i am a student from bangladesh.
Julia Smith circled the “i” and the “b” with her red-ink ballpoint pen, her purple glasses hanging over her nose. She was sitting in her office marking papers. This particular one had been written by Asma, a student from Bangladesh. The ESL students at the two-year college adored Julia. They called her Mrs. Smith and brought her presents–knickknacks from their home countries and delicacies in their cuisines that they wanted her to taste. Julia adored them back.
“My students are so sweet and respectful,” Julia said to her friends, “and from such interesting places, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Colombia, and El Salvador.” It seemed that each year she met a student from a new country. Julia Smith had traveled far and wide in her youth. When she and her husband Mark had first got married, young kids fresh out of college at UT, Austin, they had traveled through Southeast Asia and kept a blog. Beautiful places, the pretty beaches and gaudy palaces of Thailand and Ha Long Bay in Vietnam with its dreamy water sounds, but she had loved Laos best–its French colonial buildings, traversed by the Mekong River. That had been before Mark had landed a job with an oil company in Houston and they had returned to Texas, and Julia had continued with her master’s degree in English at the University of Houston.
Julia had always been interested in international cultures, so she felt that she was best suited to teach these students. She only wished that she could teach them to write better. They really struggled with their English. No matter how much grammar and sentence mechanics Julia taught them, no matter how many times she marked their mistakes with red ink, they didn’t improve much.
“Miss.” A young woman ducked her head at the office door.
Maria was an international student from Colombia, a shy, soft-spoken, young woman. It wasn’t Julia’s office hours, but the students rarely checked the syllabus. The faculty were always complaining about that, shaking their heads about how students never bothered to find out when a professor’s office hours were, or even remember their names.
“Miss. I can’t come to class today.” Maria’s throat trembled.
“Okay,” Julia said in the sweet, patient tone she reserved for her students. “Is everything all right?”
“Mrs. Smith. My brother is sick. My mother called and asked me to pick him up from school.”
“All right, Maria. I understand. But tell your mother that you have school too. Just because you’re a girl doesn’t mean your education is less important. You have to be in class too. Okay?”
Maria nodded shyly, said thank you, and left. Julia knew that Maria appreciated her harsh comments because the student had complained many times about how she had to be a mother to her younger siblings and cook and clean for her brothers. Julia’s students’ home lives often stood as an obstacle to their studies. The boys helped their fathers with construction work and the girls cooked, did household chores, and looked after younger siblings.
One young woman, Juanita, was always late to Julia’s morning class because she had to drop off her younger sister at school. Julia had marked Juanita tardy a few times. One day, Juanita had turned up to class sweating and panting, her face red with the signs of a panic attack, and collapsed in the middle of class. After that incident, Julia had given up on marking the student tardy, instead opting to make eye contact with her when she entered the room and smile kindly so that she would feel calmer.
Julia picked up the marked papers and headed to her next class, the one Maria would be missing.
“Hello, Mrs. Smith!”
Cheerful voices called out as Julia walked into the room, heels clicking, her tall frame encased in a long, fashionable skirt. She was fully made up for class–scarlet lipstick, thick mascara, her blonde hair brushed back neat and straight, a small terracotta mug in one hand holding a shot of espresso. She had learned early from graduate school friends in the English department when they had been teaching fellows, to dress up for class and to stand tall– a figure of calm in the face of storms.
“Hello, everyone! Najma, that is a beautiful headscarf! Juan, how are you feeling today? You were out sick?”
Julia walked up and down the rows, passing out the papers she had just graded.
“Now, don’t panic when you see your grade. Remember, you’re allowed to revise. I made comments showing you some of your errors, so you can edit. This is all about learning, remember? I’m teaching you how to write better.”
The students nodded meekly.
Jeremy, a curly-haired boy from Colombia who sat in the first row, glanced at all the red lines in his paper and groaned, clutching his head dramatically.
Julia laughed. “What’s wrong, Jeremy?”
“Professor! I don’t like the color red.”
“Look past the color, Jeremy. Look at what I wrote.” Julia returned to her desk at the front of the room. “All right, we’re going to spend some minutes going over the most common errors I noticed. Okay?”
