By Catherine Pearson

When I first learned I’d be driving an F650, I smiled politely and said, “Great!” Inside, I was terrified. Driving a mobile classroom sounds cool and adventurous. But when the truck arrived, last May, it felt like an invitation for cliff jumping.

Driving for me is functional. My Hyundai Elantra, which is amply large, hugs the ground and is as comfortable as an old t-shirt. Climbing into the diesel F650 should require a passport. But it doesn’t even require a commercial license, which means I, the Elantra-lover, qualify to drive.

As an ESL to Go teacher, it makes sense to drive the truck to its destination (typically an apartment complex) and set it up before teaching. This means I park, put down the jacks, crank the generator, set up the tables and chairs (strapped to the inside wall for transit) and then welcome my students aboard.

They stream across the parking lot to class as soon as the truck pulls in, sometimes 30-45 minutes early. It’s English time, and they don’t want to miss it. So, twice a week, I’ve packed my school supplies and courage and driven the truck to class. But after about a month of nerve-wracking driving, something changed.

One August morning I hopped into the truck, let down the break, pulled onto the road and in the quiet cab considered what I was doing – driving to a dozen adult refugees whose persistence to learn English astounded me. Overwhelmed with gratitude to be a part of such a story, I started singing Tricia Walker’s “What a Wonderful Day*” over the diesel’s roar. For the first time, I drove without fear to meet my students. I entered the apartment complex, parked and put out the step for my class to bound in.

By the end of that 2-hour class, students who had entered with little or no English could greet one another and exchange names and pleasantries. I recognized the look in their eyes. They sang as loudly as I had driving two stories high. My students left with renewed confidence. They’ll be back for more, which makes it all worthwhile. They’ll be back, and so shall I.

Driving the truck has empowered me. I did what I thought I could not do and succeeded. But my students’ courage easily trumps mine. They have made it here after decades in refugee camps. They have found ways to buy food, get to the doctor and navigate a river of paperwork when some lack literacy in any language. They bravely come to class acknowledging how little English they know and working furiously to change that.

Driving the truck now feels like cooking a familiar recipe. I still check the side-view mirrors to ensure I stay in the lines the same way I check the temperature of a dish. My students and I are on such a roll that it takes pausing to see how much ground we’ve gained. Our first term just ended, and, like miles clicking over on the odometer, we assessed and celebrated how far we’ve come.

We resumed class this week, and my students eagerly returned. I savor their enthusiasm as they stride up the steps, shake my hand and introduce themselves, not because we’ve forgotten each other, but because they are proud of the English they know. I commend them.

By driving the truck, I have in my own small way heeded Eleanor Roosevelt’s instruction. But my students, triumphing in a new land after years of unimaginable struggle, have embodied Eleanor Roosevelt’s greater charge: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”