Not the Right Words

December 14th, 2017

I’m usually pretty good with words. I can shape them and make them do my bidding. Usually. I found out their limitations, and my limitations, on Thursday.

Our loved one called from jail around noon that day. I was the only one at home, so I talked with her. I told the young woman about a meeting that Karin and I had with a friend named Carl. Carl runs a shelter/soup kitchen in Racine. He also works closely with ex-inmates. He is himself an ex-prisoner.

I tried to explain to our loved one that she really need to push for mental health support before she goes in front of the judge for sentencing. Carl had told Karin and myself that mental health help is very difficult to get in prison unless a person is a behavioral problem for the guards. That’s not a good way to get assistance. I apparently freaked out the young woman, because she was sobbing at the end of our conversation. That was totally not my intention. I just wanted her to be aware that she needed to advocate for herself with her public defender to get the help she needs. Unfortunately, all I accomplished was to push her into an anxiety attack.

Later in the day, I went to tutor the Syrian refugee kids. I spent most of my time working with Nada. She had a homework assignment from her science class. The worksheet was designed to teach a student about how to conduct an experiment. Nada needed to learn how to formulate a research question. She needed to understand the terms “independent variable”, “dependent variable”, and “constant variable”. She needed to be able to design a scientific experiment.

I am convinced that our time together was a dead loss, at least with regards to the subject matter. I don’t think she understood even 10% of what was being presented. Part of that is due to her limited English comprehension, and also due to my equally limited Arabic vocabulary.  Neither of us had enough words. I tried to explain what the terms meant, but I was floundering. Honestly, it is even difficult to define those terms to a native English-speaker. The concepts in the homework were not easy, and when I asked Nada if she understood, she just nodded shyly. That told me that she didn’t get it. Not at all.

I left Nada’s home deeply frustrated. What was the point? What was accomplished?

I talked with Karin about the session with Nada. Karin suggested that it was good for me to simply practice English with the girl. Even if she only learned a few new words or ideas, that was something. Also, Karin is convinced that just the fact that I was there to help Nada showed her that somebody cared. Nada knows that at least I want to help her.

Karin also told me that later on Thursday our loved one called back. She had spoken with her lawyer after I talked with her, and had resolved some of her questions about getting psychological help. Karin said that the young woman sounded much more relaxed and grounded than she had during my earlier conversation with her. Good.

Maybe I did something right.



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