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Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 – Advanced)
Topic: The USA (01/08/09)

TITLE: Understanding Nervous Nelly
By
01/14/09


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I give up trying to explain to Jose what a Nervous Nelly is and return to the spectator section of the courtroom. Jose can barely keep still. Even Tiklas looks nervous. Numbers 43 and 44. Two thorns in this ESL teacher’s side.

When they asked me to help them study for the citizenship test, I thought they were friends who would work together. Ha! Jose is Mexican, while Tiklas is a Guatemalan who exalts his Mayan roots and denies everything Hispanic.

From the beginning, they slapped stereotypes on one another, dividing “dumb and lazy” between them.

The words, “dumb Mexican” actually came from Tiklas’ lip-ringed mouth one day when Jose showed me he had taken my advice and bought a three-ring-binder with dividers. I, myself, had mixed emotions when he opened his notebook. There were the dividers—at least 50 of them—no lined paper—just dividers.

Jose, though, is one of hardest working men I have ever met, whereas Tiklas takes his intellect for granted, relying on memory, instead of effort.

“Teacher,” Jose asks, periodically. “How you say perezoso?”

“Lazy.”

My lectures on kindness an obvious waste of time.


I follow the gaze of the marshal from Homeland Security as he lays out the consequences of losing a Certificate of Citizenship—worth $50,000 on the international black market. I’ve never seen so many twitching mustaches packed into one space. Jose’s is twitching the fastest.

The attorney then asks for the pronunciation of each of the applicants’ names. That means something. My mother, Ingrid Heidenstecker, a German immigrant, often said it showed respect when someone wanted to pronounce your name correctly.

It seems respect has been lacking. And not just between Jose and Tiklas. I’ve got conservative friends who see foreigners as “milkers” of the system and liberal friends who don’t want any parameters at all. There are those who think Americans are selfish—you got yours, but you don’t want me to have mine.

And what about me? It’s th-th-three—not tree, and stop ironing my underwear. My mother used to be a real embarrassment.

On immigration, no one comes out smelling rosy.


I check my program to figure out who the pint-sized older women are who have just arrived. They’re wearing shoulder sashes with rows of miniature medals. They look like ambassadors from the Land of Oz, but no; they’re Daughters of the American Revolution—DAR. They and other community organizations have come bearing gifts.

When the judge arrives and convenes the court, the momentum picks up. Colors are posted; the head of DAR prays—in federal court—requesting protection and blessings for the citizens-to-be. The attorney petitions on behalf of the 68 applicants from 30 countries. Many are shaking as they stand to take the Oath of Citizenship. I wonder if my mother’s accented voice trembled when she promised to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.

The judge grants the petition and addresses the courtroom.

“ . . .You can earn your Japanese citizenship, but you will never be Japanese. The same goes for every other country in the world—except for the United States. When you earn your citizenship here, you become an American.” The judge steps down to the main floor of the courtroom—certificates in hand. “Now is the time to concentrate on what brings us together, not on that which divides. You’re not Russian-Americans, nor Iranian-Americans. Today you are Americans—with all the rights and responsibilities. . .”

I look pointedly at Jose and Tiklas—are you getting this?

The next hour is a blur of joy and tears, of certificates and handshakes, of gifts and families and photos, as each person is called by properly-enunciated-name. Some share stories of persecution and sacrifice and what this day, this dream, means for them.

My mother and her dreams are with me now, part of this ceremony— where benevolence trumps every immigration issue and where the spirit of the United States reigns. The land where the right to be free stems from Almighty God; where those pursuing freedom come, and where hands extend in welcome.


We’re filing out, and I’m thinking where we’ll go to celebrate—probably Ming’s Dragon—they both love Chinese—when I hear Tiklas say, “Jose, let’s study—really study, for the GED.”

“Okay,” says Jose. And then: “Teacher—you help us, no?”

I begin stuttering about schedules—time.

Jose suddenly smiles. “Ahhh. Don’t be so Nervous Nelly.”

And for some reason, they both find this hilarious.


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This article has been read 818 times
Member Comments
Member Date
Sonya Leigh01/15/09
What a beautifully woven story of your own heritage with that of the students you teach. This induced a variety of emotions--laughter, tears and lots of chicken skin. Very well written.
Lynda Schultz 01/15/09
I can feel lots of different emotions coming through from all the characters—makes for a really good story. Well done.
Jan Ackerson 01/15/09
Beautifully written, from the "Nervous Nelly" framework, to the finely-written relationship between the two men and the glimpses into the narrator's heart. Outstanding!
Sharlyn Guthrie01/16/09
Very enjoyable story -and touching, too.
Verna Cole Mitchell 01/17/09
This is a really great story which presents the "spirit" of being an American citizen in a wonderful way.
Joanne Sher 01/18/09
Beautiful and touching. So poignant and delightfully written.
Teresa Lee Rainey01/19/09
Enjoyed getting to know your characters on their journey through citizenship. Very fun ending too.
Betty Castleberry01/19/09
I'm not sure why, but this piece really touched me. Although it's light-hearted, it struck a chord in me that has my eyes welling with tears. Right now, I'm very proud to be a US citizen. Thank you for this piece.
Carol Slider 01/19/09
I loved the way you made a simple American idiom a symbol of all the things that bind us together as citizens. Exceptional writing!
Chely Roach01/19/09
This was great piece; lighthearted but with some depth to it. Loved it!
Benjamin Graber01/20/09
Such a sweet, sweet story! It did a wonderful job of inspiring gratitude for something so many of us take for granted - our American citizenship.
Angela M. Baker-Bridge01/20/09
There are so many sacrificing, hard working, Americans behind the scenes to make this country work. Thanks for that reminder...unsung heroes.
Beth LaBuff 01/20/09
I so enjoyed the description of the DAR ladies, "looked like ambassadors from the Land of Oz" and I love the judges comments. This is so good!
Karen Wilber 01/20/09
This is another favorite this week. I like how you balanced humor and seriousness--made the reader think and laugh. Structure-wise it has a nice unity with "nervous nelly" opening and closing the piece. Well done and an excellent topic choice for USA.
Sheri Gordon01/21/09
Outstanding writing--as always. Excellent story for the topic.
Myrna Noyes01/21/09
Wonderful, wonderful piece that treats a touchy topic with wisdom! Your description of the DAR ladies gave me a big smile, too! Excellent, thoughtful writing! :)
Joy Faire Stewart01/21/09
Very thoughtful writing with just the right touch of humor. Perfect for the topic, too.
Leah Nichols 01/22/09
A heartwarming story....I almost teared up with this one. It took me a minute to get into it, but once I did, I found it delightfully written. Well done!