How I Learned to Speak … Gettysburgian?

To those who adamantly believe that Gettysburg, PA is a vanilla, boring small-town devoid of diversity:

I invite you to take a closer look …

In the past weeks, I have felt amazed, and even surprised, to have interacted with so many groups and people of different ethnic backgrounds, ages and interests. As a student at the college, I’m well aware of how easy it is to get the impression that Gettysburg is the kind of place that looks the same and thinks the same. Yet, since getting out into the community, I’ve found that not only are there more people than I realized, but also, in carrying out my job, I’ve had to search for new ways to more effectively communicate my intentions.

While we were training all together as Hestons, Jeff had us read a speech by Ivan Illich to challenge our optimism of going into another community to “help”. Illich criticizes the American “dogooder” who he says is, “so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don’t even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you.”

I have to say, when I first read this, I assumed that it applied more to the Hestons who have been interning in Nicaragua and Kenya this summer — after all, they’ve been immersed in an entirely new language and culture. However, I have now realized that even being in Gettysburg is an immersion that requires “learning a new language”. Like Illich wrote, it was ignorant of me to assume that simply being American and an English-speaker would excuse me from learning about a community that I’m working to serve. Instead, I’m now pushing myself to learn to speak the language, or rather, languages of Gettysburg. Here’s a few of those groups:

* The Elderly:

I’ve gone on the Monday/Tuesday Meals on Wheels route a few times now, and I am a friendly face to folks on the way. Some of the elderly we deliver to do not leave their homes and some cannot even walk or speak. When I spoke to Steve Niebler from the Adam’s County Office for the Aging, he explained to me that Meals on Wheels could deliver a set of frozen meals for an entire week, but they choose to deliver hot meals M-F because having a real person there makes a world of difference. I’ve made a few new friends on the route who I genuinely enjoy seeing and who I believe enjoy seeing me as well. Our conversations aren’t long, but a nice smile goes a long a way.

* High-schoolers with Autism:

Every Thursday, a group of Autistic students from the Gettysburg high school (ages 17-20) comes to the Kitchen to help us with our cooking shift. When they first started, Nicole, the support-teacher for the group, told Uyen and I that the best way to communicate with them is to be overly-explicit with our instructions. This was a little out of my comfort zone. It felt strange, and even condescending, to have to explain in detail something as simple as washing a dish or cutting an apple to people my own age; but Uyen and I have adapted. The thursday shift is always fun — we make Meals on Wheels and have some nice side-conversation. It’s been great to have them!

* Spanish-Speakers

I’ve also been very happy to help out with Emily’s ESL classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It’s been a great time to practice my Spanish, and good way to meet new people in the community. Being a tutor has reminded me of when I first began learning Spanish in 7th grade, and the challenges that came with learning a new language in a classroom-setting where the students weren’t especially interested in learning and the teacher wasn’t especially interested in teaching. By contrast, the students who come to the ESL classes — most, adult Mexican immigrants — have such enthusiasm and motivation to learn English. Their interest definitely makes our classes much more worthwhile. Aside from the worksheets that I help them to finish, I feel like I have been most useful in the side-conversations and jokes we have with one another.

* Academia?

And this last one is definitely a new one for me. In conjunction with my internship, I have decided to conduct a research project with one of my professors on the attitudes of the elderly in Adam’s County towards food. For me, learning how to write and conduct research in the “academic” manner has also been a challenge; however, it has also opened my eyes to what is considered “ethical” from an academic standpoint compared to my informal, everyday one. In my next blog, I will be writing more about my research and how that has been going. But for now, it has definitely felt like a new language for me!

Eric Harris

Gettysburg, PA