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Gay Swindell and Moriko Adams greet at the covered dish table during the English and More School's 20th anniversary at Central Park Baptist Church.
Daily photo by Gary Lloyd
Gay Swindell and Moriko Adams greet at the covered dish table during the English and More School's 20th anniversary at Central Park Baptist Church.

More than English
20th anniversary for ESL school still means friends, laughter and food

By Melanie B. Smith
msmith@decaturdaily.com 340-2468

English is a tricky tongue, but hundreds of newcomers from dozens of countries have found a place in Decatur for 20 years to learn and practice the language for free.

At the English and More School, the emphasis is as much on "more" as on English. Students and teachers laugh and create bonds of friendship.

A former pupil from France who now lives in Italy, Francine Faessler, e-mailed a teacher about her time in the school: "Yes, I improved my English, even if the Southern accent can't be learned but (is something) you have to be born with. But this is not the most important. Friendship, culture, happiness, joy and advice for foreigners were present at each meeting."

On Wednesday, the current students, mostly natives of Japan, combined their English with "more" as they put on a skit for a 20th anniversary celebration at Central Park Baptist Church.

They used a plastic snake, a potted plant, a TV remote and other props to act out what happened when a man and his wife encountered a snake inside their house.

At one point, an actor asked if the man was hurt in the commotion.

"He's OK. He only broke his leg," said Naomi Hori in her role as the American wife.

Those in the audience laughing were current and former students from a half-dozen different countries, along with volunteers who have worked with them.

Wednesday's "more" also included thanks from students for teachers.

'We love Debbie'

Eight current students presented Debbie Pirkle, who has been a teacher or director for the program since its start, a bouquet of flowers and a T-shirt with a class picture on the front.

"We love Debbie," they said in unison.

Hori said she enjoys Pirkle's energetic style in class, and the chance her teacher has provided to get to know Americans. Another student, Maricela DeJesus, said Pirkle's classes have helped her assist her children with homework and have given her English-speaking friends.

The 60 guests, teachers and students sampled sticky rice, enchiladas, Watergate salad, meatloaf, sweet buns stuffed with bean paste and many other dishes they brought. An English-as-a-second-language class that meets at St. Paul's Lutheran Church brought food and joined the celebration.

"No matter what country you're from, eating is fun," Pirkle said during the meal.

Numerous classes and extracurricular activities at the school over the years have focused on food. Students once produced a cookbook and did cooking sessions. Students and teachers have struggled to describe Southern chicken and dumplings and Indian curry.

Teachers also stressed real life. Pirkle often links lessons to events in the community or church.

For instance, when she learned that a student had a son in Austin High School's band, she taught from information that the band director sent home about the annual fruit sale. Students pretended to call each other to make a sales pitch.

Pirkle and others also have taught with songs, games, puzzles, stories and cartoons from The Decatur Daily, and field trips.

But along with lessons has been laughter, which Pirkle views as a teaching tool everyone can enjoy. Jokes sometimes come at teachers' expense. Pirkle recalled that a leader once used a computer program to translate a letter from English for Spanish-speaking students. One student responded, "This is lousy Spanish."

'Opened a gate'

Many of the 274 students who've attended over the years moved on to jobs or college, to other cities or countries or back to their homelands. They've taken memories from class with them. For instance, Pirkle heard from Haiwen Lu, who now lives with her husband in Atlanta and works with Computer Science Corp.

"English and More School ... has been one of most impressive experiences I have ever had in the United States," she wrote.

She recalled fashion shows, a strawberry-picking field trip and a piano duet with Pirkle. Her experience helped her "melt into American society smoothly and quickly," she said.

A Japanese student now living in China, Hitomi Totake, said the classes opened a gate to American society, "with the Southern hospitalities to the foreigners like us." She mentioned learning about Easter, Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Among the school's 34 volunteers over the years, Lynne Woods, former director and teacher, said her unforgettable memories include a surprise birthday party for her 41st birthday.

She said she was honored that one Japanese student named her son a near equivalent of her son's name. She praised Pirkle's faithfulness to open "her heart, her car, her home, her entire life to teach English and so much more."

Two-way experiences

Pirkle said she's had two-way experiences; she's enjoyed learning from her students as well as teaching them.

"They've opened my eyes to a lot of things, their different cultures and how they have to step out of their comfort zones to come here," she said.

Pirkle earned a master's degree in ESL from The University of Alabama to add to a master's in learning disabilities. She went to Venezuela and Poland for her ESL studies and frequently leads workshops on ESL ministry. She's been able to visit former students on trips to other countries, and one served as tour guide in Japan for Pirkle and her husband, Steve.

Tomoko Furukawa, writing from Japan, said the school and her teachers gave meaning to her months in Decatur.

"What I have experienced through the class has still been exerting influence on my life here," she said.

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