melanie thernstrom   English Only  
Melanie Thernstrom

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  When Kyra Voss, a teacher at the Riverside Language School, walks into English Only class each day, she enters a dense pained silence. In the small yellow-walled room, prim as a kindergarten, twenty-five students from the Ukraine, Nepal, Taiwan, Colombia, Uzbekistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Latvia, Russia and the Ivory Coast avoid one another's glances. They look wrong in their chairs---too big, tired, old or anxious for school, adults thrust back into the world of early childhood, struggling for speech.

The Riverside Language School, housed in Riverside Church at 120th Street and the Hudson River is the only daytime English language class in the city, serving legal immigrants and refugees who have been in this country less than a year. Kyra--a dark-haired thirty-four year old with a pretty pointed face--moves constantly through the room, the English words in her mouth coming alive through gestures quick as origami. She divides the students into pairs, instructing them to find out four things about each other. But the students keep looking past each other, turning in their seats to peer at Kyra, asking if they are speaking correctly, touching her skirt, eager as if she were an aide worker distributing bread to the hungry.

"You need to speak, doesn't matter right or wrong, speak English," Kyra says. "Don't talk to me, talk to your partner," Kyra tells the students several times a day--an instruction they balk at. Their feelings seem clear: they see English as something Kyra has, which they want to get from her, and they don't want to be redirected towards others equally empty-handed.

Vladimir Mayzel--a white-haired former volleyball coach from Latvia--breaks in. "We want to learn right, speak with American, not speak street speak," he says.

"New York is a city of immigrants," Kyra replies swiftly. "You need to be able to talk to each other."

Many of the students at Riverside come from countries where they have never interacted with foreigners. The students in Kyra's class all say they have yet to make an American friend. "They all want to meet Americans, but they don't know how," Kyra had explained to me. "And they live in neighborhoods where there are no Americans."

"There are twenty-five of you and only one of me," Kyra tells the class. "You need to teach each other."

"We cannot talk--we have no connection," Tatyana speaks up sharply. Kyra freezes, too momentarily taken aback to ask the other students if they understand the word connection.


A-M-E-R-I-C-A. It is the second week of school, and the seven-letter hangman Kyra has written on the board has turned into a word everyone recognizes.

"What does this word mean to you?" she asks. "What words comes to mind when you think of America--good, bad, positive, negative?"

Vasvija Varajic speaks first. "In America many people different nationalities, different colors, I like," she says. Vasvija is a thirty-nine year old Croatian refugee; Gorham, her husband, is a Serb. Because they had a mixed marriage, they were given preference by an international organization to come to the States.

"Equality," Kyra prints on the board.

"Country of challenge," Gorham says. "To discover, to explore, to start a new business in new place, chance to prove yourself, to show how much you are worth." Tall and blue-eyed, Gorham seems to brim with optimistic energy. When the war broke out he and Vasvija hid in their basement for two months and then escaped Sarajevo, leaving behind a successful import/export business, a car, a white stone house with a balcony facing the sun, a glittering swimming pool. Vasvija's brother was living in Astoria; they stayed with him for several months, and then, with help from their families, moved into an apartment a floor below. They are looking for any kind of work now--searching through employment agencies which work with refugees--but eventually they want to go back to school and get business degrees; they both hold economics degrees from the University of Sarajevo.

"If American come to Sarajevo, or Germany, their degrees are valid," Vasvija says, "but ex-Yugoslavia, come to America, start from nothing." It is "fate of first generation immigrant," she says with a gesture of resignation. Her blond hair stark against a sheer black lace blouse, her face weary and beautiful, she seems to carry their losses more heavily than her husband.

"Hope," Vladimir booms out. The class turns to look at him--a large man, accustomed to commanding attention. His favorite thing about America, he had told me, is "pink view of life." Everywhere he goes, on the streets on the subway, he sees smiling faces. Americans might be tired, he says, but they are "tired from work," but not deeply tired. "Russian people they are tired in their thoughts. Their faces like this," he said, pulling his face into a mass of wrinkles. "Freedom for All," Vladimir announces to the class. He and Gorham exchange glances--an alliance between them forming. Many of Vladimir's relatives had moved to the States, but Vladimir hadn't wanted to leave because he loved his job--the coach of the women's national Latvian volleyball team. But his family lived in Lithuania and when the Soviet Union dissolved they closed the borders between the two countries, and he was forced out of his job to return to Latvia. A new law in Latvia stipulated that only those who had lived in the country since 1940 could be citizens; his wife's family had come after the war. Their passport and papers were stamped Jewish/Russian speaking--an increasingly unwelcome category amidst the rising tide of new nationalism. Vladimir finds it difficult, now, not working; in Lithuania he had been a famous man. He has offered to volunteer coach children at some Jewish community centers, but no one has been interested. However, it has all been worth it to him, he tells me, because all his life he has felt "this feeling of uncomfortable, shame, humiliation"--a feeling his grandchildren will never have. He touches his fingers to his heart and then opens his hand wide, as if to show how the feeling has gone.

