Conversation with Helen was invariably a lively affair. She had unconventional views and she expressed them unreservedly. Fond as I am of Thea, she seemed to recede instantly into the background as Helen took the stage. She was of medium height and spoke softly, but appeared tall and commanding as she sat on the other side of the table. I had chosen the restaurant from its past reputation, but, as happens often in Washington, it had lapsed from its past elegance and I felt embarrassed about my choice; I offered to move elsewhere. Helen wouldn’t hear of it and said she was perfectly happy where we were.
She was ebullient and none the worse for her long flight from Saudi Arabia. She wore a bright floral dress and seemed radiant and eager to talk. We had a lot to talk about, for coincidentally we had both spent years in andragogy, the way adults learn, especially in a work situation. I am skeptical of the way many organizations try to stuff information into learners in the name of training or education. It was delightful to find that Helen too was interested in new, unconventional approaches to teaching.
Our rapport rose a notch higher when we found our common interest in innovation in language learning. I told her of my explorations in novel language acquisition techniques and she responded by telling me the methods she was trying with Arab professionals. It became for me quite a memorable lunch.
Helen’s unconventionality was not just in learning issues. She was one of few persons I know who genuinely cared about immigrants and had a broad, informed view of how a liberal immigration policy helps richer countries. I had worked with Haitian, Tibetan and Bhutanese refugees and was perturbed by the prejudices I encountered often among educated Americans. It was a surprise to hear Helen’s ideas: they were practical and respectful, and far ahead of those of my diplomatic colleagues.
She had first worked with Vietnamese refugees, developing new ways to teach them English and prepare them for a new society. Later she became Idaho state’s refugee coordinator and her supreme ambition was to give uprooted people both capacity and dignity quickly. She believed focused learning was the clue. She brought together diverse teaching institutions for the purpose, eventually creating an International Institute that resettled thousands of refugees and gave them a worthy life.
That was her metier. She conceived new and unusual ideas and then she fought to given them practical shape. I saw this at close range when Helen decided to return to the US and stay in the Washington area. It was incredible the way she approached her role as grandmother to Thea’s son, her grandson. She acted more like another child, in the way she reacted to her grandson’s ideas, with instant insight, understanding and enthusiasm. She bought huge rolls of paper and quantities of color and let him splash the colors, with hands, legs or his whole body, on large sheets and create his unique self-designed paintings. I would sit and watch her answer his questions, encourage his effort and supply him more colors if he wanted, but never once try to direct or instruct him. That is what teaching meant to her: to assist and inspire, not impart or control.
Perhaps some of it was grandmotherly indulgence. But a huge part of it was her belief about what education was all about. It was not to stuff the pupil with the teacher’s ideas or values – paradoxically, which is often what the alumni recall with perverse admiration – but to help the pupil develop his or her own ideas and values from a scratch. It was of a piece with her notion of how a country ought to treat its immigrants and refugees. Not as unfortunate sub-par people who have to be brought up to par with the infusion of information and goals, but precious humans, to be fortified with resources and independence to bring out the best in them.
Helen lived by herself, in her own way, and died of coronavirus. She died alone, for she was not allowed visitors, not even her daughters and grandchildren. I tried talking to her; it did not proceed beyond pleasantries. I missed her pulsating presence. More than anybody I know, she had respect for people, even people society deemed less, and cared passionately about their opportunity to live and grow. She was irreplaceable.
I can represent her vibrant persona only rather poorly. I will miss her greatly.