As the semester came to end a week before Christmas, I was weary. As full-time faculty teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) at a community college, I teach four four-credit classes with a cap of 20 students per class. This may not sound like much, but a colleague, who does not teach ESL but whose office is near mine, recently admitted to me that he hoped he never had to put in the hours that ESL teachers put in. “Your students have so much on the line, and it all rests on them learning English. ESL teachers work so hard, in and out of the classroom, so that this happens for them.”
Most of the ESL students start classes while holding down a part-time or full-time job at a nail salon or in the fast food industry. I vividly recall the day that Shahin, a young man from Iraq, announced to me after class that he had been hired at Express, a clothing store at the local mall. “No more Subway for me, Mrs. Boland. Express is sooo much better.” From the expression on his face, you would have thought he had just been elected President of the USA. Shahin added, though, that his real dream was to work for an airline at an airport.
As one semester melts into another, I inevitably lose track of students who have moved through the two- year ESL program and on to an associate’s degree or a transfer to the local state four-year college. I meet them when they first set foot in a college classroom in their new country with their big plans – pharmacy school, nursing, a business degree, computers, engineering, or as with Shahin, quite specific, work for an airline at an airport. When they start, the ESL students can hardly put a sentence together. When they finish, they are writing five-hundred word essays that are pretty close to perfect. Many return to the place where they took their first steps to thank their ESL teachers. I tried to explain this to my colleague who spurned the long hours of a career in ESL. The rewards of this work are immeasurable.
But that night I myself was weary from a week of final exams and the inevitable heartrending emails from students who had not passed one of my classes. I tried to focus on the joy ahead as my husband and I drove to the local airport to pick up our daughter-in-law and one-year-old granddaughter. As we stood close to the gate in anticipation, I heard someone call from behind me “Hey, Mrs. Boland!” My husband stood there awkwardly as I and this young man embraced, as it had been so long since I had seen Shahin. He had been visiting his family who still lived in the area, and he was catching a flight to return to Washington, DC.
“Do you remember my dream, Mrs. Boland?”
I admitted I was not sure, it had been so long, but something to do with airlines, I asked?
“Yes!” he said, and he pulled from under his jacket his identification tag for Reagan International Airport where he is working as a counter ticket agent for American Airlines.
As I held his ID tag in my hands, I looked into his eyes shining like stars and my student said:
I got it, Mrs. Boland. I got my dream.