Monday, June 29, 2009

Dispatch from the field

One of the most rewarding--and interesting--aspects of being an in-home tutor is learning about your student's life: past, present, and future aspirations. As Americans, we live in a culture where we hesitate to ask about personal sstories for fear of stirring up bad memories. The truth is, our students are adults and they wholly reserve the right to say they don't want to talk about it. Making the effort to get to know your student on a personal level, though, is a gift you give to both of you.

Our guest blogger today is Jean Clark, who has been tutoring a group of Burmese Karen women. Along the way, she has also become a close friend of the families and some of their friends. Jean encourages her students to speak so they are comfortable using what they learn. As a result, she has learned a few things, as well.

Recently, I had the opportunity to be alone with Htee Ku Paw as we drove to one of her (many) appointments. She is doing so well learning English. The joke is that Htee Ku Paw is everyone's English student because she goes to any class that is available. One thing that she does not like to do is speak extemporaneously. I thought that since we were alone, I'd push her to do just that. I explained what we were going to do but that I'd go first. Our rule is, if she doesn't understand a word, she must stop me. So, I talked to her about my childhood. Then I asked her to do the same. Quiet, quiet and I didn't interrupt the quiet. Finally, she started to talk. I did help her by asking questions. This is what I learned.

She was born in a small village, the oldest of five children, four girls and one boy. She told me that her father and mother were farmers—rice and vegetables. She also told me that her father was a tailor and her mother was a weaver. Htee Ku Paw learned to sew and weave from the age of 8. Her mother wanted her to carry on the Burmese Karen weaving tradition.

Her father had a sewing machine and people would come to their home to have clothes made. They would bring their own fabric. Htee Ku Paw's mother would weave things that people would buy.

Htee Ku Paw’s father started a school for tailoring. Students would sign up for six months, and he would give them a certificate when they finished the term. I don't know where he got the machines for the class, but I do know that he found a building that he could use for these classes.

When Htee Ku Paw was about 17, Burmese soldiers came to their village to capture all of the men. Her father and brother escaped into the jungle and returned when it was safe. At 18, she and a friend decided to go to the refugee camp in Thailand. She didn't tell me much about their journey other than the fact that it was dangerous.

Htee Ku Paw had an aunt and uncle at the camp, so she lived with them until she met Thaw and married him in 1997. Htee Ku Paw's youngest sister, Paw, moved to the United States before her. Paw married an American (Anglo) in Colorado. They have a 1-year-old daughter and they currently live in a Denver suburb.

I believe that Htee Ku Paw’s father is dead and that her mother and another sister left the camp recently to return to their village. The village is not a safe place to live. It is raided by government soldiers periodically, forcing everyone to flee into the jungle. Htee Ku Paw has no way to get in touch with them. I cannot stop thinking about how I might to go about finding them.

If you would like to try your hand at sharing your in-home tutoring experiences as a guest blogger, send your essay to