On sunny days, light pours in through the large windows of the room where Maricela and her tutor, Kyle, study. The room is conveniently located in [Solid Ground’s] affordable housing complex [at Sand Point] where Maricela lives, and has a table, a white board, and dry-erase markers — the perfect setup for one-on-one English tutoring.
Maricela grew up in Jalisco, Mexico, and her English lessons in school were minimal. When she arrived to the United States with her son in 1992, the language barrier was a constant hurdle for everything she did. “When I went to the clinic, I had to bring my friend who spoke [Spanish and] English … when I went to the grocery store, I was always looking for someone who spoke Spanish,” she says.
She began taking English classes at the Seattle Community Colleges. She finished three full quarters, and then moved on to a Job Training program at Goodwill. Before she even graduated from the program, Goodwill hired her to work in production. “They [Goodwill] say I’m a good worker,” she says, smiling, before holding her hands up and adding, “They say it, not me.”
If the praise from Goodwill wasn’t enough, Maricela’s work ethic is clear from how advanced her English has become since she arrived: She and Kyle work together on irregular verbs, the past tense, and pronunciation. They also review the homework from the writing-focused class Maricela is taking at North Seattle College. The class is part of a high-school completion course (Maricela didn’t finish high school in Mexico) where students learn about topic sentences and essay structure.
Why have a tutor when she’s already taking community college classes? Maricela explains: “You go to a class with 28 students, you just catch whatever you can; they can’t focus on you. But with Kyle, we work together and she will tell me what I need to improve … it’s really helpful for me.”
Working one-on-one certainly helps Maricela with her classes, but it helps in real-world situations, too. Before her English lessons with Kyle, Maricela didn’t know how to send texts with her phone. Though it might sound trivial, it truly limited the scope of her communication and even affected her children’s social lives. “[My daughter’s friend’s mother] tried to text me for a play date at the community center, but I told her I don’t text because I am scared to say the wrong thing all the time,” says Maricela. She talked to Kyle about it, and they specifically practiced texting, so that Maricela is now comfortable sending texts and even writing emails. Her new-found skills increased her confidence and also made it much easier to interact with English speakers in her community.
Though her speaking skills are already impressive, Maricela is intent on improving her accent and her writing skills. Part of her motivation is her desire to get a job to support herself and her children — she’s interested in working in retail and wants to be able to reach English-speaking customers as well as Spanish speakers.
Her other very personal reason for learning English is her 7-year-old son. She advocates for him at the elementary school he attends, but sometimes feels she isn’t taken seriously by the administration because she’s not a native speaker. And she prefers not to work through interpreters: “I want to fight for his rights. I like to do it myself.”
If she keeps working at the rate she’s been going, there’s no doubt Maricela will be able to do anything she wants to do in English. What’s more, she and Kyle genuinely enjoy working together. As I left the interview with them, they expressed how grateful they each were.
Maricela: “I’m so lucky to have Kyle.”
Kyle: “I’m the lucky one!”
Maricela laughed and said: “I started classes at North Seattle Community College three months ago, and I said ‘Kyle, will you try to work around my class schedule?’ because I didn’t want to lose her! And she did … she wakes up early now [to meet me]!”
This post originally appeared on the Literacy Council of Seattle’s blog, and is re-posted with their permission.