The look was something between concentration and panic. The first day I saw her in my English course, one among forty women, I would remember her look.
She was petite, shorter than the other university freshmen in the course, with wide eyes and a childlike face emerging from a white headscarf. In my experience teaching and leading a group in worship, I have seen many expressions: nervous, eager, frustrated, engaged, vacant, hoping… But this look was different. It did not change through the whole first lecture. “Tell me your name, and one thing about yourself,” I asked, and 37 young women answered.
Three could not find words for anything other than names. When it was her turn, she said shortly, “Nani,” and let the other question fall.
I kept this in mind and prepared a language assessment for the students. If they don’t speak ANY English, they should not be in this class, I thought. Nani’s look intensified during the second class, as she joined her classmates in answering questions and filling in blanks.
“Kevin has a headache. He should take some _________.” Most students filled that blank with some form of the word “medicine.” Two wrote that Kevin should take some “coffee.” Geniuses.
Three students struggled to answer even the question, “How are you doing?” Nani was one of these. She desperately tried to drink in everything, but was unable to, and therefore had the look of someone who was drowning in a downpour of English.
Third class: a new student named Mohammad, one of the few men in the English department, walked in–saw that the whole class was female– and walked out again. His loss, I thought. One of the three struggling students had dropped also, but it wasn’t Nani.
I separated the students into small groups, and asked them to describe a picture from their textbooks. Nani struggled to come up with the English words, her look of concentration creating furrows in her forehead. So when each group picked one person to report their discussion to the class, I was surprised to see Nani stand up.
She held her notes close to her face and read as quickly as she could, clipped words delivered in a childlike voice. I held back applause as I saw this young, brave woman diving into the difficult language, boldly attempting to form its strange sounds. As she stood, she rose above the knowledge of her peers, and showed something far more fundamental for success in college, in life…
After class she lingered. “Nani,” I got her attention. “You did a great job reading today. Well done.” Her brow un-furrowed, the fearfulness left those wide eyes, and a generous smile took over her face.
…On another day, we worked alongside local ladies from the fitness program at the community center, organizing clothes and household goods to give to refugees. As we were working, one of my Arab mommas, who works in an income-generating business also at the center, came up to me.
She handed me something, and I wondered if it was for the refugees. “No, for you!” she smiled, and I opened the black plastic bag to find a purse and hand-knit slippers. Her generosity leaves me speechless. I learn what love and courage look like when I see them in the quiet choices of these women.