With one hand upraised, palm up, the woman burst into song. Maybe she’d intended to give us a small sample of this traditional hymn from her native Puerto Rico, but the lyrics and its memories carried her from slow start to crescendo, and we all smiled as she continued to sing, wavering at the high notes, but finishing strong and proud.
Another woman, from Nicaragua, closed her eyes in bliss while reminiscing about the foods served at Christmas in her family home. Then, a Nigerian woman, Taiwo, shimmied in her seat as she laughed with pleasure, emulating the dances she loved during the holidays in Africa. Someone else, a lovely Mexican with cocoa skin and long black hair pulled back in a braid, spoke of the joys of family and friends celebrating together, then paused and said wistfully, “I miss my country.”
With my two students, Taiwo from Nigeria and Mary from Congo, I had joined the gathering for Mercy Learning Center’s (MLC) annual Holiday Tea. Located in Bridgeport, MLC serves over 800 women with programs in life and computer skills, ESL, reading, math, writing, and GED training. The center’s motto is: “Educate a woman…Educate a family.”
As we sipped tea and nibbled Christmas cookies and sandwiches, Jane Ferreira, MLC’s director, encouraged the women to speak of the distinctive foods and traditions of their native lands…and then it was time to sing.
With handouts to guide us, we launched into “Jingle Bells” with jaunty enthusiasm, winding up with a gratifying flourish. Jane took a moment to review vocabulary - “sleigh” and “bob-tail” - before indicating that the next song, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was a very important song. “Important?” I thought. Hmm. Not the word I’d use. Annoying would be the word I’d use. Across from me, Taiwo was nodding as she read the lyrics before her. “This is a beautiful story,” she said. Beautiful? Are we all talking about the same song?
With Jane in the lead we sang in chorus, belting out the verses, and for once, I paid attention to the message. Rudolph was different, and he was mocked for his shiny red nose. The other reindeer resorted to the weapons of all bullies; they laughed at him and called him names. But then came the moment when everything rested on that difference, and Rudolph’s shiny nose was the only way out of the fog.
Differences. They make us wonderfully unique, but separate us if we let them…and out there in the world, we have let them. We need a way out of the fog. Often, it is surface differences that cause discord, when at heart, there is far more that unites us: love of family and friends, music, dance, and a hope for peace and security. At the MLC Holiday Tea, indeed, during the holidays themselves, the fog clears and those bonds shine through. And that is a beautiful story.