Meeting The World

Leslie Clay was struggling a bit with her tutoring session. Her students, three married couples who were Bosnian refugees, didn’t seem to be grasping their lesson on prepositions.

“All right, you live in an apartment,” Clay said. “You’re standing on the floor. In Bosnia, did you live in a house? Did you live in an apartment?”

“We lived on a mountain,” one of the women responded.

“OK, you lived on a mountain and in a what?” Clay persisted.

“On a mountain,” the student said again.

Finally, Clay understood.

“Apparently,” she explains, “as refugees, they had to flee their home and live on a mountain, under the stars.”


Interactions such as that one, Clay says, allow her to see the world and her own life differently.

“I’m not a big traveler,” she says. “A lot of people, on their bucket lists, say they want to travel here and travel there, and neither my husband nor I are that interested in traveling. My idea of traveling is to meet all of these people and learn about their countries.”

Clay, who retired two years ago as a lawyer in the Shelter Insurance claims department, has been meeting people from around the world through the Literacy Action Corps since 1998, and her interest in other cultures began back in high school, when she struck up a friendship with a classmate from Norway.

In college, she looked for more opportunities to interact with international students, and later, after she was married, she and her husband participated in an MU program that pairs international students with Columbia residents to give the students an authentic experience of American culture.

Clay heard about the Literacy Action Corp through a local newspaper ad seeking volunteers. She called, expecting to teach an American how to read, but discovered a greater need for volunteers willing to teach internationals how to speak English.

“So I said: ‘All right, teach me how to teach people how to speak English,’ ” Clay says, noting the Literacy Action Corp spends several weeks teaching tutors and then assigns them students. “I’ve taught Koreans, a Bulgarian, people from Uzbekistan, China, Taiwan, Bosnia — I’ve had them from all over the world, and they’ve all been delightful people.”

Not every tutoring relationship develops into a friendship, but many of Clay’s have. One friendship Clay still has is with one of the Bosnian women, a Muslim whose brother was killed in the Srebrenica massacre in 1995.

“A couple of Christmases ago, she called me, around the 22nd or 23rd of December and asked me to come over,” Clay says. “I was done tutoring all of them because they’d all gotten jobs or advanced as far as they wanted. When I got there, they just plied me with Christmas gifts, including a Christmas card that said, ‘Merry Christmas’ — not ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Season’s Greetings.’ These Muslims gave me Christmas gifts and said, ‘Merry Christmas!’ ”

Wanting to return the gesture, Clay, who is a Christian, waited for Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, and then gave her friends gifts.

In the past, all of Clay’s tutoring has been through the Literacy Action Corps, but just this fall, she added a conversation group at the request of one of her students. She meets once a week with a couple of Korean women at the Columbia Public Library and talks with them for about an hour and a half.

“That is one of the best ways for a person to learn a new language anyway, to simply converse,” Clay says. “I have topics, but often, they’ll bring the topic. I’ve learned about the opium wars, problems with tuna fishing and all sorts of stuff.”

Despite tutoring for 16 years now, Clay has no plans to mark her pursuit of cultural understanding off her bucket list.

“Making friends with people from all over the people is just a wonderful thing,” she says. “My bucket list is to meet as many people from as many different cultures as I can and to learn to love them all. I’ll never complete it, obviously, but I’m working on it.”