About a year ago, Melissa and I met at a tutor-training session for the Nashville Adult Literacy Council. Our first exercise was to communicate as much as possible about ourselves to a partner in 2 minutes without either person saying or writing a word.
Melissa went first and started drawing pictures on a piece of paper and pointing to various tattoos on her body. After two minutes, the teacher asked me what I learned about her. I said she had a five- year- old daughter named Lucy.
Wrong. It turned out she had five dogs, and Lucy was a beloved, deceased German shepherd whose dog tag she had tattooed on her forearm. I had two rescue dogs at home that were a handful, and I couldn’t imagine what her life was like. We became fast friends and have remained so ever since.
Currently, I’m tutoring my second learner, a South-Korean young man we nicknamed “Lenny.” Lenny lives with his 2 younger brothers and parents, who run a successful dry cleaning business. He is quite the fashionisto, always decked out in some name-brand skinny jeans, expensive T- shirt and Nikes.
I’ve been meeting him twice a week for about 3 months, and he’s a challenge, to say the least. His English language skills are slowly improving, but his favorite expression is “I don’t like” to whatever topic I bring up. So far, I’ve discovered that his few interests in America, besides wearing stylish clothes, include Taylor Swift, Coca Cola, Marlboros and action movies. He’s obviously not thrilled with me, or his new life in Nashville, and although he’s always polite and cordial, he rarely smiles.
Sometimes, Melissa joins Lenny and I for a little conversation, and like me, she tries to get him to open up but has little success. I had learned early in our friendship that no topic is off limits to Melissa, and a while back the subject of Koreans enjoying the delicacy of young dogs came up.
“Is it true?” she asked. “Or is it just an urban legend, Lenny?”
“Yes, it’s true. I ate dog.” he answered. “But I don’t like.”
About a week after our dog-eating conversation, Melissa brought Meadow and 2 of the Magic 8 puppies to meet her own student Elena at a park across the street from the literacy school. Elena is a sweet Mexican woman who serves up platters of tacos, burritos and fajitas to hungry patrons at a hole-in-the wall joint on Charlotte Avenue that Melissa and I visit on occasion. Elena’s kids had wanted to see the puppies, and so they had gathered under a park pavilion for an English lesson, while the kids played with the dogs.
When I was leaving the Cohn School with Lenny, I called him to come over and chat with Melissa and Elena. He trudged across the grass with his head down, his Abercrombie and Fitch baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, wearing his trademark frown, trying not to get his white Nikes dirty.
It was crazy to watch, but within minutes, Meadow and the puppies worked their magical dog powers, and Lenny took off his hat, kneeled on the ground and high-fived Meadow with the biggest toothy grin I had ever seen on his face.
“They’re up for adoption, Lenny,” I kidded him about the puppies, then glanced at Melissa, knowing by the look on her face she was remembering the dog as entrée story. “But there is NO WAY you are getting one!” I added.
We all laughed, even Elena, who liked Lenny, but thought eating raw fish was bad enough, so she really didn’t understand eating canine. Even though Lenny’s English skills are shaky, I think he got it that we were busting him because he laughed as hard as the rest of us.
Watching Lenny laugh, I realized that with the magical help of dogs, my student just might have turned the corner. Maybe we had finally found something he did like.