The Struggle to Understand

January 11th, 2018

Last night I went to help teach the citizenship class at Voces de la Frontera. It was a slow night. We didn’t have many students. Sergio walked in a little after 6:00 PM. I sat down with him to work on the questions for his retest at the immigration office. He failed his first attempt at the citizenship exam, and he has to go for it again in less than a week.

Sergio is a few years older than I am.  He’s a retired widower. He’s been living in the U.S. for decades. Sergio is an intelligent man, and he seems to be very conscientious. He failed the test because the examiner determined that Sergio didn’t understand English well enough. The problem is not so much with Sergio’s fluency in English. I’ve worked with other students who had a much weaker grasp of the language. Sergio’s problem is that he does not always listen.

Sergio and I went over a series of questions from his N-400, the citizenship application.

“Sergio, when was your son born?”

He looked at me quizzically and asked, “My son?”

“Yes, your son. When was he born?”

Sergio replied, “In Mexico.”

I sighed. “NO, not where was he born. When was he born?”

Sergio finally gave me his son’s birth date, we proceeded to the next question.

Later I asked him to answer some of the civics questions.

“What did the Declaration of Independence do?”

Sergio looked puzzled. “The Declaration of Independence?”

“Yes. The Declaration of Independence. What did it do?”

Sergio said, “Freedom of speech?”

I rubbed my eyes. “Uh no. The Constitution gave us freedom of speech. The Declaration of Independence declared our independence from Great Britain. The answer to the question is in the name: ‘Declaration of Independence’. The Declaration of Independence declared our independence. You see?”

Sergio nodded, “Yes, I see.”

No, you don’t.

After a while, I said to Sergio, “At the test you need to really listen to the examiner. Sometimes you don’t understand what I am asking you. If you don’t understand the examiner, ask him to repeat the question.”

Sergio nodded. “Yes, I ask him to repeat.”

“Yeah, or ask him to say it in another way. Or ask him to say it more slooooowly. Make sure you understand the question before you try to answer. Don’t guess.”

“Okay, Frank, I do that.” Sergio seemed tired and worried.

I told him, “Sergio, you are going to be fine. You’ll be okay. I believe in you. You’re going to pass.”

Another teacher, Mary Pat, asked Sergio if he wanted to practice some more on Saturday morning. He said yes to that.

I told Sergio, “You retest is on Tuesday morning. If you want, I can meet you here on Monday to work on the questions again. You just have to let me know. I don’t want you in class again after Tuesday.

Mary Pat told him, “We don’t want to see you again”, and she laughed at her own joke.

I told Sergio, “Actually, we do want to see you again. We want you to tell everybody here how well you did, and how happy you are to be a citizen.”

Mary Pat added, “Yes, exactly.”

Sergio said, “Okay, Frank. Thank you.” We shook hands.

I got ready to leave. Sergio said, “I gonna pass.”



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