I start my Wednesday mornings with an English class comprised of three Kurdish women, a Mexican woman, and an Egyptian woman.
More of us had been meeting, but since spring break, these are the women who have showed up to class faithfully every week. Although I love seeing people learn English, and welcome anyone willing to come, being in a small group presents more intimate opportunities to grow their skills and befriend them.
One of the Kurdish women is always 5 minutes late. Even when she’s not there, she is truly unforgettable. Everytime I help her in class, she puts her hand on her chest and looks up to the ceiling to say thank you. She’s more than once raised praise hands when she’s correctly answered a question. Then there was that time we were playing Concentration – you know, the card game where all the pictures go face down, and you have to choose two at a time and try to find a match? Well, in the middle of the game, she shuffled all the face down cards because she hadn’t realized yet the strategy to the game. And we all exclaimed, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING!!?”
She laughs a lot, smiles more than anyone else in the class, and is always the first to show me her homework. Although I have suspicions that her son does it for her. Her English isn’t great. But she’s funny and brings a tone that makes learning more grace-filled.
A couple Wednesdays ago, she came in late as usual. Her pace through the doorway was slower.
The small group and I sat at a conference table, reviewing homework over prepositions of time, and we shuffled our papers to make room for her. She settled in her seat – the one beside me- as we continued on to numbers 4, 5, and 6.
By the time we got to numbers 7, 8, and 9, I had noticed her from the corner of my eye. I looked over to see if she was following along with the class, but she didn’t have her homework in front of her. I thought back and remembered she had missed class last week.
“Oh. Were you here last week?” I asked her.
“No. Buffalo,” she said, “Cousin.”
The other women and I nodded. The Mexican woman spoke up, “Oh, she visit her cousin.”
They asked me where Buffalo was, and I told them. The friend beside me nodded. She could have stopped, she kept talking. I realize now it’s because she needed someone to know and feel with her.
“Cousin. Accident,” she continued. We all thought car accident, but when we asked her about that, she said it wasn’t. It took us several minutes to figure out what exactly this accident was about, but she didn’t stop helping us understand. She used her hands and broken English to continue her story. She was desperate for us to grasp it.
She pulled out her phone to show us a picture of a young boy in a suit. We asked again if it was a car accident, just to be certain we hadn’t misunderstood, and she said no. We asked if he was okay, and her “no” repeated.
Then she pointed to the window, and then her head. She poked her head with her pointer finger. And as she made these hand gestures, her words repeated: cousin. Shot. Window. Shot. Head. Watching TV. Shot. Died.
We pieced it together.
I almost wished we hadn’t because the image was horrific. The Mexican woman spoke up again, I thought with tears in her eyes, but I couldn’t be sure. She asked, “How old was he? Sixteen? Seventeen?”
“Twelve,” our friend said simply.
We let out small gasps, raising hands to chests and covering mouths. We stopped for a minute – all the asking, questioning, hand gestures stopped. In its place silence lingered.
As most, I think, would do in this situation, we finally broke the silence with an apology. Not that we had done anything wrong, but that we felt a deep sadness with her. We didn’t know her outside of an hourly English class every week, but we felt her sadness. Even just the image of her family couldn’t be erased from our minds now.
“It’s sad, so sad. I’m sorry,” the Mexican woman said again. I looked at her and saw that the tears that sat in her eyes were now falling down her cheeks. She reached for the box of tissues on the table, grabbing one for herself and one for our friend who had also begun to cry.
And we sat a little longer. We gave her space but didn’t leave. The other women mumbled apologies and restated how sad it was. Then the Mexican woman spoke up once more, “Maybe the God will give peace.”
Our friend stared with a blank look that told us she didn’t understand.
“You know, the God. The God in heaven,” the Mexican woman repeated with praying hands and pointing upward. She spoke with confidence. It was a confidence that told me she believed this God in heaven would give peace, regardless of whether or not our brokenhearted friend understood it.
