“Pretty Please?”

An ESL teacher gets a gift—from her students.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY HEATHER GRAHAM

I teach ESL, English as a Second Language, to immi-grant adults at a community college in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The students’ ages range from 17 to 65, although most are under 25. But their behavior is often elementary—nonstop and high-energy. It drains my patience. Who would have thought that rerooting immigrants would be so labor-intensive?

It’s an 80o day in October; Summer must be holding Autumn hostage. As soon as class is over, I streak from my room to the school’s community garden hoop-house. As I drive the short way to tend my cold-hardy greens, I savor a moment alone. Just a few parking lots away from my students, I change my dirt-brown blazer for a stained T-shirt and try to mend my day.

“Stop! Are you telling me that you all are really volunteering to pull my thistles?”

Hoping no one else is there, I sneak into my oasis and give it a luxurious sprinkle. Fridays are my days on the watering schedule. Then I pull my hair into a bun and bow down to my 6’ x 6’ raised bed. My parsley and leeks have been thriving for weeks. Now greens flourish, as well. First came the arugula—always that unruly one—then the baby spinach, and finally my favorite, sweet red and green lettuce. Fooled by the heat, weeds also flourish in my plot. Rather than deal with their mess, I embrace the crops’ growth. I find a large plastic bag and fill it with an assortment of greens and a stray garlic scape I had overlooked.

At last, alone with my plants, I think. I haven’t been feeling settled in my life for quite some time. A writer lost in a teacher’s costume, I need this hoop-house home. Something that’s mine.

Suddenly there’s a burst of chatter!

For a split second, I wonder if students are babbling inside my head. Nope. They are here, in the flesh, live and loud.

I poke my head out the door and see a group of international students charging my way. Their mouths yap like a flock of birds, somehow communicating in a web of dialects. They almost frolic as they walk—arms swinging and smiles eager.

“Do you need any help?” Alfred chirps in his thick South African accent.

Startled, I reply, “No, it’s OK, you don’t have to help me.”

“But teacher, it’s our volunteer time,” he insists. “Please, give us something to do.”

“Uh…uh…OK?” I step back toward my private hideaway. My students and their friends here to help me? This is a twist.

“Come on, then! Pick up a bag on your way in,” I say.

Like ducklings on a mission, they trail one by one. I welcome them to help me harvest.

“I know this one,” says Dila, a young Turkish woman.

“Yeah, it’s parsley,” I say.

They huddle and reminisce about parsley in their comfort foods—tossed with tomatoes in tabbouleh, cooked with lemon in chicken kebabs.

“Ow!” “Owwww!” I hear. They’ve found the thistles.

Alfred asks, “Are those food?”

“Absolutely not,” I assure him. They’re the bane of my gardening existence. “It’s a weed,” I declare.

“Weed?!” another guy exclaims. “I thought that was illegal.” “Not that weed!” I explain.

After a good laugh, he asks, “Would you like us to pull them?”

Then commences a long round of civility, our assimilated version of taarof, the Iranian custom of deference.

“Please, no,” I say, “you don’t have to do that.”

“Please, it’s our job,” he says. “It’s our volunteer time.”

“It’s okay,” I say. “It doesn’t need to be done today.”

“I’d be happy to do it,” he says.

“No, no, please,” I say. “It’s my garden.”

“Let us help,” he says. “Please?”

“No, it’s fine,” I say.

“Pretty please?” he says.

I hold up my hand. “Stop! Drop everything. Now let me get this straight. Are you telling me that you all are really volunteering to pull my thistles?” I ask. Without a word, Alfred yanks the first one. Before my very eyes, it comes out of the ground. Then they all join in.

Suddenly it rains thistles, their tiny needles playfully pricking my face as they fly into a pile. The students swarm like a flock of sparrows descending on a cornfield. They almost dance to the task, arms flapping like wings. The fresh energy of youth permeates the hot air.

I crouch in silence. As a teacher, I am constantly helping them. “Teacher, teacher,” they’ll say. “Just one quick question. Teacher, teacher. What is simple present tense?”

Now—here—Alfred’s flock is weeding my garden. I arrived feeling overwhelmed with my burdens, and now I’m overwhelmed with delight. How can I repay their generous gesture?

I look at those plastic bags of greens and realize that I don’t need to hoard all these salad makings. These students can use it more than I. International students often complain about our cafeteria food. What better way for them to end the day than to garnish their fare with a few sprigs of parsley?

I muster a few words. “I’m sorry, I have to get going soon. Thank you so very, very much for your help today, I didn’t expect you to come. What a wonderful surprise. It was very nice of you. Please, please, take the food you picked back to the dorms.”

They murmur among themselves, unsure how to receive this favor. Finally Dila exclaims, “I can make kebabs with this!” She punctuates her declaration by biting off a large chunk of parsley from a thick stem. Chomp. Chomp. Chomp.

She smiles broadly.

So do I.


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