I learned how to be a Saint Paul therapist from movies like Ordinary People and Sybil. Being painfully shy, I hoped I could keep my conversation to “Hmmm,” and “How do you feel about that?” I imagined a Summit Hill female clientele who struggled with color schemes and what to wear to University Club banquets.
Instead, my days were often spent on the floor at Expo Elementary, smashing trucks into walls and filing child abuse reports. After years of this, I quit and tried to be a writer. In September of 2001, I won a one-month retreat at Norcroft, a feminist writer’s retreat in northern Minnesota. At Norcroft there were no televisions, radios, newspapers, or telephones. I learned a few sparse details about the tragedy of September 11 at Lutsen’s Bar on Lake Superior. I waited in the lounge for my turn to use the pay phone and watched as the television silently showed strangers holding hands and jumping from the burning towers.
On my return to Saint Paul, I saw flags and yellow ribbons and signs saying, “Peanut Buster Parfait, USA All the Way.” As the days passed, I had the strongest desire to gather people on the street and have a group hug. I wanted desperately to rise to the occasion, but I didn’t know how. I felt like I was returning to a changed world.
My friend Jane Sevald was also entering a whole new world. At age forty-five, she was taking on her high school classroom teaching English and writing at Como High School to students from Ethiopia, Somalia, Laos, and Iraq. She likes a challenge and takes to it like Lance Armstrong approaching a hill, but when we spoke on the phone about meeting for coffee, I heard something in her voice—something scared. It was the sound of riding injured.
Jane is a big woman, and I am kind of scrawny. She is loud, and I tend to mumble. She covers her shyness with grand gestures and a whopping presence. She is brilliant, in a far-flung fashion. She speaks Russian and knows what countries were named before they were what they are now, and she can find them on a map. She watches gory detective shows and reads ten mysteries a week for distraction. I have my own brand of intelligence gathered from the streets of Frogtown, downtown, Highland, and Hamline, where I have been riding my blue mountain bike for twenty-two years. Jane can talk to people about anything, and I can listen to people talk about anything.
When I returned from Norcroft, we met at the old Black Bear Crossings Cafe by the railroad tracks. It was a cozy place decorated with dream catchers, woodsy colors, and a stone fireplace. Jane was draped across the coffee shop couch, her big voice roaring with pain. “I’m a mess. I have never been so tired in my life, and I only work half-time. Whatever made me think I could teach high school? It’s a disaster—you should come and see.”
I choked on my skinny latte. “Why would I want to come and see a disaster?” In the space of that sentence, half of me was speeding down Lexington to her class and the other half was headed back to the woods. Like many social workers, I am a junkie for a good disaster.
“You could help me figure them out.” Jane looked excited, as though she were having a good idea at that very moment, and didn’t I want to get excited too?
“I hate meeting new people—it scares me. I don’t know anything about kids from other countries. I’ve never met a Muslim before. I don’t even know anyone who’s visited Africa. It’s a whole new language for me ‘refugee,’ ‘foreign national,’ ‘despot.’ My second language is street slang done poorly.”
“I knew you’d want to come.” Jane ignored my rush of concerns.
“I didn’t say I wanted to come. I do wonder why so many people want to immigrate here if they hate Americans. But I can wonder from home.”
“You should have seen us on September 11. I could have used you that day.” The layers of complication and pain in Jane’s voice drew me in.
I couldn’t help myself, “What was it like?”
She didn’t answer right away. Her pale features turned sickly and she held herself very still. She shut her eyes, and with each word, her sorrow rose like a tired man climbing a steep ladder. “I put on CNN so the pictures could speak for themselves. I tried to interpret what they were seeing. I stared at the television and remained calm like the president asked. The students stopped talking. The look on my face must have scared them half to death.
“‘Class, it is important that you listen,’ but they were listening, they were waiting for an explanation. I tried to explain using the small words they knew. When I stopped, they waited for the rest, waited for the happy ending. All of the students had come to the United States for a happy ending.”