Still no understanding. I thought hard to remember the word my Kurdish friend would remember for God in her Islam. As I type it now, it’s weird to think that I had forgotten it so easily.
“Allah,” I said to my friend. Immediate understanding washed over her face.
“Oh, yes. Allah!” she said, pointing upwards.
The silence stayed, and I looked around the room at the different women. The other Kurdish women who either whispered in Arabic or sat with thoughtful looks on their faces, the Mexican woman who reminds me of my own mother with her compassion and concern for others, and the brokenhearted Kurdish woman beside me. The humanity of the moment startled me.
I know I work with human beings.
But the vulnerability and honesty of the moment we’d just shared together made me truly feel it. Suddenly these women weren’t just voices practicing English, trying to not confuse cucumber and cauliflower. They were souls that hungered for something more. Their hearts mourned loss and knew what it felt like to live in the aftermath of something precious taken away. I wondered whose faces came to their mind, as we all feared together losing something. They sought peace, and they looked to God for help.
We didn’t need to say it, but we all desired together for our friend to be healed and her family to grow from tragedy. It’s arrogant for me to assume I’m the only one who can feel this. They’re people. They feel it too. In our class, I’m not the only one with feelings and hopes deep within me. All the stuff that makes me human makes them human too. It just took this moment to make that believable for me.
There’s something to be said about the empathy that stopped time that day. Our hour together always ticks too fast as we rush through material and practice. But today it didn’t matter so we forgot about the ticking of the clock for the sake of hearing and sitting with someone who needed that.
What if empathy only works because we’re people? What if people are truly the most beautiful and wonderful beings ever created?
These women are not only mothers or English language learners.
I am not only a teacher and a wife.
You are not only a reader.
We’re more than that. We are people first and foremost. That’s no small title. This presents a whole set of things to learn and understand about us. We can’t be summed up in a word.
I look at my hands sometimes, tracing the lines and watching the way my fingers move even when I’m still. And I say to myself, “I’m a person. I am made for wonderful purposes. I can live in peace, love, write, cry, speak, empathize, and move like no other creature can. Me and everyone other person on earth. That’s amazing.”
This means the person who cut you off in traffic? A person made for wonderful purposes.
The grumpy customer who came to your restaurant and gave you a hard time? A person designed to want more out of life.
The Instagram influencer who perfectly curates and designs their feed? A person who has cried and lost too.
When I began going to church as a junior in high school, everything that I heard dripped like honey. It was wisdom and grace I’d never heard. Actually, I didn’t know words could communicate the power of all I was hearing, and I soaked it in. Every last drop. One of the things I most remember clearly from those early days is a C.S. Lewis quote. He says, “You don’t have a soul, you are a soul; you have a body.”
We live in a world with billions of people.
We’ll only ever see a fraction of those. And when we do see them, we see faces. But the physical is only a vessel used to magnify the spiritual. The spiritual is everything on the inside. All your questions and wonderings, thoughts and ideas are not on accident. They are what make you, you. Your body is only part of that. The soul is where the heart of the matter is.
I know this. I deeply believe in it. And yet, somehow, I forget to view the ones I pass as people, literally living souls in my midst. I see faces and call it a person. I’m keener on knowing titles and names, but that barely scratches the surface. No matter the situation or the title, every person you meet is complex, housing a library of hopes, worries, dreams, failings, prayers, ideas, desires. We are intricately, wonderfully made and that’s beautiful.
I turned to our friend beside me, and in my slowest and clearest English teacher voice, I thanked her for telling us and promised to pray for her. Even though half of our class time had already gone by, we picked up again and moved on to learning about vegetables.
When I left class that day, I remembered the way the box of tissues was passed around the table. I wondered if, maybe, I have so much more in common with the Kurdish woman mourning a loss and the Mexican woman offering hope. They’re more than students; they’re people first and foremost. So am I.