The students nodded again.
Julia took a red marker from her leather pouch and began to write on the white board.
“You are wonderful people,” she began. “But when I look at your papers, I see all the comma splices and dangling modifiers and run-on sentences. And that’s what another reader will see, too. Someone would have to get past all those errors to be able to read your thoughts. Now we don’t want that, do we? We want to create a good impression, don’t we?” She spoke gently, slowly, enunciating every word.
On days Julia had to grade a stack of twenty papers from each of her sections– she taught five sections–she was just overwhelmed by the grammar and spelling errors.
“I need twenty coffees to get through twenty papers,” she had joked with her colleague Aimee when she had been grading in her office an hour ago.
“I need to get up and exercise every ten minutes,” Aimee had confided, which was what she was doing at that moment, which was why she had dropped in to see Julia. Aimee flicked her blonde hair her back from her eyes and swigged coffee from her giant mug. “Do you know what a student said to me the other day? I told her that she needed to go to the library to do research, and she said she didn’t know where the li-berry was. Can you believe it? My mouth fell open. Not only did she not know where the library was, but she didn’t even know the word for library!” Aimee had raised her eyes to heaven and opened her mouth wide.
“The students are sweet,” Julia had said carefully, keeping her voice even. “I only wish they were better prepared. You know, I think of my students’ hesitant writing as an extension of their shyness in life. Their eyes grow big when they try to understand all the things they encounter in America, like the automatic toilet flush or the hand air drier in the women’s bathroom. I’m always patient with them. We have to give them time.”
“All right,” Julia said now in class, putting down the marker on the teacher’s desk. “I want you to go through your papers carefully and see if you understand my comments. If there is a word you don’t understand, ask me what it means.”
“Miss, you look lovely today. I love your hair.” This from Asma, the Bangladeshi student with the capitalization problem. She was a lovely young woman herself, with dark, cascading hair that reached her hips.
“Yes,” several other women murmured. “You look lovely, Professor.”
“Your face is so smooth. What kind of cream do you use?” Asma asked.
Their minds had a way of wandering off like that. Julia didn’t blame them–they’d been raised in homes where their family members turned on the television when they tried to do homework.
“I’ll tell you all my skincare secrets at the end of class,” Julia promised the girls. “But now, I want you to spend about twenty minutes reading through my comments and making notes about what edits you’ll make in your paper.”
The class went on. The students worked quietly at their desks, poring over their own writing in the papers that Julia had just handed back to them. The hum of the computer console on the lectern filled the air. As she waited for the students to finish, Julia read a New York Times article on ancient eastern cultures on the computer and planned what to cook for her husband for dinner. At one time, fresh out of graduate school, Julia had wanted to be a tenured professor, write books, and say intelligent things, but life had happened. Because of her husband Mark’s work in Houston, good income that brought in the money and turned on the lights in their home, she hadn’t applied to jobs outside of Houston. She had started to look for jobs like this instead, at local two-year colleges, teaching students from low-income backgrounds, international students, and first generation students with parents who often spoke little to no English.
Julia smiled at Asma standing at her desk. Conscious about fashion, the pretty, petite young woman wore a flowery purple shirt, loose and long (for modesty, Julia suspected) over matching purple pants and high-heeled sandals. The class had ended, and the other students had filed out, calling out “Bye, Mrs. Smith” in cheerful voices.
“You want the info on my skincare, don’t you?” Julia teased the pretty girl.
“Mrs. Smith, your skin is beautiful. What do you use?” Asma smiled shyly.
“Makeup. Lots and lots of powder and foundation.”
“Oh.” Asma’s face shrank.
The students often didn’t understand humor, or teasing. Communication was a problem–always a moment’s lag.
“I use aloe vera,” Julia said kindly.
“Oh!” Asma opened her eyes wide. “How do you use it, Mrs. Smith?”
“I just peel off a bit and rub it on my face.”
“You look so young, Miss.” Asma touched her hands to her own face. She was a little awkward, enormously pretty, with a frank, earnest face.
