He makes exquisite furniture using scrap wood. He makes baby toys, cribs and scooters between other carpentry assignments. He is a craftsman, an artist and a hard worker. He can drive a 16d nail into a 2×4 in three whacks. At various times, everyone in the class has asked him what the hell he’s doing here with the rest of us jokers.
He answers in broken English tinged with Arabic, which is an answer in and of itself. He’s in our class simply to learn to speak English and to conduct business in America. Which is lucky for the rest of us, because we benefit from his skill, patience and enthusiasm.
He has taught me to use a router and a jigsaw. I have taught him the English words for the fractional measurements on a tape measure. He recently helped me make a wooden baby toy for my niece-on-the-way. I taught him the names of all the colorful plush animals that dangle from it.
He teaches us to write our names in Arabic; we help him fill out job applications and other complex paperwork. We explain the licenses he will need to set up as an independent business. I don’t think I’m speaking just for myself when I say the class wants him to succeed in America.
Recently, someone asked if our talented classmate would be able to get a job when we graduate in December. The language barrier is still very strong. Someone answered yes, he should be able to get a job–if not in spite of his lack of fluency, then maybe because of it. He explained that some contractors employ workers of as many languages as they can, because it cuts down on chitchat if workers can’t communicate among themselves. Less talk, more work.
It made me imagine our classroom experience if we couldn’t all communicate easily. Not only is communication essential to the learning process, as we all teach each other along the way, but it is also the reason school is so much fun. Even when the guys are mocking me or talking nonsense about roasted bologna sandwiches, it makes me laugh. It makes the day go fast.
The idea of building a business on the back of a team that can’t communicate–by design–makes me sad. It makes me particularly sad to think of my cheerful, generous and talented Arabic-speaking friend unable to communicate on a job site. Everyone would miss out.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only person in the conversation who hated the idea. Because someone gave voice to what we were all thinking:
“No, we can’t let him work at a place like that.”