The Conjugation of Be

The first time I noticed her was the second time that class met in that fall semester, and the we were working on asking a question in English, which is not an easy task for basic level students at the community college where I was teaching English as a Second Language. My students were taking turns going to the front of the room, where they were to write the name of someone whom they knew. Then the rest of the class would ask questions about this person, until the class had discovered who this person was, what they did for a living, where they lived, how their classmate knew them, why they had chosen to write their name on the board, etc. When it was her turn, Be walked to the front of the room and wrote a “Joana” on the board.

Be was an older woman, and she immediately stood out. All of her classmates were between 18 and 20, graduates of local high schools. Their written English, upon taking the placement test at the community college, was not up to speed for freshman composition. In fact, their English skills were so low that they were placed in a course which began with simple tenses, simple sentence structure, and how to ask a simple question. It was a slow and painful process, which would take all the 16 week semester ahead of us, to also get them to put on “s” on “he gets”, to take the “s” off of “informations” , to put the “s” on the verb – not the infinitive, as in “he like to eats”. This was hard enough for my younger students, but not impossible.

But Be was to present a real challenge to me, as she was a senior citizen, who could take classes at the community college for free if there was an empty desk. Her writing sample from the first day of class made me suspect that she had very little education in her first language, Vietnamese. However, this woman had a presence that was disarming. It was not a verbal presence – she was actually very quiet. But she was just there all the time, looking at you, the teacher, waiting to be taught, waiting to be told what to do next, her written work showing how very little of what you said she understood, so little, yet …..

But I am getting ahead of myself. The first time I noticed her was the day she waddled to the front of the room and wrote “Joana” on the board.

Who is Joana? Is she your daughter? Is she a friend?

Be stared ahead of herself, lost in thought, pointing vaguely to the empty space on her left side. Then finally across her face came a hint of a smile, and than a hard point to the empty space on her left side, and then she said “NEIGHBOR’ rather loudly.

OK. The class had that question answered, and Be clearly had everyone’s attention.

Does she live near you?

“My apartment. No. Next one. ” This information was given with a series of hard points to the empty space at her left side.

We were all curious now about this short, pudgy woman in front of us, with long, stringy dark hair, streaked with gray, which hung down to her thickish waist. She was dressed in polyester pull-on pants and a matching pastel-colored sweater that had seen better days. She wore open toed shoes, revealing callused, yellowed malformed toes which seemed to wrap around each other, almost resembling the roots of an old tree. Be was not a day under sixty. Her deep brown eyes were set between high and wide cheekbones, over which was her soft light brown skin was ever so gently wrinkled. But there was something in her dark eyes that was quick. Some understanding, some knowledge, something there that made me want to know more about her.

Then a student asked – “What she do? Joana? She work?”

And Be replied: “She dancer. You know? Go-Go Dancer?” And with this, Be slowly raised her arms to her shoulders, and then she stretched out her hands towards the class, placing her hands seductively on her hips. Then she began to roll her hips. The students sat in silence. Then Be leaned forward and drew her shoulders together, the position a dancer will take to show her cleavage, keeping her head up and looking straight at her classmates. She started a slow turn to her left, and proceeded to dance slowly and seductively in a little circle in the front of the classroom. By now, my students were howling with laughter.

I was trying, unsuccessfully, to get them to calm down while her back was turned to us. I was terrified that Be would be insulted. I glared at them, and kept signaling with my hand for them to calm down As Be completed her circle, I saw her smile again, a smile that would become so familiar to me over the next two semesters.

“You like? Yeah, me old lady. Me know.” Be stood at the front of my classroom, beaming at each of her newly-found friends, beaming at me, obviously delighted with herself. She stood as straight as she could at the front of the room with her arms now limply at her side. The show was over. She smiled, pointed to herself, and said

“Yeah. Me Be.”

That was the day I first noticed Be Pham.

The fall semester ended, and Be had to repeat this basic level class in the spring, as she had made no progress at all. This was not a surprise, since learning a language at her age is difficult enough without the handicap of very little education in your first language to further slow you down. But through her weekly writing assignments during the fall and spring semesters of my first year with Be, I managed to find out more about Be. She had had a son by an American GI during the Vietnam War. Since her son’s status as an Amerasian put him in jeopardy in his country, the two f them were able to come to this country. A year after Be’s arrival in the states, she was able to bring her mother, who was still living, over here as well. Be explained to me that she lived alone with her bedridden mother. I asked her what had happened to her son.

