Autumn Phillips: Open your door

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It's one of my favorite stories, but I never tell it. I don't tell it because it's not really a story at all. It's just a moment, a memory.

I was in the middle of the Gobi desert looking up at the stars with my arm around an old Mongolian woman. She wore a thick quilted robe with large, bell-shaped sleeves that hung down to her knees. Those long sleeves kept her hands warm, but also kept them free to milk cows and feed sheep. It was the "it" look for winter among the cattle herding nomads of the area.

She smelled like milk, and her long white hair was pulled up on top of her head. Inside, the men were drinking vodka and singing. We leaned on each other, and she pointed to the sky. "Sar," she said, pointing to the moon. "Ot" she said, pointing to a star. She made me repeat her and point from the moon to the star and back again.

Our minds were heavy with homemade vodka, and she had her head on my shoulder. We rocked back and forth and repeated "Sar" and "Ot."

Of the six weeks I spent traveling across Mongolia and flipping through my palm-size Mongolian phrasebook, those are the only two words that I can clearly remember.

I was telling the story about the old Mongolian woman to a friend not so long ago. I described the yurt where they lived and the sweet smell of the fire fueled by dried cow dung. I stayed with her for days even though we were strangers. She fed me mutton for every meal and butter tea. When I left, I gave her some sugar and salt from the city, and we tried and failed one last time to pronounce each other's name.

My friend listened to the end and when I was done he asked, "Have you ever done that for someone? Have you ever invited someone from another country into your home to eat and sleep and stay for days until they are rested enough to travel again?"

"No." I have never approached a stranger on the street, as people had done to me so many times in other countries, and invited them to my home for a meal. I have never done that, because this is America. This is the land of the screen doors that lock and the short chain that allows you to open the door without letting anyone inside.

This is the land of garage door openers and caller I.D. No, I had never invited strangers into my home because they looked tired or lost.

And so it was, with the realization that so many people had helped me and I had helped no one, that I pulled into the driveway of a stranger's home two weeks ago. I had volunteered through a new organization in Steamboat to offer in-home English lessons to Mexican immigrants who couldn't make it to the regular classes at the college because of children or work schedules.

I'll admit that I was afraid as I walked up the steps to the door. I had the name of the woman I was supposed to teach written on a torn piece of paper.

I knocked. The door opened. The room was full, and everyone was ready for their English lesson. Uh oh.

I took off my shoes and everyone gathered in a circle.

I had a stack of Post It notes, a black marker, a Spanish/English dictionary and no idea what I was going to say.

I don't remember now how we moved from silence to the shouting of English and Spanish words. I was scribbling words as fast as I could on Post It notes and passing them out.

By the time I left, they had learned to say, "I want to learn English," and they were all practicing their most casual and friendly, "How ya doin'?" to use at work the next day. An hour and a half passed without any of us noticing. I put on my shoes and walked to the door. I had a huge smile on my face.

"See you next week." They were laughing and waving goodbye and I heard one of them say, in Spanish, I think we are going to learn it.

The Communidad Integrada is offering training for volunteers who want to teach English to immigrants in their homes. The training is at 6 p.m. Feb. 9 in the Steamboat Springs High School library. Call 846-5521.

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