13: Paying It Forward

13: Paying It Forward

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

Paying It Forward

No person was ever honored for what he received, but for what he gave.

~Calvin Coolidge

It seemed like the semester was dragging by at the middle school where I taught English as a Second Language (ESL). One particular sixth grader, Pablo, was struggling with fluency in reading, so after class I suggested that he get extra practice by reading aloud to his mom while she prepared dinner each evening. This was something I routinely encouraged my struggling students to do. I explained that it didn’t matter if she understood enough English to know what he was reading; he would still benefit from the extra practice.

Imagine my surprise when Pablo responded by starting to cry. He exclaimed, “My mom can’t cook dinner!” Then he sobbed long and hard, like I had never heard before. Eventually, he calmed down enough to tell me, through his tears, that his mom was only able to “cry in her bed” when he got home every afternoon. He said that he was caring for his six-month-old baby brother by himself from the time he got home each day. His mother, it seemed, had an abscessed tooth and was in excruciating pain. He proclaimed that his father “didn’t have enough money to get it fixed,” and that there was no insurance and no way for her to go to a dentist. This child’s heart was broken for his mom.

I was speechless! He was still crying when he left me that day, and I promised him I would try to help. As I taught my afternoon classes, I kept asking myself how I could help this student who was hurting so badly because his mother was hurting. How could I help his mother when we didn’t even speak the same language? I realized it was no wonder he couldn’t focus on reading with all that was going on in his young life.

The next day, I sent a note, which a friend helped me translate, to Pablo’s mother asking if she would like me to find someone to help her. The following day, Pablo, grinning from ear to ear, brought me a note from his mom accepting my offer to help.

Meanwhile, I had been doing some networking among my friends, asking if anyone knew a dentist who might do some pro bono work for this lady. At the time, I was not able to pay for the work to be done myself. Several friends suggested a dental office that had recently opened up in the area, thinking that they might be willing to provide the services. I didn’t want to waste a lot of time going to several dentists, so I prayed that this would be the one.

Stopping by the dental office one afternoon, I told the receptionist the gist of my need. She smiled at me and said, “Wait right here for just a minute.” She returned and took me back to the beautifully decorated office of one of the dentists, who asked for more details. I told him the story. I was awestruck at his response! He told me that he was once an English as a Second Language student. He had immigrated from Iran, first to Canada, at seven years old, and later to the United States. He stated that he saw this as an excellent opportunity to “pay it forward” and help another ESL student.

Dr. N. said that he would remove her tooth, provide her antibiotics, and if she needed an oral surgeon, he would pay for that as well. It turned out that Pablo’s mom didn’t need oral surgery, and Dr. N. was able to take care of the tooth himself. When we went to have the tooth removed, Pablo went back with her and translated the conversation between the patient and the dentist. She was soon able to return to her role as Mom, and Pablo to his role as a child.

That experience taught me that I don’t have a clue what may be going on in the lives of the students I teach. Each one has a story, and each one has family dynamics and issues that I might have difficulty even comprehending. Since then, I have always tried to pause and listen with my heart.

~Carolyn Lee

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