Lakia always sat in the back of my class. Not in the back row, even, but in one of the few chairs that ended up against the back wall. Her writing started out decent and gradually improved to good. She never volunteered to speak in class. Her features were strong and beautiful, and she wore her African-American pride with a stoic silence that made me uncomfortable. Whenever our eyes met I felt hopelessly white, hopelessly distant from her. We never spoke a sentence beyond questions and directions.
Megumi moved to the United States from Japan. She wrote to me the first week that her difficulties with English, compounded with her shyness, made it difficult for her to speak up in group conversations in her dorm. The other women, she felt, thought that she was dumb and mousy. “I have so much to contribute,” she wrote, “But the words don’t come to me, and it hurts.”
Julia moved to San Francisco from Soviet Russia during high school. Outspoken and a little demanding, she does three extra drafts of each essay, struggling to eliminate the awkwardness that writing in a second language usually brings.
Tony sits near the back of my class, writing essays that are barely coherent, struggling to translate his thoughts from his native Vietnamese. He keeps his head down.
Takashi speaks up in class, and the four African-American women look at him with harsh eyes, proving what they and Japanese students have written to me: there is a strong animosity between the ethnic groups. I think I’m the only one in class who knows that under Takashi’s harsh accent and dramatic flare-ups lies one of the most intelligent minds I’ve ever encountered. He likes to write about his mother, a Chinese-American who found herself supporting her Japanese husband and their children in a nation that did not appreciate assertive women. “I want to meet your mother,” I said to him once. “She is a remarkable woman,” he told me in his halting English.
Tony wrote to me about his voyage on the boat escaping Vietnam, accompanied by his parents and younger brother and sister. His mother’s milk dried up, and they watched his baby sister get weaker and weaker, until one day they threw her into the sea. He watched her disappear, and then watched his brother fade until he was also thrown over. A week later they reached shore, and his new life as an only child began.
Julia wrote an essay about the day the principal of her school in Russia called her into the office and gave her a drink of alcohol before he told her that her parents were dead, that she and her brother were alone in the world. “My childhood ended that day,” she wrote. She and her brother then made their way to the United States.
Megumi wrote to me that American ways are still so strange to her that it’s hard to function. “Teachers want to be our friends, and for us to call them by their first names. In Japan we are not even supposed to answer them.” She still cannot look into my eyes.
In my post office box I find a pink envelope with Lakia’s name on the return address. I think immediately that she must need a letter of recommendation. But to my surprise it is simply a note thanking me for what I taught her, telling me she is doing well in all her classes. I think back to her face, which I remember vividly, and I do not once remember her smiling. I realize that she never shared any of her stories with me.