It is the sound of language being learned. One Thursday night not long ago, about eight men and women, immigrants from all parts of the world, sit in a classroom-like enclosure on Quakerbridge Road while rush-hour traffic speeds by a few yards outside. The immigrants have come from all over the world — Poland, China, Korea, Ukraine, the Middle East, West Africa.
They gather in small groups as tutors Paula Rossi and Michael Thiel move among them, instructing them on basic usage or the finer points of language, depending on the student’s level of English knowledge.
“You can say ‘I made the bed,” says Rossi to her pupil, Natasha Kitschchenko. “When you fix the bed in the morning, you say ‘I made the bed. You didn’t really make the bed, you just put it in order. So, you say, ‘I made the bed.’ If you didn’t make the bed in the morning, the bed would be unmade. So your mother would say, ‘Why is your bed unmade?’
Now, ‘unmated,’ that’s an unusual word. You don’t hear that often. It means, for example, you do not have socks. Mate means match. So if you have a green sock and a blue sock, they’re unmated. If you have a green sock and green sock, they are mated.”
Rossi is a volunteer with Literacy Volunteers of Mercer County, a group that has been teaching people to read — and, increasingly, how to speak English — completely free of charge since 1967.
Right now the organization serves 350 students, most of them taking English as a foreign language. Literacy Volunteers has about 160 tutors on its list. Some tutors and students come to group classes on Tuesday and Thursday nights, but most tutors and students work on a private, one-on-one basis, meeting once or twice weekly in libraries, school classrooms, or restaurants between Trenton and Plainsboro, Ewing and East Windsor.
“Many of the people have jobs, but they really have to communicate,” Rossi says afterwards. “Some have the grammatical background — they’ve studied it — but they really don’t have the conversational experience.”
To become a tutor an interested person needs to take seven three-hour classes at the Literacy Volunteers headquarters. The next training course starts on Tuesday, January 9, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at LVMC’s office on Quakerbridge Road. An evening course begins Tuesday, February 13, from 6 to 9 p.m., at Educational Testing Service on Rosedale Road. Call 609-587-6027.
Rossi, who works as the firm administrator at the law firm Szaferman Lakind et al. at Quakerbridge Executive Center, is one of Literacy Volunteers’ most involved tutors. She is pursuing her master’s degree in teaching English as a second language at the College of New Jersey. After she retires from her law firm job, which will probably be sometime in 2008, “that is what I plan to do. I have always wanted to teach. I have always enjoyed it,” says the former Sunday school teacher.
At LVMC, “they asked me to be the lead tutor because the person before me retired, basically. I have just really enjoyed it and I find myself dedicated to it,” Rossi says. “As a matter of fact I want to get more involved and make sure that they get the appropriate books.”
“I had been working with a group in Princeton teaching ESL to the Hispanic community,” says Rossi. “I’ve always had a closeness in a way.”
Her parents spoke Italian, but they did not teach the children. “They were of that generation where they really didn’t want to encourage native languages in those days. It’s unfortunate when you go back and look at it: we’ve lost a part of our culture because we lost the languages.”
Rossi graduated from St. Elizabeth’s School in Morristown and from Trinity College in the District of Columbia in 1971, followed by six years living in Italy and working at the Vatican. Those years, she says, were some of the most interesting of her life. It was “a summer romance” and a subsequent marriage to an Italian citizen that made Rossi move to the land of her ancestors. Two of her three children were born in Italy.
“I actually had to study Italian,” she says with a laugh. When she moved to Italy, in fact, she knew more Spanish, French, and Latin that she did Italian.
Although she was an English-language editor for L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, she never did meet Father anyone like Guido Sarducci (the fictional gossip columnist and rock critic for the newspaper). “I had a great time, though. I worked for an Irish priest and an American nun. I did the actual typing of the articles, and the layouts.”
After returning to the United States, she began at Szaferman Lakind in 1978. When she started, there were three attorneys at the firm. Now there are more than 25. “I always wanted to be a lawyer too. I never got to go to law school, but I have been in the business so long that I feel like I am a lawyer.”
Rossi feels connected to the people she helps. “I think one of the reasons I’m really dedicated to this is that my family were immigrants,” she says. “My grandfather came over as a child, and my mother’s parents were born here. Napolitano. Both sides. I really believe this is the land of opportunity, having lived abroad for several years. There’s no place like this place.”
She is very impressed with the work ethic and dedication shown by the ESL students served by Literacy Volunteers. The atmosphere for immigrants has changed since her family came here early in the last century, but Rossi believes Americans, as an immigrant people, should welcome these newcomers as her ancestors were welcomed.
“The United States is really changing, and I know that’s hard for a lot of people. But it’s really important to continue to give people the opportunities so that we can be at the top. The educational system really needs help.”
Every day she comes in, Rossi says, she enjoys the experience: “It’s wonderful. I enjoy this more than anything else I’m doing right now.”