“He fly away. He no like me.” She paused for a short moment, and went on to tell me how much she liked to be with the young people in my class. They made her feel good.

The final exam for this course required that students had to write a short essay of about 200 – 300 words that demonstrated a command of several tenses – simple past, past perfect, simple present, present perfect, present perfect continuous, simple future. Once this was accomplished, students would advance to the second level of English language courses where they would learn about complex sentence structures, gerunds, infinitives, and relative clauses. Be failed the final again at the end of the spring semester, so I assumed I would see her again in the fall.

When I read down the roster of students for my fall class, Be Pham was listed as a registered student, but I did not see her, at first, sitting in the classroom. Then I saw those quick dark eyes. I did not recognize her at first because Be was wearing a wig that gave her shoulder-length wavy brown hair cut into a shag, fashionable at the time. She was also wearing a wrist- length fake fur coat that zippered up the front. The coat was the same color as the wig. When I called her name on the roll “Be Pham?” expecting to here the expected response of “Here”.

Instead, Lucy replied: “Me Lucy now. American name, Teacher.”

“Lucy?”

A big smile, and she said “Here.”

I had often come across students who preferred to take an American name, which they usually chose by themselves, over their given name. This was most common when their given name was difficult for Americans to pronounce, or the American pronunciation sounded like another word in English which was offensive. Young men whose given name was Dung on my roster, most always had an American name. However, I suspected that the wig and the fur coat was closely associated with Be’s name change.

Anyway , in the fall semester of my second year, Be became Lucy. And Lucy knew her way around campus. And she also knew how to make friends. The other students, though I knew they found her funny and often made jokes about her, liked Lucy. I would see the young Vietnamese boys carrying her books for her as they made their way to the cafeteria for a snack between classes. She finagled rides from students with cars so she would not have to take the bus to campus. If she was absent, someone in class always knew why – they had talked to her the night before, or Lucy had told them about another appointment she had with the foot doctor. Be was always having trouble with her feet. The students knew what was going on in Be’s life outside of the classroom. They seemed to keep tabs on her. I suppose one could attribute this to the Asian respect for age, but I was certain that it was more than this. It had something to do with Be. She was important. I am not sure why, but her well-being was important to everyone in that class.

She failed the final again, and enrolled in my class for the fourth time that spring. The administrator of the program noticed this fourth enrollment, and began to ask questions. It was explained to me that college policy states that students could attend as long as they were making progress in their studies. Be was clearly not making any progress. An review was done of her record, and it was proclaimed that Be Pham really belonged in the adult education program run by the city. They had teachers there who could teach her how to read , which was not in the realms of the remedial English program at the community college. The writing was on the walls that Lucy would have to leave. A meeting was arranged around the middle of that spring semester.

At the meeting there was a the department chair, myself, and a translator to help communicate with Be. The department chair spoke first. Through the translator, she explained to Be the college policy, and how that related to Be’s record at the community college. The chair proceeded to explain her recommendation that Be attend the adult education classes offered by the city.

Then it was Be’s turn to speak. She pleaded her case, through her translator, telling us how much she enjoyed her classes, enjoyed the other students, enjoyed “teacher” – looking directly at me with those dark eyes that now looked sad and pleading.

It was my turn to speak, and I told Be that I enjoyed her, too. But as her teacher, I felt she would learn more with teachers trained to teach her the skills she needed first, like how to read, before coming to the community college. The teacher in me knew I had to say this, but my heart just silently listened to me speak. Be sat silent as the translator explained what I had just said, but I think Be could read me by then. No translator was really needed for her to know how I felt. I knew she would never be able to come back to the community college, and from her sharp dark eyes, I could tell she knew it too. With grace, she gave into us. “I will go.” she said. ” Be go.”

After our last class that spring, Be shuffled into my office with a large cardboard box, about 12″ by 12″, in a K-Mart bag.

“For teacher” she said.

I opened the box, to find a plastic wall clock in the shape of a large heart. It was bright red, with a small clock in the lower right hand corner, and a ghastly ornate arrangement of neon-colored dried flowers in the upper left hand corner.

I told Be how beautiful I thought it was, but I scolded her for spending her money on me.

“Oh! You no worry , Teacher. It real cheap. But so nice.” And then those dark eyes looked deep into mine, as if she understood everything I could not say, and she assured me “You nice too, teacher.”

I never saw her again, nor have I ever been able to forget her.

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