“‘America is a safe country, Ms. Sevald,’ Shumi tried to comfort me, ‘That’s why we came here.’
“‘That’s true, it is not like Somalia,’ Zamu was certain.
“But then Ali sat up in his seat. He looked me in the eye and asked, ‘Will they kill us all?’”
The next Monday I slid into Jane’s classroom, hoping to be unobtrusive. There was noise, like an international market on trading day. Holding my breath, I slipped toward the back. I was stopped by a beautiful young woman who held out her hand. “Hi, I’m Shumi from Oromia. Who are you?”
“I’m Linda, a friend of Jane’s. She invited me to visit for a day. I don’t even know where Oromia is.”
Shumi continued holding my hand a little longer than an American would. “No one knows where Oromia is. You’ve heard of Ethiopia, right?”
Shumi spoke so fast it was like trying to catch words in a wind tunnel. I worked up a sweat just listening, and when she paused for a breath, I was ready to head to Sweeny’s, my neighborhood bar.
“Listen up, people. This is my friend Linda, a real writer.” Jane shook her head at the wonder of it. “She has published stories in books and magazines. She won the Minnesota Monthly Tamarack Award. Let’s give her a big hand.”
I was horrified. Was Jane the school bully? I gave a little wave and tried to sit down, but they kept clapping and hooting. Damn Jane, damn her.
I opened my mouth, “Ah.” My tongue felt like a wad of paper mâché. “I have ideas and questions and worries about the world. I try to understand things by writing about them. I believe that stories can change how people think. Maybe if you tell me a story about yourself, I will know you a little bit better and I won’t be afraid of you. The world will be a better place.”
I found the courage to say a little more. “You have ideas too. You have stories people need to hear, stories I need to hear. You can be real writers too. You can do that.” My heart had reached its limit; it was pounding so hard I could feel it in my ears. “Ah, well . . . That’s all.” I dropped in my seat.
“You should write a story about me.”
“In Ethiopia they beat us if we write in our own language, so our stories never get written down.”
The man who had asked, “Will they kill us all?” stirred from where he sat slumped in a corner. The room quieted, and the kids looked to him. “I’m Ali. I want to tell my story.”
When the bell rang, Jane and I raced out the door along with the kids. We headed back to the Black Bear Crossings Cafe. Jane let loose a long and weary sigh, as though she had been holding her breath all morning. “So what do you think?”
The question was so inadequate to the force of the morning. We started laughing and laughed until we couldn’t any more. In between gasps, I tried to explain.
“It was nice,” I said, and we laughed harder.
“Good,” I tried again. But it was neither of those. It was loud and chaotic. It was confusing and fascinating. It was intriguing and daunting and mysterious. I didn’t know what it was.
“They talk a lot,” I said.
“They talk all the time unless they are sleeping,” Jane agreed. “When are you coming back again?”
“Why would I come back?” I felt myself shrink at the thought. I am not the type to get involved.
“Teach them to write, obviously,” Jane’s voice bounced off the walls. “They like you—they listened. Ali said he wanted to tell his story.”
“I’d like to hear it.”
“How am I going to have time to help him with the other thirteen bouncing off the wall?”
I wondered the same thing. Ali had left a haunting impression, and Shumi, the sparkling girl from Oromia. Maybe I could get out of bed for this, an hour, once a week, or maybe twice.
“Can they write?”
Jane pulled papers from her bag. “Last week, I asked them to describe themselves.” She paused, reading the first paper to herself. “We might want a refill before we look at these.”
AUTHORS’ BIOS: Linda Kantner is a Honda Rebel–riding writer who gets her kicks riding too fast and living to tell the story. She will publish her memoir, As Told To Me, if there is any justice in the world. Jane Sevald, Saint Paul public school teacher, unprepared in September 2001 at forty-five to begin a career teaching English to teenage immigrants, will forever be grateful to Linda Kantner for giving her the courage to move away from the textbooks and embark on a journey of discovery with the students. Uncharted waters indeed!