On Dec. 16, the U.S. District Court in Portland was packed with newly minted U.S. citizens and those of us who were there to cheer them on.
The more than 40 people who took their oath that day came from 19 different countries, an immigration officer told us, but by the end of the ceremony they would represent just one: the United States.
As “The Star-Spangled Banner” played and an image of an undulating flag filled a screen, I bit my cheek to keep from sniffling.
Normally I would roll my eyes at this type of thing, but on that day, patriotic fervor took over as I watched the woman I’d been tutoring for six months cross the floor to receive a miniature American flag.
Living on Munjoy Hill in Portland, I often saw African women walking their children down the street, the women and little girls draped in colorful headscarves and skirts. I decided to become a citizenship tutor because it was absurd to me that I could live in proximity to people of a different culture and place, but know nothing about them.
So last June, I contacted Portland Adult Education and was paired with Aisha, a Sudanese woman in her early 30s. We met every week at her house and worked on the three components of the citizenship test: memorizing 100 questions about U.S. history and government, reading and writing.
In the beginning our sessions were limited to citizenship-related talk. I would arrive, sit on Aisha’s couch, ask her questions like “Who can veto a bill?”, and help her write sentences like “The President lives in the White House.”
Although the reporter in me wanted to pepper her with questions, I tried to restrain myself, at least in the beginning.
But there were so many things I wanted to know: What did she think of American food? Why did some Muslim women wear tighter-fitting head scarves than others? Why did she leave Sudan?
Little things fascinated me, like the red henna stains on her fingernails, how she re-used tea bags, or that she didn’t have a cell phone and could only be reached through her husband, who also kept her photo ID and Social Security card in his pocket.
Over time, we became more comfortable with each other, and when I asked her questions she would give deeper answers. Her headscarves loosened, and sometimes she wouldn’t wear them at all. When she relaxed, I did too. I stopped trying to structure every minute of our tutoring sessions, which had slowly switched from being a weekly chore I had volunteered for, to something I looked forward to. Our Friday visits became a quiet ritual that slowed my pace, too.
I don’t think I would have felt this way with anyone – it was something about Aisha. She seemed so stress free, so unlike everyone else I knew. Her kids could be loudly singing along with the TV, and she wouldn’t even notice. Her husband could walk back and forth through the living room, talking loudly on his cell phone, and she would keep reading in her halting English, stumbling over words but never looking up.
So what did I do? I also stopped letting these distractions bother me, and just sat cross-legged on her couch in the warm living room, drinking tea.
But the looming citizenship test did make me anxious. I repeatedly asked if she wanted to meet multiple times the week of the test, and she always said no, which worried me even more. Did she really know what she was doing? Could she pass? If she failed, would she blame me?
The day of the test she called and left a brief voice mail.
“Hi Emily, I am Aisha. I did it, OK bye.”
And that was it. She’d passed. At our next meeting we ate cake and joked about how I’d never ask her what the Emancipation Proclamation was ever again.
When she took her oath last week, no one was there to cheer her, except me. If I hadn’t known her better, I would have wondered if she was disappointed her family didn’t come.
But because she’s Aisha, I know better. Becoming a citizen was bound to happen, and now it had.