Before sunrise. A major Southern city. It’s your all-American sports bar, a room mostly made of wood and stink.
There is the obligatory Budweiser sign above the lopsided pool table. The crooked dartboard. There is the classic tavern bathroom, a lavatory so unspeakably funk-ridden that if you sat on the toilet you would drop dead from gangrene.
Every morning, while most of America is still asleep, 18 immigrants convene in this empty saloon before work. They are sipping coffee, waiting for Teacher.
Seated in these chairs are non-English-speaking Eastern Europeans, Filipinas, Vietnamese, South Americans, Mexicans, and West Africans. These people have almost nothing in common, except that they are free.
Which is a big deal, because these are former victims of human trafficking.
The teacher arrives. Anna is her name. She is 56 years old and she is also a trafficking survivor. Currently Anna is a hotel maid supervisor, but she is working on her college degree.
“I teach these people English,” says Anna. “But it’s pretty hard because I do not know many languages. I only speak Spanish, English, Russian, Cezch, a little French, and some Italian.”
A regular underachiever.
Anna has taught, she estimates, 600 people to speak English over the years. Many of whom were victims of trafficking.
Anna’s story is a long one. But then, everyone in this bar has a long story. And they aren’t my stories to tell.
What I will say, however, is this: Human trafficking is a much bigger issue than I thought. The International Labor Organization estimates that 24.9 million people are slaves. One person out of every 100 will be rescued.
I don’t mean to depress you. What I’m simply saying is that the issue of human trafficking takes up about 0.0000005 percent of my American brain. And that makes me feel a little ashamed.
Anna breezes into the pub. She sets up her iPad and goes through a few common English words. I am watching via webcam.
Her students are mostly young people, dressed in trendy clothes. Throughout class the students are constantly waving at me. And I am consistently waving back like an idiot.
Anna’s first assignment is a writing prompt. While students are busy writing, I watch Anna visit personally with each student.
“I want relationships with them,” she tells me. “If they need money, food, a friend, a place to stay, I will help them.”
She converses with a West African woman whose English is almost non-existent. The African woman was a victim of sex trafficking. Her face is disfigured from a violent injury, and she does not let people touch her. Although she allows Anna to hug her. Anna must have hugged her 50 times throughout the class period.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” says Anna.
Then Anna moves on to the Mexican young women. The girls giggle at everything Anna says, which makes everyone else in the bar giggle, because they are adorable.
She then approaches the Eastern European young people. She is perfectly at home language-wise with them because she speaks Whatever-Slavic-Language-I’m-Hearing fluently.
The writing assignment is finished. Now the class takes turns reading their work aloud. At times, it’s comical, and equally endearing to hear students mispronounce words.
Next, the class works on basic English phrases like:
“What’s up with you?” “I really appreciate it.” “Pretty good, how ‘bout you?” “It’s chilly today.” “I cannot afford that.” “Wow, he is a hottie.” “You bet.” “Would you be my Valentine?”
At one point during our video call, she passes the camera from student to student so I can see their faces as they practice common phrases.
These people are all electric with joy, waving at the camera as my video face passes by them.
I watch one Russian girl put her whole heart into saying, “Wow, what a hottie.”
The girl makes it clear that she doesn’t mean me.
One burly Eastern European young man who looks like he could bench press a Buick looks into the camera at me and says with complete, unwavering sincerity, “Will you be my Valentine?”
“He has no idea what he’s saying,” Anna clarifies.
You and I take English for granted. We grew up speaking this tongue. We read it, write it, we use complicated expletives during moments of road rage. But to these people, such simple Dick-and-Jane sentences are the key to a new chapter in their lives.
“You can go to Italy,” says Anna, “and it doesn’t make you Italian. You can go to France, and it won’t make you French. But you can come to America, and you can become an American.”
When they finish class, Anna leads her students in a familiar recitation, a piece they have been memorizing for weeks now. Together, they recite it cheerfully, and I can’t help but think about all they’ve gone through.
“The Lord is my shepherd,” they all say in unison, “I shall not want, he maketh me lie down in green pastures…”
My cup did runneth all over the place.