika. Erika went on her own to look for over-the-counter medicine that would help her, but the names in English on the label baffled her.
She didn’t know which to choose. The pharmacist appeared at her side with another person. Erika had her eyes on the array of medications when she heard a voice speaking Spanish. So the pharmacist, the same person who had just told Erika she could communicate with her only in English, not only knew her language after all but was fluent in it!

Erika said, “You speak Spanish!”

The pharmacist said, with body language only this time, “Whatever.”

Erika returned home sick, without medicine, feeling helpless. She told her classmates, “People new in New York have special difficulties with English, and if you have a chance to help, you should.”

Level Three students demonstrated through their generous expression that moving from one country to another requires an adjustment of thought and action and that language makes it possible.

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