There’s a lot to learn inside the New York Public Library after it closes. In a small room tucked in the left-hand corner of the behemoth in Bryant Park, fifty people — mostly immigrants from the Middle East, East Asia and Eastern Europe — gather to practice their English.
For an hour, we talk about Mother’s Day or favorite places to travel as a way for participants to grow comfortable with sentence structure, idioms and conversation flow. Some people are very conversant; others seem nervous to try. These are free classes for adults that the library offers at more than 40 locations throughout Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island.
It’s clear how non-native English speakers can benefit from classes like these. Many are new to America, just two or three months into living in the country’s largest city. This small classroom centers that experience and offers a ready-set community full of others who are facing similar hurdles to assimilation.
I thought I knew exactly how I would benefit from the class as well. One incentive my employer offers is a match of dollars for my volunteer hours. That is if I accrue enough volunteer hours, the company then donates thousands of dollars in my name to a charity of my choice. This past Thursday, I was at hour 46. Four more to go to meet my goal of 50 volunteer hours for the year. I was figured this class at the library would be a lowkey, nice wind down from a long day of running from here to there, moderating this panel and interviewing that executive.
When I walked in on that Thursday evening the designated topic was travel. I asked the participants what their cities were to explore, had they ever gone hitchhiking and has an airline ever lost their luggage? The conversation flowed seamlessly. I had people from Afghanistan, Mexico, Japan and Turkey in my cohort. One couple said their favorite place to be was Cancun because it was laid back, sunny and the beach was beautiful. Another person said Ontario was ideal. It was very similar to New York, but in a friendlier Canadian way.
As we weaved in and out of stories about our favorite cities, people shared traveling advice. One man from Japan was about to embark on a two-week European excursion that included London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Barcelona and Madrid. Comparisons of European cities to New York were frequent. And I even got a recommendation for an authentic Mexican food restaurant.
New York Public Library has more than 40 locations for their English conversation classes | May 10, 2018
It was important to me to be able to sit back and have a free-wheeling conversation with people from all walks of life. This past week, I was so consumed by the stories of migrant children separated from their parents at the U.S. border because of a Trump administration policy. There was also the decision by the Supreme Court to uphold President Donald Trump’s travel ban on several majority Muslim countries.
Now I was sitting next to and across from some of the immigrants who will be impacted by these government policies. But for just a moment we were able to talk about the freedom of movement between countries. There was levity in being able to go places because there was a simple desire and no fear.
As a business reporter in New York , I spend most of my working hours talking to executives, public relations professionals and entrepreneurs. That’s just a slice of what this city is made of. I live in one of the most diverse cities in the world where many languages are being spoken in the elevators I ride in, sidewalks I trek on or subways I squeeze into.
At this class in the public library, I interact with another part of New York. For example, Reshad moved from Kabul six months ago. He’s trained as an electrical engineer and plans on attending a master’s program at a school in the city. When he first moved to the Big Apple he said he was shocked by how disengaged people were with one another. Every New Yorker walked around with their headphones in, signaling to people not to bother them. No one ever said “excuse me” to him when they pushed past him on the street if he was walking too slow or didn’t exactly know where he was head.
Reshad said when he first moved he couldn’t figure out the right subway train to board — a common problem for recent transplants. He said he wasn’t sure if he needed a train that was heading uptown or downtown. Did he need to cross over to the other platform or was it that he needed to be in a whole different train station entirely? Afraid to ask someone for help and also certain he wouldn’t get anyone if he did, Reshad stayed on a train heading the wrong direction for an hour.
I also felt this isolating feeling when I first moved to New York in May 2016. Everyone already seemed to be in their groove and knew what they were doing. I was never walking fast enough, knew the right places to eat and could never quite pull off the laid back cute New York fit. I also live alone, so some days when I leave work in the evening and head to the gym the next morning, I might not make an audible sound.
Now imagine it’s compounded by the fact that this is your first impression of America. Not easy, right?
That’s why this small room inside the New York Public Library in Bryant Park is so important. It’s a blossoming community where anyone can join and find his or her tribe. Someone in the room might have your same accent or a similar story of how he or she decided to come to the U.S.
Life in New York is rough, but for this one hour you’re invited into a room that’s meant just for you. We’re all in search of environments like that wherever we live. One way to start creating them is by becoming the people we’d like to interact with. Walk down the street without your earbuds in for once. If someone is looking at Google Maps on their phone with a bewildered expression, stop and ask if they need direction. When you need to race ahead of someone — and let’s be real, there will be times when you do — at least look someone in the eye and say “Excuse me.” It can make all the difference for someone’s whose environment is completely different than what she’s used to. We can make the an impact.
The world doesn’t really have to be as bad as they claim it to be.