The Not-So-Simple Past

Sharing memory in the ESL classroom

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I teach English as a second language and US citizenship prep classes to retail employees. Before the pandemic, I travel to workplaces across Oregon while teaching additional community classes. I write this in the simple present tense to indicate actions that happen regularly, that are bound up in the fabric of my life. But like so many complex stories, this one defies a consistent verb tense. In grammar, the present is enduring, eternal; yet in real life it is elusive, forever slipping just beyond our grasp. 

The pandemic shuttered classes at all of my teaching sites. To use the past continuous tense, I was teaching when the pandemic started, and then I was not. But to my relief, after a year away I was summoned back to the strange, sometimes stressful, yet rewarding job I had come to love. This is the past perfect tense, which allows us to wade further into the depths of our past experience, mining what one of my writing mentors calls “temporal layers.”  

By the time I returned, the world and my job had both changed. Small, private, socially distanced workplace classes, where we could easily cap attendance, were now preferred. Community classes moved online, and attendance was capped there as well. As a result, I could sit with the same students for months, so long as they wanted to attend.


In English class, we use the details of our experiences to explore language’s mysteries, which are bound up, inexorably, with the mysteries of life. The past stretches behind us, a terrain as vast and varied as the lands we come from. We plumb its depths to see what we might find. We share our memories until our pasts feel like they overlap. I offer these memories in the simple present tense in order to convey not only a sense of immediacy but to show that they are part of stories that are still unfolding. 

I remember Saif, an elderly Pakistani man. A polyglot who’s eager to learn English, he struggles to tackle it not only because of its difficulty but because of his hearing loss. His name is Saifwallah, and though he goes by Saif, for short, even this has proved difficult for his American coworkers. Instead he uses Khan, his last name, which he tells me he shares with the Pakistani president. For months he seems an austere man, but eventually I discover this is only the face he wears to class.

I shadow him at work where he sorts and prices incoming donations for a thrift store and am struck by his easygoing nature, his sudden bursts of laughter. The buttons on his computer screen are in English, but five years into the job, the language is an afterthought. He knows the buttons by heart. At this point I’ve known him for a year, and yet I haven’t known him at all. I know he’s held many jobs in a handful of countries, in trades far more specialized than his current work. This is common to the immigrant story, leaving a profession as well as a country. I have taught civil engineers, accountants, plumbers, IT technicians, and professors, all whose professional credentials go unrecognized in the American workplace. Most have had to start at the bottom of the economy, and many remain there.

I remember the Ukrainian students, who flee their homes years before war begins. Their English often borders on fluent, so I help them polish it in the hope they might transition into professional careers. And they do, moving beyond retail stores toward other jobs or university programs. By the time their home country is invaded, I’ve lost touch with them and can only hope they and their families are well. 


Conversation practice is vital and not easy to facilitate without simple, relatable subjects to talk about. It’s tempting to fall back on talking about a person’s life. But the mundanity of daily routines and weekend activities are safer subjects compared to the vast unknown that is the past. I lived in Ukraine. The simple past tense. I tell my students this means the action is complete, but the past is not so easily corralled. Even in the context of the same lesson, I undermine the notion, exhorting them to use the simple present tense when talking about where they are from. I stress that we are always from our home countries. The distance of years is unimportant. Our place of origin binds us to identities that are fixed in the present. But this leaves so little space for the pesky nuances of real lives. 

As they share their stories, I encourage the students’ use of the present perfect tense, that vital distinction imparted by the have before the past tense verb. To say “I have lived in the United States for X number of years” is to make a claim not only about the past but the still fluid present. Their residency, and in many cases their citizenship, continues today and into tomorrow. This is supposedly distinct from the dead and no longer fluid memories of the simple past. To say “I lived in Mexico” is to account for an era of one’s life that is over. But of course this isn’t the case. The past may not be fluid, but memories are; in them, the past still lives and breathes. And grammar terminology notwithstanding, it is never simple.  

The students make their own distinctions, assert their own identities and knit them together from the loose strands of a language that eludes them. When I ask them to tell me where they are from, they do me one better, and flip the linguistic template. 

“Is it okay to say I am Mexican?” Veronica asks. I say yes, of course it is. The meaning is the same, rooted in the present. But on second thought, maybe it isn’t. There’s something stronger in the connotation of the phrase, a claim to ownership, a certain resounding pride. Veronica tells me she moved here to pursue “the American Dream.” I think of this as a canned phrase and were it to come from a different person, I might hear it as a line of propaganda. But for her and so many others, it is all too real. 


Why Oregon? This is a question I ask in conversation, but the answer is not much different from why the United States. It often hinges on family ties, tight-knit communities in the Portland area and elsewhere. Some lived in other states first: California, New York, Illinois. Like many Americans, like me, my students find their way to Oregon by roundabout ways. It’s a common question I receive myself, when I tell someone I’m from Ohio. Twelve years ago, I didn’t have a ready answer, and I still don’t. It’s easier to say my wife got a job here, though this is only half true. The answer is more vague. It involves the desire for a different sense of life. 

