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English-Language Learners Team Up with Elders to Tell Stories 

Adam Matala and Mary Woodward - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Adam Matala and Mary Woodward

At first glance, Sheila Carpenter and Alexis Wea Mbengue wouldn’t appear to have a lot in common. Carpenter, a white-haired 71-year-old from Rutland, used to work as a dishwasher and hasn’t traveled much outside Vermont. Mbengue, 32, was born almost 6000 miles away in Douala, Cameroon. After earning a bachelor’s degree in law and working for his family’s business, Mbengue moved to Vermont via Brooklyn and Wisconsin. But the two do share at least one important trait.

“We both have hearing problems,” Mbengue explains of his bond with Carpenter, a resident at Green Mountain Nursing Home in Colchester.

Carpenter’s hearing declined early in life, and she now wears an aid. As for Mbengue, about 10 years ago he came down with a severe cold and had to blow his nose frequently. One of those times, he felt a sharp pain in his right ear. He had ruptured an eardrum. Doctors in Cameroon weren’t able to restore Mbengue’s hearing, so he set out for the U.S. with two goals: to secure a good hearing aid and to attend an American college.

While he prepares to tackle the latter, Mbengue has been studying English. He met his girlfriend while getting his certificate of nursing assistance in Madison, Wisc. When she accepted a biology research assistant position at the University of Vermont last year, the two moved to Colchester with their 14-month-old daughter; now Mbengue works in a Shelburne nursing home.

This fall, Mbengue was enrolled in the advanced English class at Vermont Adult Learning, a nonprofit organization that provides free classes in a range of subject areas. Many of the center’s language students come from the state’s immigrant and refugee populations. For a final project, Mbengue’s instructor, Louis Giancola, had the students produce a book of stories about the lives of residents at Green Mountain Nursing Home.

Both VAL’s language classrooms — which occupy a building owned and made available by Saint Michael’s College — and the senior facility sit on the sprawling grounds of Fort Ethan Allen. On the morning Mbengue first trekked over to meet Carpenter, the older woman was reserved. Eventually, though, she opened up about her family. Her husband passed away from cancer, she revealed. She has five grown children and now enjoys painting and watching films.

For Mbengue, interviewing Carpenter has been a confidence booster. With his Cameroonian accent, he says, it can be difficult to make himself understood, especially by older Americans. Nevertheless, he and Carpenter were able to communicate.

The VAL project was more than just a language exercise, explains Giancola. Although the instructor had been mulling over the idea for a while, he was able to implement it only this fall, when a mini-grant from the Vermont Agency of Education allowed him to purchase a set of audio recorders. Over three November mornings, his students went to the nursing home to chat with residents in a well-lit activity room.

“Many of the students ask me, ‘How can I practice speaking English with native speakers?’ and I also know that many people, as they get older, don’t speak to people as much,” explains Giancola. “My goal was to bring the two communities together, so I thought, Why not have them establish a relationship with the seniors, and have them get to know them and write their life story? It’s integrating all their skills and also being of service to others.”

The students come from various African, Asian and European countries. While some moved to Vermont to be with family members, others came for educational purposes.

Many of the interviews were conducted like Mbengue and Carpenter’s: The students brandished their audio recorders like journalists and bent down to engage the residents, many in wheelchairs.

Like Mbengue, Adam Matala, a 40-year-old native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was paired with a widow for his project. Mary Woodward, a soft-spoken woman, has spent most of her life in northern Vermont, though she migrated to Florida several times. Many years of her life were devoted to raising eight children, she told her rookie biographer. She never left the country, let alone went anywhere near the DRC.

Before he boarded a plane to the U.S. with his children one year ago, Matala had never needed to use English. His wife, a refugee, had left two years earlier, seeking asylum in Vermont because of her secretarial work with the country’s opposition party. On the journey to reunite with her, Matala says, he would have missed a connecting flight if he hadn’t lucked out by finding someone who could direct him to the terminal in French.

“There’s many things you can’t do if you can’t hear English,” says Matala, who worked as a lawyer in the DRC. “People are speaking and you can’t understand them, and sometimes you look like a crazy man! You want to ask them something, and you can’t.”

As the elders and English-language learners swapped stories, passing residents peered in at their exchanges. According to the nursing home’s activities director, Diane McDowell, who helped with the project, the building is a gold mine of tales. One former resident, who has passed away, used to work for Elvis Presley, she says. Others spoke of a ghost named Trenchy who wanders around the nursing home and is thought to be a doctor who worked in the building when it was an army hospital.

In such a storied setting, the students proved themselves able reporters. Born in Boston but raised in Spain and Morocco, native Arabic and Spanish speaker Adam Marshall Hantout learned that Lydia Elizabeth Loiselle had been the first woman to fly an airplane out of Buffalo, N.Y. Another DRC emigré, Daniel Bitodi, wants to attend an American university but now holds a quality-control job at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. He discovered that Green Mountain resident Winona Mitchell has a dog named Jack and a cat named Mitch. (It was particularly amusing to Bitodi to realize that Americans consider their pets part of the family.)

Such were the tidbits that made it into the class’ book, Senior Stories From the Green Mountain Nursing Home. Just 20 pages long and held together with plastic binding, it’s no Moby-Dick. But the book does contain the bios of each person involved in the project, along with photos and a touching forward by Giancola.

The son of an Italian immigrant and formerly a high school French teacher, Giancola started working at VAL 20 years ago, after getting a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language at St. Mike’s. The project was inspired by trips he took to see his mother in a Rutland nursing home, he says.

Just as important as the final product was the ceremony at which the students presented their book to the residents. In early December, all of them gathered as usual in the nursing home’s activity center. This time there were coffee and cookies, however, and a projector screen flashed images from the project. Barbra Streisand crooned through the room’s sound system.

Before presenting the books, each student said a few words. Jeehye Park, who came to the U.S. a year ago for her husband’s job with IBM, led the charge. She’d enrolled in the class to better express herself in English, she said. She talked about how the resident she’d interviewed, Lena Bizzozero, is a kind woman who likes to go shopping with her niece.

Bizzozero, a former acrobat from Barre and easily the most outgoing resident in the room, demanded that Park come shake her hand at the end of the presentation. “We’re glad to have you!” she declared jovially.

Soon Matala spoke his part. “I was a lawyer in my home country, and I used to speak before many people. But this is the first time I’m speaking English before many people,” he explained to his 20 or so listeners.

“It was a good interview because I learned something about Mary,” Matala continued, “and she learned something about me.”

The original print version of this article was headlined "Speaking in Tongues"

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Charles Eichacker

Charles Eichacker

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Charles Eichacker was a staff writer for Seven Days.

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