"Yes, good," Kyra says. "Who else?" Her glance rests on Mariama Dougan Kouassi, a 26 year old immigrant from the Ivory Coast--one of a handful of immigrants in the class-and the only African.

Mariama hesitates. She touches the folds of her shiny green dress, and the rayon catches the light. "In my country," she says in her soft thickly-accented voice, "I think everyone in America was rich, but now I see poor people everywhere." Mariama is in a different situation than the refugees: she did not flee oppression, she choose to come. She had never known anyone who had been to America, but everyone in her country wants to come to come, she says, because they have heard "life in America better than life in Africa--good nutrition, people healthy." In Abidjan Mariama lived in a pretty house with a servant and garden; now she, her husband and two children share a one-bedroom basement apartment in a Jamaican section of the Bronx. Her husband had had a good job working with computers; here he supports the family as a delivery boy in restaurant. Mariama had heard that in America nannies are better paid than the most prestigious jobs in her country, but she has not been able to find a job; when she calls for baby-sitting jobs people ask for references or say they want a native speaker. She has yet to make a friend; in her daily routine she leaves the apartment only for to go to class, pick the children up at school and grocery shop.

"Poverty," Kyra adds to the list.

"Crime, " Mariama tells the class softly. "At home only robbers," she explains, touching her gold earrings, "here guns, scared." She has heard about the "high degree of criminality of Americans," she says. She saw a program about a Chinese girl who disappeared on a school field trip. Kidnapping, Kyra writes on the board.

"Free Education," Mariama says. The real reason she came, she had told me, was for her children's education. In the Ivory Coast, parents have to pay for books and uniforms and pencils. Her children, Kouako and Faty, age nine and six, now attend their local school--a rough inner city school where she worries about them. Kouako wants to be a pilot; Faty, a doctor. When they finish their schooling and get jobs, Mariama and her husband plan to return to the Ivory Coast for their old age.

"I have heard if you get good qualification in secondary school, government pays for University," Carlos Guerrero, a young man from Columbia says from the far corner of the room.

"Yes--sometimes that is true," Kyra says.

"Americans, they not study--they do not try the way we do," LiMing Fan, a woman from Taiwan says. Around the room the other students express accent: Americans do not value opportunities the way Africans do.

"Who else?" Kyra asks.

"Antipatico," Carlos declares. "Americans are antipatico."

Kyra hesitates over the Spanish word. "Antipatico?"

"In Colombia, the street, there is life," he explains. "In America--where is life? No one speak on street." He is handsome, in the slightly generic way of a movie extra; people must eye him, as he walks down the street.

"Unfriendly," Kyra decides upon. "Inhospitable."

"Hectic way of life," he adds. "The life in Manhattan-only job. I come to the house, I'm asleep, again the same."

The other students murmur agreement. Gorham and Vasvija recall a European style of life: working until three, a big midday meal, a nap, visiting friends in the evening--a style of life, they believe, they have to abandon to be successful in America.

"Medical care," Esther--a young Russian woman, slight and shy as a black deer--breaks in. She has come with her two elderly parents who have kidney problems. She had thought medical care would be good in the States, but her parents have to wait months for Medicaid appointments.

"Television," Vasvija says. She and Gorham have the television on all the time when they are in their apartment, she tells me. It makes them feel less lonely, she says, as if they are "bonding with Americans."

"Climate," calls out a woman from Nepal.

"Roads," Tatyana says.

"Future dreams choose," Carlos says.


"Newspaper very good."

"Streets have names."

"Good organization."

"Independent children."




"Sexual freedom."

The class breaks, and when they return Kyra says that she is going to play a song. She tells the students to listen and then write down all the words or phrases they understood. She asks if they have heard of Simon and Garfunkel; several students nod--English words found them first through music.

"Let us be lovers and marry our fortunes together..."

The words drift through the classrooms; students close their eyes, listening.

"I'm aching and empty and I don't know why...The moon rose over an open field...I've gone to look for America...They've all come to look for America."

Kyra stands at the blackboard, chalk poised in her hand.

"Look for America," Gorham says. "In my country, I look at movies of America." He tries again: "before I came to America I have pictures and I come here and I go look for myself in those pictures. Maybe they feel lost, they are in America, but they are looking."

"Lovers," Vasvija picks out. "They love each other and maybe in their country they cannot be together."

"Aching," says Esther. "Maybe no job and no one can talk to you."

"Empty," Mariama says. She ponders, uncertain how to define it for the class.

Voices overlap; the blackboard fills with words--hitchhike, moon, marry, be careful, gabardine tie. The words turn into sentences and Kyra's face begins to relax. She'll play the song again and again until every student understands each line of lyrics. It is the tenth day of school and everyone is talking.

"English Only" is part of a larger article that recently appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.
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Copyright © 1997 Melanie Thernstrom.