I stand in front of rooms full of people yet I try to disappear, to sit out on the sharing part because my own memories seem boring by comparison. I know nothing about what it means to pack up an entire life and take to a foreign land with strange customs and a stranger language. But to teach is to seek to understand my students. To try to identify some parallel of their experience in my own. When I model my answer to the question of origin, I sometimes say I’m from the United States, but more often I claim I’m from Ohio. I’m grasping for that connection, that shared sense of displacement, though I know my context is one of choice and privilege.

Family can be the trickiest conversation topic. I remember Gita, who tears up as she recounts the fact that she has lived in Oregon for six years, and in that time she has not once seen her husband or children in person. She works at a retail store and helps operate a food truck, fastidiously saving American dollars with the goal of bringing her family from Nepal to join her. 

I remember Samuel and Margaret, a married couple from Sierra Leone, a country founded by freed slaves that now suffers under a corrupt regime. I talk about freedom of speech in citizenship class, and they scoff, wide-eyed, disbelieving. Say anything against the government in Sierra Leone and you will be killed, they say. They followed their son, a healthcare worker, to Portland, but five more sons remain, and their goal is for those five to follow. Samuel’s citizenship will mean the first step toward sponsoring the rest of their family’s freedom. I help Samuel prepare for the exam, and by the time his test date arrives, he can spout off the answers as quickly as he can his son’s names. 

The citizenship exam requires the same sort of regurgitation of facts as prized by American schools, but Samuel is ready. I tell him as much and so do his managers. He is inundated with encouragement, but this encouragement comes from a place of privilege. So much of my job consists of persuading my students to believe in themselves, to trust in the discipline of their preparation and leave their test anxiety at home. But Samuel is accustomed to the whims of a despotic regime; he seems to believe in the American Dream but also appears worried that the naturalization process is designed to see him fail. Yet he passes.

I remember Romy, a biologist from Cuba who now works in a retail store. Through some error or misunderstanding she received a test date months earlier than expected. Romy would go to on to pass, but her fear was understandable. She brought a family to this country, fleeing a police state. And I remember Alfredo, another Cuban student with exactly the opposite disposition. Perpetually energetic, with a voice that carried, he was perhaps a little too encouraging in his assurances that if other students failed, they could always sit for the test a second time, and perhaps a third on appeal. I appreciated his optimism, but I imagine for others it rang hollow. He was already a citizen, comfortably at home on the other side of the gates. 

I remember others, too. Rafael from Venezuela, who tolerates his fellow Spanish-speaking students’ struggles in their virtual class and assists me with clarifications. Liz from Honduras, whose English is polished such that she works in customer service but yearns for more. Marta from Mexico, who patiently tells me that no, she will not be celebrating Halloween, because it is a holiday centered on death, and she’s a devout Catholic. I’m not about to argue with her, least of all in my faltering Spanish, which by comparison makes her English sound perfect. 

And I remember Refugio, who has had no formal education in his native Mexico and is learning not only a complex language but also how to properly hold a pencil, to scratch symbols onto paper and conjure meaning from the ether. He has lived, and thus continues to live, in Oregon for more than forty years. His hand trembles as he writes, but he shows up to class every week. A class that I imagine is orders of magnitude more challenging for him than his work as a stocker, a class he is not obligated to attend but chooses to, in the face of enormous odds and the vagaries of circumstance, which have made the privilege of literacy my birthright, yet something he must struggle toward in his middle years. He has lived in America for longer than I’ve been alive, and his actions seem to indicate a belief that it’s never too late. I find his courage and commitment humbling. 


Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In civics class, I often have to explain this word: pursuit. 'To look for' seems an odd approximation, but my students understand with ease. So much of their lives is bound up in this striving for and seeking. They are on a quest in a way even the most ambitious American born in the US is hard-pressed to relate to.

During one of my advanced classes, Anna, a Ukrainian student with an easy smile and bubbly personality, shows a rare flash of annoyance. Comprehending the present perfect tense yet bemused by the seeming technicality of its difference with the simple past, she asks me why we need to bother with it at all. A little surprised, I also understand her hesitancy to crowd her mind with unnecessary grammar. I give her the easy answer: she doesn’t need to use it, but it would help her if she did, particularly with her aspirations toward resuming the professional career she left behind in her native country. 

What I do not tell her, but might have, is that these strange turns of phrase allow her to mine the richness and complexity of her experience. That when she tells me she stepped out of her house in southern California, one summer years past, to find the trees ablaze, ashes falling thick as snow, she indicates an event that is, mercifully, over. That when she says she is a mother, she indicates not only her ongoing childrearing, but a persisting, defining aspect of her life. And that when she says she has been an American for three years, she indicates a state of being that lives in the past and present both.


Immigration, Language, Privilege


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