“Thank you.” The forty-year-old Julia blushed.
“Miss, I have something to tell you.” Asma hesitated, rocking awkwardly on her feet, large, white eyes regarding Julia out of a dusky, triangular face. She put her fingers up to her hair, tucking in her thick, dark tresses behind her ears.
“What is it, Asma?” Julia asked kindly, packing up her markers in a pouch she carried to class.
“Miss!” Asma’s face twisted. Her eyes filled with tears.
“Oh, what’s wrong?” Julia stopped packing. “What is it?” she asked again, in a gentle voice.
“Miss, my parents got picked up by the police. They…they…” Asma began to sob, her shoulders trembling.
Julia handed Asma a ply of baby-pink tissue paper. She carried a box of tissues for just these occasions.
“Miss, my parents don’t have documents. They came to the US with me on a visit visa from Bangladesh, years ago, when I was only ten years old. Then they just stayed back.”
Julia remembered reading something about it in Asma’s essay that she had just been grading. my father works very hard for my family. he works 3 jobs. he loves us very much. At the time, she’d just been busy marking all the lower-case letters that should have been capitalized. It was difficult to read for content sometimes, to derive any meaning out of these sentences, really. Julia worried about what would happen to these students. How they would ever get out of working-class jobs into middle-class professions, even with all the classes to improve their English language skills? Sometimes, she thought it was too late.
“Isn’t there anyone else to take care of you? You have no other guardian in the US?” Julia asked.
“Our uncle said he’s…going to look after us,” Asma managed through sobs. “Me and my two younger sisters.”
“Well, that’s good…”
“But he’s not in Houston, Miss. My uncle lives in Dallas. So I have to look after my younger sisters. I am their guardian now. They’re only eight and ten, Miss!”
“I’m so sorry,” Julia said, putting her hand over her chest in a gesture of compassion.
“Give me your contact information. I’m going to make a few calls to get you in touch with campus resources. And keep me posted, okay?”
Julia took the student’s information, jotting down the numbers expertly, already making a mental note about the people she would notify, the funds and counselors she could tap into. This wasn’t the first time a student had come to Julia, confiding about being kicked out of home, living in a shelter, or losing a family member. Julia and Aimee had talked before about the unimaginable plight in the students’ lives, the massive gap between their realities and the expectations of school, and the tenuous line that still held them in place. Julia was glad that she could offer them some help.
Mark had cooked crusted salmon and stirred up a big kale and spinach salad. Julia ate dinner silently (they were sitting in the garden, on their new deck). Mark asked her what was wrong, and she told him.
“It’s not your problem, though, babe,” Mark soothed her, his big face ruddy from the heat and the wine, his neck pooled with sweat. “You do enough. You’re an awesome teacher.”
“Oh, come on!” Julia blushed.
“No, really. You’re my favorite teacher of all time. I wish I had you as my teacher in college. Then I would have marr–”
“Stop it. Stop it,” Julia shrieked, stabbing the air at him with her fork. “You’re a great husband, you know that?”
Mark was right that she couldn’t worry about everybody and that she couldn’t fix every problem in the world. He had given her this life, this massive house in the recently gentrified historic First Ward, with the industrial sink and double-height ceiling, and money to hire landscapers, gardeners, and housekeepers, time to go to nail salons and hang out at coffee houses with friends. Ironically, though, Julia told her friends, it was her lowly job that gave meaning and angularity to her life, by exposing her to these young people with hard lives and gentle hearts.
“I do this great thing with my students,” Julia had told her friends once, sitting at a coffeehouse. “I have them journal. It’s a powerful tool for writing practice and English proficiency. But it’s more than that. When I read these little confessionals, they do something for me,” Julia had said, placing a hand on her heart.
In their journals, the students told Julia about their lives. They told her about crossing the border, about coyotes, about police stops and construction jobs and neighborhood gangs. One of her students Juan had cut off three of his fingers when he had put his hand in the wrong place while fixing a lawnmower. He had been lucky enough to have them stitched back on. Edwin stood on stilts to paint houses, with his father, his uncle, and his cousins, a family business. Maria’s father had left her mother, and since then her mother had been depressed and angry. Her students told her everything. They brought all their problems to her, entrusting her with their care.
