As an English Second Language teacher and teacher-trainer, Jennifer L. Freed currently volunteers her time to help resettled refugees in the Worcester area learn English. Her poem, “Lessons,” which appears in The Worcester Review Volume XXXIV, is at first glance a response to those who wonder why it takes so “long” for someone to learn the English language, but ultimately, it is to get into the mindset of a person who struggles to overcome the language barrier.
Was “Lessons” based on a personal experience?
Before having children, I worked as an ESL teacher not only here in the U.S. but also in China and the Czech Republic. Since 2010 I’ve been volunteering as an English tutor for refugees who’ve been resettled in the Worcester area. The poem comes from all that background. More specifically, though, it was inspired by a few of those refugees. I didn’t want to name them or their country because I didn’t want to limit the poem to those specific women only, or even to people from their country only; the many difficulties of learning a new language, especially when you do not come from a culture that allowed you much of an education, would be the same for all of us. Add culture shock and the burden of past traumatic experiences, and the task is far harder than many people in the U.S. might imagine.
How did you decide that the subject of learning a language was something you wanted to write about for your poem?
The refugees I have been tutoring know how to weave their own clothes, how to build a home out of bamboo, how to grow their own food. But none of those skills serve them here in their new lives. Upon arriving in this country, they not only had to find a way to support themselves in what is to them an alien place, but also to learn an entirely new language.
Yet I’ve met people who, in spite of having sympathy and good will toward immigrants, nevertheless don’t understand why it may take so “long” to become proficient in English. The poem was my response to that.
You’ve written about your experiences in China and The Czech Republic. Did living in other countries influence the poem?
Yes, especially my time in China. When we English teachers arrived there, none of us had any ability to speak Chinese. We were told we would have a chance to learn the language when we arrived at the university where we were to work, but our promised Chinese instructors never materialized.
In addition, we were fairly isolated from Chinese people, presumably for political reasons. We were in a separate dorm for foreigners only, and visitors had to sign in at a guard’s desk, which may be why we had very few visitors. We had our meals separately too, just the five of us in a little dining hall set across the campus from the student cafeteria. We never got to mingle with or even meet the rest of the university faculty. So, for most of a year, we mainly interacted only with each other—and, in a very formal, controlled way, using English only, with our students during class. We had to ask how to say various useful phrases—“I want…,” “I don’t understand…,” “how much…,” and so we learned how to do practical things—how to count money, to order our favorite soup from a street vendor, to mail a letter home—but other than that, we had little opportunity to deal with Chinese people, and they didn’t seek us out.
So I had the experience, right out of college, of hearing the sound of foreign speech all around me, and yet of having no entry into it. You don’t just “pick it up” by being in its midst. If you do not have a community of people who can interact with you in the new language in any kind of patient, daily, sustained way—as immigrants often do not—then the sound of that language becomes like traffic sounds. We all tune out what is unintelligible to us. So in the right (or wrong) circumstances, it is surprisingly natural to live in a foreign place and yet not learn its speech.
What does writing mean to you personally? Is there a truth you’re searching for when you write poems and stories?
Writing is something I have always done, in one form or another. For many years, it was mainly no more than journal-keeping, an occasional poem, an unfinished story. But I have always wanted to “Be a Writer.” When I was young, I imagined I would write novels someday. I loved the way Steinbeck’s language sounded, and I wanted to sound like him.
Then I grew up. I had my job, then my children—in other words, I put it off. A few years ago, when both my daughters were old enough to go to school, I started to think about how I’d feel if I never tried to work at writing in a disciplined way. So I began to try.
As for a truth I’m searching for in writing—no, I’ve never thought of it in that way. I write what comes. Some days I am too busy to put anything on paper, but there is usually something simmering in the back of my mind. It is not what I’d call a truth so much as an observation, a moment, an interaction with someone that wants to find its way into a poem.
Can you talk about the process you went through to write your chapbook, These Hands Still Holding? How did you decide which poems related to the overall theme of the chapbook?
It’s my first collection, so I started by looking up interviews with other authors about what they had done. I didn’t start with a theme—rather, I gathered my poems and looked for ways they might fit together. I realized that many of them were populated by family members, and so I came to focus in on that, which meant I had to leave aside a lot of poems that I actually felt more comfortable with. I had written the poem “Lessons” by then, and in the beginning of the process had hoped to include it in the manuscript, but it didn’t tie in with the rest.
The more I worked on the project, the more I noticed how smaller details affected the way the poems held together. For example, a poem that took place in spring was jarring if it came too soon after one that took place in the summer. I also discovered that certain phrases and individual words tend to recur in my writing. I had to decide how attached I was to these particular word choices, and whether to find alternatives. The whole process took several months.
What interested you to work as an English Second Language teacher and teacher-trainer? Did you always know you wanted to teach people the English language?
Some of what interests me is the same as what draws me to writing. I didn’t always know I wanted to teach ESL, but I think I’ve always been interested in other people, other lives, other ways of looking at the world. That was why I wanted to go to China right after graduating from college. I wanted to live in a place where I couldn’t take my own attitudes for granted. I wanted to be jarred, to be “other.”
One of my favorite things about teaching ESL is the cross-cultural aspect of it. I love the way a mixture of nationalities in a classroom can lead to a certain kind of discussion, to a new way of seeing what had previously been so “normal” it was overlooked. For years I taught an advanced level (adult) ESL class, and I often learned not only about other countries, but also about my own—because students would ask why we do this or that or the other “strange” thing in the U.S. & And I find that I like the challenge of explaining things, of helping someone understand something that previously didn’t make sense to them.
That goes back to writing. In both teaching and writing, you need to be able to imagine the mind-set of someone else, what they know and what they don’t, what obstacles they face. I wanted to do that in the poem “Lessons.” But you could say I was also writing as a way of teaching. The lessons I hoped to suggest, when I chose that title, were not only the English lessons, but also those that I had learned, and that I hope my readers can learn from the woman depicted in the poem.
Thank you to Jennifer L. Freed for her time and participation in The Worcester Review’s online web feature. I would also like to take a moment and say how “Lessons” resonated with me on a personal experience. I had came to the U.S. with my family at a young age. My father, my brother, and I have studied the English language ever since then. My mother, on the other hand, cannot speak or write English. She recognizes simple greetings and a few words, but that is all. Thus, when I read “Lessons,” it made me sad to think about the personal struggles my mother went through to adapt to the English culture and language. The poem has put things into perspective of someone who can’t grasp the English language, but she does understand the feelings of the world around her.