Diverse lives connect during English lessons

Up in the quiet second-floor stacks of the York County Library, from two men came the simple word: "time." Most American kids say the word easily every day, right? Time.

"Mmm, timme, remember the 'm,'" came the 76-year-old voice from a guy named Joe under the gray hair.

"Ti-mmma," came the voice from the younger man, named Luis. Accenting the 'm' to 'mmma' to make sure. "Time."

Joe taught; Luis practiced. The sounds went on for long stretches of minutes. The learner did not get flustered. Turns out, the guy practicing to pronounce the words that might seem easy to most people in York County is a 45-year-old college-educated mechanical engineer. He grew up in Mexico City, was schooled there, lived there in a nice home with a wife and three sons. He had a great life. Yet, he took a chance many years ago to come to South Carolina and work. He spoke barely a lick of English and couldn't read or write any.

Luis Arzaluz brought the wife and sons. He goes to work as a suspension systems expert every day. At night, he practices his English. He wants to be able to expand his social and professional boundaries; to expand his life, that of his family.

He is building a sun room on his home. "Son-roomm," he says; he wants to expand the house, too.

For almost four years, Luis has taken free classes provided by Rock Hill schools' adult education program. That program, with many volunteers whose only pay is the worlds they open up to others, has a face for Luis named Joe Zdenek.

Zdenek -- pronounced STEN-ick -- was chairman of Winthrop's modern and classical languages department from 1966 to 1992. He lived in Spain a couple of years and has traveled to Mexico and so many other places. He knows Spanish, French and some German and a lot about life and teaching and joy. He started volunteering more than a decade ago. Retirement didn't mean a recliner for Joe.

He has taught Eastern European immigrants, Chinese immigrants and Hispanic immigrants how to read medicine bottles and road signs, how to say and read and write the words that mean getting through life as an insider instead of an outcast.

"Most of the people I have helped have been people working to grasp the basics of English," Zdenek said. "All don't progress the same. But all want to learn. The learning process never ends."

Through so many weeks of so many months of these years, Luis has listened to tapes and read and practiced his writing. His reading comprehension and writing are outstanding, Zdenek said, but Luis wants more.

"I am trying to make my speech more American-sounding," Luis said. "We are living here. We need to know and speak the language here. English is a must."

Luis' sons have grown up with English in Rock Hill schools. One is in college at the University of South Carolina. Luis pays the tuition, the fees, the room and board and for the books. The younger two will follow. His wife takes English classes at a church, also taught by volunteers for free.

More than 400 people took those free English classes taught by dozens of volunteers last year in Rock Hill, York and Fort Mill, said Kathy Stanley, who runs the English as a second language program. More are expected this year, in a program that is paid for with state education money and United Way donations. At one class in Fort Mill this week, one passage was read aloud in English. And Spanish, German, Polish, Vietnamese and Bulgarian.

What each of those immigrants, who make our country better, want is English. Some scream that illegal hordes from other countries -- mainly Mexico -- are ruining this country, while legal work-visa immigrant Luis, with help from Joe, practices words such as "satellite" and "analyst" and "launch" on the second floor of your county library.

I asked Joe Zdenek, who has taught thousands of people in his life, if many Americans would ditch the daily life of comfort here and chase a dream in a foreign country. Where the people speak a different language and the customs are different. Where the comforts of the home church, the schools, the supermarket, the support of the extended family, are gone. Like all disappeared for Luis Arzaluz, when he chose to be the only Hispanic engineer in a huge company in a foreign country, just so he could make better trucks to carry Americans safely around our country.

"I doubt it," Joe said.

But Luis Arzaluz did it. And he tries to improve still, on those nights, grasping at the English language that is America for those of us born here, and for those of us not born here.


For information on volunteering or attending any English classes with Rock Hill schools' adult education program, call 981-1378. Volunteers do not need to speak a foreign language.