By Bree McKee-Miller
In the Writing Center, we review his paper for grammar. He asks if he needs an article before “American.” I explain that American can be both an adjective and a noun.
-He is American.
-He is an American.
-We are both Americans.
-We are American.
The North American Continent also includes Canada and Mexico, but we do not call them American. Central Americans and South Americans are also excluded. “American” means just us, here, in the US of A. Those of us born here, like me, even though I moved away for years and learned a different language, and those of us like him, who chose this country out of all the rest, passed a test most of us couldn’t pass, and is trying so hard to learn English, so he can help others integrate into American society. Regardless of what his passport says, many people would not call him American, either.
He chooses to add the article. He is an American. It does not just describe an aspect of him. It is who he is. “For life!” he tells me, chest swelling, full of dreams.
He draws this edit slowly, feeling his way through the letters. I jot down some notes for him. He marvels at my speed. “I used to write so quickly, type so fast, back in Dubai.” I tell him not to worry: I can’t write in Arabic at all.
We move on to pronouns, as subjects and objects, possessive and otherwise.
–He has one shirt, age shadowed and frayed.
-He wears it every day.
-This shirt, hat, and jeans are his.
-They are all I have ever seen him wear.
I think about my piles of laundry at home, and wince. The piles of laundry are the object of this sentence. The subject is privilege.
His family wants him to return to Dubai, to the family business. “They say ‘come home,’ but I am home. America is my home. Why would I want to go anywhere else? I don’t need to travel anymore. All the cultures are here.” His only shirt swells, full of dreams. “I am an American for life!”
He tends to shift verb tense a lot. I point this out. There are some English verb tenses that are used more commonly by those who speak another language.
-Past Perfect: He had left his country of origin, looking for…what? A better life?
-Present Perfect: He has come here to be shut out of so many things.
-Future Perfect: In a year he will have completed this ESL teaching certification.
I wonder if he will have a new shirt. Will it still be full of dreams?
Bree McKee-Miller is currently in the final semester of her MFA in Creative Writing program at Hamline University in St Paul, Minnesota. She has been working as a Graduate Peer Writing Consultant at the Hamline University Writing Center for two years, helping to launch their online tutoring program, and has also taught a section of Intro to Creative Writing at the same school. In 2016 she will be Assistant Editor of Fiction for Water~Stone Review, Hamline’s national literary journal. She received her BA from Chapman University in Orange, California.