For ten years, I volunteered as a tutor for the School on Wheels run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. My family affectionately referred to it as ‘the nun bus.’
The program used a converted bookmobile, which they drove into areas with high populations of immigrants. Students came aboard for one-on-one tutoring in English. School desks and chairs lined the center aisle, bolted to the floor, of course, to prevent disaster as the bus traveled to and from the various sites.
During my first decade of teaching, I had run the gamut of students. I tutored students of different ages, genders, ethnicities, and religions, including a 75-year-old grandmother from Argentina, a lovely Chinese woman who taught me to make amazingly thin wafers, and a Mexican man who eagerly attended class for almost two years without grasping the first few lessons.
One student I still remember was named Parveen. She made a wonderful first impression as she stepped up onto the bus in her colorful, flowing sari. Even more clearly, I remember the magnificent scent emanating from her…curry powder, fenugreek, maybe a touch of lemon grass? I imagined her joyfully working at the stove that morning, preparing dishes from her homeland, and I longed for a taste.
Parveen had a round face the color of molasses cookies, a long, dark braid down her back, big eyes, and a demure smile. She seemed friendly and willing to study, but I noticed that she never looked me in the eye, even when we sat directly across from one another at the small school desk. I couldn’t decide whether this was her innate personality, shy and unassuming, or if it might be something ingrained in her culture. Maybe women from her country were taught at an early age never to make eye contact? I remembered reading a novel in which the immigrant characters thought that all Americans were very high class, earned a lot of money, etcetera, and wondered what she thought of me. As unlikely as it seemed, I wondered if she could feel intimidated by me.
All I really knew was, it was hard to teach her when she would only look down at the desk.
On her third visit, I asked Parveen to look at me. When I caught her eye, I asked, ‘Married?’
‘Married.’ She pointed to her ring.
I did likewise. ‘Children?’
She held up two fingers and said, ‘Two.’
Again, I followed suit. ‘Job?’
She shook her head. ‘No job.’
Once more, I parroted her.
At that, Parveen looked me right in the eye, smiled sweetly, slowly pointed at me then back at herself and said, ‘Same.’
From that day on, Parveen had the courage to look at me when we spoke. In time, she gained the confidence to reverse roles and teach me some words in her native language, Urdu. We continued to work together for over a year before she and her husband moved to another town.
I get a lump in my throat every time I think back to that day, when all of our many differences fell by the wayside, and Parveen and I were just two women, housewives, mothers, teachers and students…the same.