Compassion, from the Latin com – passio, literally means: to suffer with. In J.C. Elkin’short poetry collection World Class: Poems Inspired by the ESL Classroom (Apprentice House, 2013) true compassion is lived out and brought to the reader as a fully enterable, empathetic experience.
World Class is a unique and moving account of the many stories, struggles, and triumphs of a group of ESL students and Elkin, their teacher. French and Arab, Hispanic and Korean, the varied origins, problems, and dreams of these students come to life in the ordered, measured rhythms of accentual verse. The evenness of the form is a wonderful counterpoint to the emotionally charged stories told within it. Elkin’s voice, too, is steadying: not dispassionate, but holding the pain and glories of the immigrant experience in two cupped hands, bearing witness. She shares their sorrows and their joys, teaches them as best she can, and also learns from them.
For many Americans, the ESL classroom is a foreign experience, an unknown quantity. This little book is a powerful introduction to the people who work, live, and learn alongside native English speakers, but remain separated, and are often made invisible, by the language barrier. It is highly recommended reading.
I’ll leave you with the opening poem of the collection, which sets the tone and pace for the book, and employs a particularly apt (and one of my favorite) metaphors:
My students arrive in dust storms of change.
Denims, saris, suits. All ages
from Persia’s Gulf to Ganges’ banks,
desert sands, Anes’ peaks,.
Blood red, rank, poor lands,
carrying seeds of rich loam,
through arid, rocky, barren years,
acclimating, blooming in time,
soaking up language’s Miracle Gro.
They till the words until the words
that prick their ears at last make sense
sprouting from their tongues in accents
lush as rustling crop leaves.
World Class is available on Amazon in print and Kindle editions.