Pair Spotlight: Sarah and Harry

September 30th, 2017

The first thing that sticks out about volunteer tutor, Harry, and his ESL student, Sarah, is how easy laughter comes to them. Harry’s self-deprecating sense of humor, and Sarah’s enjoyment of good-natured teasing, make it clear this pair’s lessons are far from the chore many of us remember taking classes as being.

“Why do I do it?” asks Harry, on volunteering his time as a tutor with the Literacy Council of Montgomery County.  “Because it’s fun. When it stops being fun, I’ll stop doing it.”

Sarah describes herself as shy, but displays eagerness to share her experiences nonetheless. She arrived in the United States 11 years ago, when her two sons were six years old and one and a half, respectively. Sarah recalls that her boys were the only immigrant students in their classes in their younger years, let alone the only Korean children.

“It was lonely,” she tells me. “I did not have friends when my sons were little, before my youngest started school. I knew a little bit of English, but I was embarrassed to try to talk to someone.”

Sarah had studied English grammar in South Korea. She knew the major principles, select words and phrases, but when she tried using what she knew in conversation, “I get nervous, and then, I…” She trails off, indicating her nerves freeze her.

When her youngest son entered school, Sarah had time during the day to search out English lessons. Her first practice was at her church, which offered some English classes. After a couple of years in the church classes, a friend of Sarah’s told her a gentleman had offered to teach her English through one-on-one tutoring. Enter Harry.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” he laughs, and Sarah does too, recalling their first few lessons. “I had needed something to do. I had retired after 43 years of working, first in the Army and then as a federal employee. Now suddenly, I had no structure in my day.” After confiding his anxiety about a lack of routine to a friend of his, the friend pointed to a nearby dry-cleaning shop, informing him a lady who worked there wanted to learn English. So Harry walked into the cleaner’s, and offered to teach her. She became his first student, and soon brought Sarah along to their lessons.

“After about two months of using their lesson books from church, I heard about the Literacy Council. Sure enough, I called them up, they trained me, they signed Sarah and her friend up as official LCMC students, and they gave me the books and the materials. We started following along with the lesson books and making real progress.”

Sarah’s primary goal had been to attain her US Citizenship. When asked if she had taken the Citizenship test yet, she lights up. “Yes!” And did she pass? “Yes!” Her pride in this achievement glows, and is reflected in Harry’s pride in her.

“That is what I am most proud of as a tutor,” Harry says. “That Sarah had a goal, and she achieved it.”

The pair has continued to work together for two years now. Having achieved her US citizenship, Sarah has a new goal in mind. When Harry mentions that his daughter-in-law’s fourth language is English, and recently expressed her excitement to him that she had dreamed in English, Sarah is audibly envious.

“Ohh!” she sighs. “I want that.”

Sarah is closing in on finishing Skill Book 4, but this very driven, dedicated learner will clearly not be done learning. Harry tells us, “My other student, who was a little ahead of Sarah when they started together, now audits my lessons as an assistant teacher for my level 1 student. She finds that it’s improving her own English because she takes so much care to be precise in her pronunciation and her lettering.”

Of course, there is also LCMC’s Conversation Classes, where ESL students who have graduated the tutoring program can continue practicing their conversational English with a volunteer instructor. Many of the students in those classes make memorable, long-lasting friendships as they share several hours a week with other adults who know their experiences. It would also be a powerful antidote to the early loneliness Sarah described.

On that subject, though, Sarah tells us, “My youngest son is in middle school now. He has this friend there… his friend’s mom, we are close. When they play together, we can talk. It is much better.”

To volunteer as a tutor to help students like Sarah improve their lives in America through learning English, click here to register for an information session. If you cannot commit to volunteering, please consider making a donation to help us offset the cost of training, materials, and more that help us serve over 1,400 students like Sarah throughout Montgomery County.