Alien’s Desire to Learn English Inspired Free Classes for Poor
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Alien’s Desire to Learn English Inspired Free Classes for Poor

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Eighteen years ago Miss Sarah Elkus, director of day classes for adults in English and citizenship, had an unusual experience. She describes the event most vividly herself.

“While attending the graduation exercises of a public school on the lower East Side I noticed a woman sitting near me. She was weeping bitterly. I asked her the reason. She replied in her native language, that “The valedictorian is my daughter and I can not understand a word of what she is saying.”

Miss Elkus then advised this sorrowful mother, who felt that she had lost contact with the life and the interests of her children, to learn English. However, the woman declared this to be impossible. She could not go to an evening school on account of her home duties, and her means did not permit her to pay for private education.

Miss Elkus says that she realized at this moment the poignant need to provide instruction for men and women who could not attend an evening school, and she invited the mother to come to the Educational Alliance on the lower East Side and bring with her a few friends who were likewise eager to learn English. Out of this nucleus grew the day classes for English and citizenship. Classes are sponsored by the Board of Education and are a real blessing to the foreign-born mother.


For it is the foreign-born mother who more than any other member of the immigrant family suffers from an intellectual isolation. Miss Elkus points out that the men in the streets and the shops, the children at school and at play come in touch with outside influences, but the mother is left in the home without any stimulating contact. She sees her husband and her children growing away from her, she hears them speak a strange language, in the end she feels an outsider in her own family. Yet it is she who creates the atmosphere of the home, who has the health and the happiness of the entire family in her keeping.

The day classes for adults help these women to step out of this humiliating isolation and to share in the life of the family, the life of the community. Instruction in English enables the mother to understand and watch over the school progress of her children, to confer with teacher or principal, to write understandable notes to school teachers, to attend parents’ meetings, and to appreciate the value of prolonging as far as only possible the school life of her children.

There are at present 185 such classes in existence with a register of about 9,000 pupils, of whom only 300 are men. The others are chiefly mothers who are eager to keep up with the educational progress of their children. The average attendance is thirty-five in each class.

The wise and encouraging leadership of Miss Elkus, who has created this much needed educational service, is also responsible for the Adults Students Association. In other words the pupils of the day classes were organized for the purpose of increasing educational facilities outside of the actual classroom. Accompanied by their teachers the adult pupils have visited museums and attended lectures. They once made a trip to Albany and were received by the Governor. Several of them, quite a goodly number, went to Washington to meet there Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Thus a richer and fuller life is provided for those who without these classes and the association, would remain unhappy aliens in our midst.

And all this because Miss Elkus saw a woman cry at the graduation exercises of her daughter.

What about the woman behind the work, what about the personality of Miss Elkus? That she is able, her success has shown. That she has human sympathy and understanding, is clear or she would have never conceived the idea of these classes. Otherwise she is rather hurried, rather short, not caring much for the superficial graces and amenities, possessing an intellectual vigor which considers only the essentials. Miss Elkus’ brother represented the United States as Ambassador to Turkey, but proud as she must be of him, she does not speak of him, she does not speak of herself, she only speaks of her work. It is this work to which she has given her entire personality, her full creative power. Therefore it is something very much alive, a splendid testimonial to the fine service which modern woman renders the community.

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