On her part, Julia spoke protectively about her students, addressing them as my students, thinking of them, really, as her children (although a few of them were in their thirties). She did everything in her power to shield them, offer them comfort, and help them find their way through the American system, filling in where their families (out of a lack of education, money, or knowledge) had failed them. Unfortunately, because of these family situations, her students often did not complete the course. They dropped out in the middle of the semester, driven out of home by a stepmom or an abusive boyfriend, or because their kids and their jobs and cooking for their husbands were much more important than learning English.
The next day, a Tuesday, Julia wondered about Asma. Asma was in her Monday-Wednesday section, but often on Tuesdays, Julia would pass Asma in the hallway heading to her other classes. She didn’t see Asma that day. After her first class, Julia returned to her office, determined to finish grading the next batch of papers. She read an essay by a student describing what it was like to work as a waitress, getting ill-treated by male customers, and another one about Hispanic Christmas traditions. Then she rubbed her sore fingers, stood up for a moment to stretch, and sat down again, reaching for the next essay, by a beautiful young woman named Georgia. Georgia had big, dark eyes and a wide mouth, voluptuous brown hair that curled over her back. She dressed to compliment her figure, in crop tops and low-waist pants with slim legs. In contrast to her elaborate dress, Georgia’s face was fresh, without a trace of makeup, innocent as a young child’s. Georgia liked to joke in class and Julia had to tell her to stop whispering and to stop looking at her cellphone several times during a lesson. Thinking of the mischievous Georgia now, Julia’s lips curled in a smile as she lifted the paper out of the pile.
I am a table dancer by night I am so ashamed this is what I have to do to support my family I have two sons I am a single mother.
For a moment, Julia’s eyes blurred. She sat transfixed, thinking about the words she had just read.
“Julia, do you want the last of this coffee?” the staff assistant Ginny called.
Julia stood up with her terracotta cup and moved to the suite kitchen.
“There you go. I wanted to tell you before Aimee grabbed it,” Ginny said.
“Ooh, thanks. I needed it.”
Julia gulped down the delicious, acidic liquid, then walked back to her office, to the paper that awaited her teaching, and the twenty more that she hadn’t even looked at yet. Sighing, Julia picked up her red pen. “This is a powerful story, Georgia. But you need to work on your sentences. Run on sentences. Use periods! Short sentences. Can you think of combining these to form more complex sentences?”
“Ginny!” Julia called, emerging out of her office again. “I just remembered!” Standing tall on stiletto heels, a ruffled, frilly olive blouse she had just bought, and slim, tapered dress pants.
“Can you put a few calls through for me? To the emergency fund and to the…?”
On Wednesday, Asma didn’t show up in class. Julia wrote her a short email. Hope everything is okay. She wondered what was going on with the student. Would Asma be allowed to stay in the country? Would her siblings be okay?
During the weekend, Julia and Mark went for a bike ride along the bayou. They had never had children. Neither of them had wanted any. They liked the same things–bike rides, hikes through state parks, and reading books. Julia was always reading, alternating between the classics and new books that came out, never missing anything on the New York Times bestseller list. In her guilty moments, she confided to Mark that such writing appeared exquisite to her after an arduous day of checking papers without periods or commas.
On Monday, Asma was in class again. She sat at the back, her head bowed, her long hair covering her face, not talking. Julia’s class involved a lot of participation. She asked questions, had students participate in plays to practice their English, and arranged debates between opposing teams. But she let Asma off the hook for the day.
At the end of class, Asma appeared at Julia’s desk again.
“Asma,” Julia said, in a rush to tell her the news. “I have some good news! I spoke to the international students’ office, and the emergency fund, all the resources we have on campus. It seems that they’ll be able to give you a hundred dollars…you just have to fill out some paperwork.”
Asma stared at her, the whites of her eyes milky with confusion.
