Who wrote The Federalist Papers?
How many amendments does the Constitution have?
What are the first ten amendments called?
Three days a week at the tiny Literacy Achieves campus in Vickery Meadow, a roomful of adults strives to answer those and 97 other questions they might be asked in their interview to become a U.S. citizen.
For most, the biggest hurdle isn’t knowing the answers to the questions, it’s being able to answer them in English. For the past twenty years, Literacy Achieves has taught English as a second language to newcomers struggling to find a way in a new country.
The classes, which teach all levels of English, change peoples’
lives. But this one, Civics and Literacy, may alter them most profoundly.
“What was the cold war?,” asks volunteer teacher Doug Mahy to his class of eight. They are all green card holders, from Myanmar, Sudan, Iran, Eritrea and Mexico. Vickery Meadow, a densely populated apartment community, is one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Dallas.
“In the cold war, they didn’t use the gun,” answers a woman in the first row. “They washed the brain.”
Doug Mahy chuckles. In nearly a decade of volunteer-teaching here, he’s heard hundreds of humorous answers. Most of the classes are simply designed to teach basic English skills. In this one, Mahy gently shepherds the room through a workbook called Civics and Literacy, which is designed to familiarize students with citizenship questions, pronunciation and vocabulary. The students take it very seriously. On the Federalist Papers question, for instance, most knew all three authors (Alexanders Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, as well as their joint pseudonym, Publius).
It costs $725 to take the citizenship test, a privilege applicants must wait years for. They must have lived here for two to five years, depending on their individual case. As part of the exam, they must demonstrate to the examiner their ability to hold a conversation and to write. If they fail they must go to the back of the line and pay the fee again.
This is a happy place, despite the fact that some of the people in class may be victims of political persecution, human trafficking or war.
“There’s a sense of trust here,” says program director Liz Harling. “There’s no learning without relationship. In order to provide first, English classes and then citizenship we have to start with that trust.”
Harling doesn’t know how many students go on to pass the citizenship test, but they often come back to coach and volunteer. The students in Doug Mahy’s class were eager for the chance to take the test. They told me their goal was to gain something thirty-nine percent of Americans don’t do: the privilege to vote.