Ruby Learns English

Here’s something nobody warned me about teaching kids: way too much crying is involved. In 2015, I’m teaching an after-school creative writing workshop for a nonprofit in Denver. It’s the first day with my third-through-fifth graders. I have nine students, and to start, I team them up to share oral stories about “the weirdest thing they ever did."

Everyone starts chattering, about eating gross foods or jumping off high places. Except one third-grader, Ruby, is not talking.

I walk over and ask, “Ruby, did you have a chance to share?”

Before she can answer, her partner pipes up, “She’s still thinking.”

Far be it from me to interrupt a thinking kid, so I give them more time. Then I instruct everyone, “Now create a written version of your story.”

Everyone scribbles away. Except Ruby, who stares into space.

I ask, “Ruby, do you need help?”

“Yes.” Her eyes fill with tears.

I want her to know there’s no shame needing help, so I keep my voice gentle. “Do you understand the instructions?”

“No,” her voice quavers.

I keep it simple. “Just write two or three paragraphs about a weird or funny experience you had.”

Now the tears fall, in a silent flood. Never before have I seen anyone cry this hard without making a sound.

“It’s okay,” I say. “You don’t have to use the prompt. Write what you want. Do you need help with ideas? Are you sick? What’s wrong?”

She doesn’t answer, just keeps crying and crying, without a word.

I’ve worked with schools for a while, and some of them frown on us hugging students, although she’s so upset I’m tempted. Instead, I pat her shoulder, wracking my brain for how to help this mute child.

Then something occurs to me. Ruby is one of three Chinese girls in class. But the other two speak English, and administrators would never put a non-English speaker in my creative writing class without telling me. Would they?

“Ruby, do you speak English?”


One of the other Chinese girls, Grace, calls across the room, “She only moved from China one month ago.”

I set aside being ticked off at administrators who never tell me anything. Because they’re not here. Ruby is.

While the other kids write complete stories, I spend 15 minutes helping Ruby construct a single sentence using the handful of words she knows, tears dripping the entire time.

Then the group circles up to share. Ruby’s still crying - where's all this liquid coming from?! I don’t want to embarrass her, but it’s impossible to pretend this isn’t happening.

So I tell the class: “In stories, we imagine what it would be like to be someone else. Imagine what it would be like to go to a school in another country where they speak another language, and you can’t understand anything anybody’s saying. That’s what’s happening to Ruby.”

“Wow!” one boy says. “That would be awful.”

“Well said! So, here’s what we’re going to do: we’re going to support Ruby. While we all work on writing stories, Ruby will also work on her English.”

I then invite volunteers to share their stories. I don’t force shy kids to share, because it tends to cause more trauma than benefit. I plan to wait and ask them to give it a try on the last day, once they’re more comfortable with the group.

To my surprise, on this first and horrible day, Ruby volunteers to read her sentence. I’m afraid someone will make fun of her. Because that’s what happened to me in third grade, where kids teased me relentlessly, usually for talking nonstop. I learned never to cry in front of other kids, because tears are to bullies what blood is to sharks. That’s when they attack.

That’s not what happens to Ruby.

A blonde girl named Maggie scooches next to her and gently rubs her back as Ruby reads her sentence, slow and halting, shaking like someone at the gallows reading their last words: “I like…to go…to the park.” All the kids erupt into spontaneous cheers.

Still, Ruby cries for the rest of class. That is, until the final minutes, when we play a game I never should have picked: Concentration. It’s a chanting, word-association game. Our topic is “writing,” so it should go something like this, to the sound of knee slapping, hand clapping, and finger snapping:


Concentration now begins.

Keep the rhythm,

Keep the rhythm to the end.

(Slap clap)


(Slap clap)


Theoretically, they’re supposed to think up words as they go, snapping in time with each word. That’s not what happens. This is the day I learn that eight-to-ten-year-olds cannot snap their fingers to save their lives, much less think up words on the spot.

So it’s more like: Snap-snap……(nothing).

Nobody can do it, but we’re all laughing our heads off. Ruby giggles hardest of all, tickled she’s not the only one who cannot think up English words on the spot. With that, she’s one of the group.

She’s cheerful for the rest of our six weeks together, until our last day, when everyone turns in a completed story—including Ruby. Not only is she now able to read her entire story aloud, she can also draw pictures to demonstrate she understands it.

It’s the story of a rabbit that must find carrots to save her friends from starvation. It’s a story about community. She finishes reading, and her classmates again burst into cheers.

Thanks to Ruby, I now realize: of course teaching involves crying, because learning calls on us to be vulnerable, to open ourselves to others. What’s more, here’s proof that tears don’t always attract bullies. Sometimes they attract kindness.

Nonetheless, I’m stunned at the end of class, when I collect everyone’s final stories and Ruby tears up again. Now what?

Turns out she’s afraid I’m taking her story away.

I reassure her, “I only want to post it on our blog so everyone can read it.”

Grace translates, “Ruby, you’re going to be published!”

Ruby stops crying, looks up at me, and beams. No translation needed for that. Except maybe this: Ruby taught me it’s not only important to listen to the words people say, but also to the words they can’t.

About The Author

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir, They Only Eat Their Husbands (Conundrum Press, 2014). Her stories have appeared in many publications, including The Los Angeles Times, Manifest-Station, and DoveTales, and she’s a winner of The Moth StorySlam. Cara and her husband live in Ventura, California.

FB: @theyonlyeattheirhusbands @caralopezlee features inspiring kid stories told by adults. We share helpful tips for parents by leading experts plus other cool stuff that makes you think, smile and #lol.

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