“Will that help?” Julia asked. She smiled sweetly, her lips curling at the ends. “Just a little?” She waited for the words of gratitude to fall from the student’s surprised mouth.
“My parents will be deported, Miss,” Asma said quietly. “My uncle is taking us away to Dallas so he can look after us. I have to quit school, Miss.” She spoke flatly, with no trace of tears or sobs this time.
Julia’s face crushed. She held her palms to her cheeks, crying, “Oh, no! Asma! Are you serious?”
Asma nodded. Julia moved forward to put her arms around the girl’s thin shoulders and hold her tight, the insubstantial body like smoke that would dissipate in the air. Asma pushed her away.
“Asma, are you all right?”
“You don’t see, do you?” Asma cried. In her eyes, there was a mixture of revulsion and anger. Her face was hard, the admiration and sweetness gone out of it.
“See what?” Julia asked, making her eyes big.
“You don’t see anything!” Asma shrieked again.
“Asma, I’m hurt. I’ve tried to help you…”
Asma shook her head, her lips curled. She walked out of the classroom, exiting through the open door for the last time.
At home that night, Julia was too distressed to do any housework. Mark cooked dinner again– a pasta and arugula salad with pink radishes.
“Babe, forget about it,” Mark said, putting a hand up to wipe the crease from her eyebrows.
“I’m trying,” she said.
“Her parents are illegal. What did she expect?
“Mark!” Julia cried.
“You look so disturbed, darling. I hate to see you this way. They’re getting to you, these students. You should quit this job.”
“Mark, please,” Julia said, putting a hand over her eyes. “I don’t want to quit.”
Mark had said to her many times that she could retire early, since he earned enough.
She had explained to him that as hard as the work was, she didn’t work for the money. She labored out of love. Her students looked up to her and expected her to protect them.
“All right, truce,” Mark said, engulfing her in his big, strong arms–what she admired about him–and kissing her on the forehead.
After dinner, they sat together on their couch, Mark with a popular economics book and Julia with her last stack of papers to grade. She had learned a great deal about Houston in the ten years she had lived in the city, about neighborhoods and lives she would have known nothing about if not for her students–the railway line in Historic Fifth Ward and chickens that wandered the roads in Aldine, fufu and khichuri and other foods, and family farms in Mexico and El Salvador.
“Got more papers there?” Mark said kindly.
“Yup,” she said.
“Need a glass of wine with that?” Mark asked, gesturing at the stack.
They both laughed, kind to each other through a decade of their marriage, no matter their differences. Mark walked to the kitchen.
Julia marveled at how quiet and decent their lives were compared to the lives of her students. Remembering that cold, hard look on Asma’s face, she shuddered slightly. She shook her head to clear it. Then she picked up the batch of stapled essays. She had to get through them, no matter what. She started reading the first essay, then stopped, looking around on the couch for her red pen. Then, laboriously, she started marking the verb tense errors and missing apostrophes, the proper noun that hadn’t been capitalized, and the spelling mistakes, all the things that stared at her out of the page, clouding the words around, so that she could see nothing but errors. Red lines everywhere.
Gemini Wahhaj has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Houston. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, Zone 3, Cimarron Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, Chattahoochee Review, Apogee, Silk Road, Night Train, Cleaver, Northwest Review, and Concho River Review, among others, and is forthcoming in Arkansas Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Change Seven, Valley Voices, Superpresent, The Raven’s Perch, and Hypertext Magazine. Awards include the James A. Michener award for fiction at the creative writing program of the University of Houston (awarded by Inprint), honorable mention in Atlantic student writer contest 2006, honorable mention in Glimmer Train fiction contest Spring 2005, and the prize for best undergraduate fiction at the University of Pennsylvania, judged by Philip Roth. Zone 3 Literary Awards winner in 2021. An excerpt of her Young Adult manuscript The Girl Next Door was published in Exotic Gothic Volume 5 featuring Joyce Carol Oates. She was senior editor at Feminist Economics and a staff writer at The Daily Star in Bangladesh. She teaches English at the Lone Star College in Houston and is the editor of the magazine Cat 5 Review.
Image By: Nic McPhee via Pixabay