Immigrant students learn more than plain English

December 08, 1991|By Sara Rimer | Sara Rimer,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- The subject was Thanksgiving. In the classroom in Brooklyn where they are learning English together, the 21 students from Guinea, Haiti, Czechoslovakia, the Dominican Republic and 10 other countries were groping for its meaning.

They got the part about eating a lot (their multiethnic feast started at 10:30 Wednesday morning). But they were bewildered by a holiday that celebrates Pilgrims, turkey, pumpkin pie, football and Macy's all in one day.

And Francois Versailles, from Haiti, who rushes from class with his dictionary in his briefcase to his job as a machinist with the Transit Authority, seemed at first to confuse Thanksgiving with another holiday.

"Send flowers for lovers," he called out when the teacher, Donna Harkavy, asked the class what happens on Thanksgiving. And, no, he said, he was not thinking of Valentine's Day.

"It's America," he said. "Celebrate any way you want."

Americans hold tight to the image of Thanksgiving: the extended family gathered around the dinner table to celebrate their lives together. On Thanksgiving, Americans are supposed to go home.

But the students in Ms. Harkavy's English as a Second Language class have left their homes behind.

"In a new country, it's hard because you don't have roots," Meyer Sadigurskiy, who was a mechanical engineer in Russia but now hopes to start over as an electrician, explained in class the other day. "It's a big deal, roots."

For these students, 21 in a wave of immigration that is remaking New York, English is the biggest obstacle to their goal: arriving in NTC America. The class gives them English, and it also gives them a home.

Five mornings a week, from 9 a.m. to noon, Ms. Harkavy's students conjugate verbs, unravel the mysteries of idioms -- and just talk.

They talk about everything, their countries, their experiences in New York ("really crazy city," said Sam Baraker, who arrived four months ago from Ukraine), their hopes.

"Sometimes I try to speak with somebody," Irma Gudino, who was an accountant in Ecuador, confessed to her classmates. "I feel stupid, but I'm not. In America, people think people who speak Spanish are stupid. They think, 'She don't know anything.' "

In the class, everyone has the same problems, and so everyone speaks freely.

In some families, a prayer is said before the Thanksgiving turkey is carved. In Ms. Harkavy's class, where every event is viewed as an opportunity to speak English, the students had to discuss the meal before they could eat it.

Three students -- Panya Tanthaviwat from Thailand, Rita Limanto from Indonesia and Viviane Mashamba from Zaire -- had gone to Ms. Harkavy's apartment, in Park Slope, to help her cook the turkey the day before.

"I tell Donna, I don't have experience to cook turkey," Mrs. Limanto told her classmates, who were seated in a circle for the occasion. "She say, 'Me, too.' We go to her house. We begin to look at the book recipes about turkey."

The students laughed. Their American teacher, who had been talking all week about Thanksgiving, didn't know how to cook a turkey?

The teacher laughed, too. "I've been a vegetarian for many years," she told her students. "Before that, my mother made the turkey."

This time, the students depended not on their Webster's, but on another American classic -- "The Joy of Cooking," which Ms. Harkavy's mother had given her as a wedding present 26 years ago. The turkey was delicious -- and spicy, thanks to Mr. Tanthaviwat's improvising. He had insisted on adding a lot of crushed garlic.

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