The Humanity of Hats

by Molly Sandstrom '17
February 9, 2016

Molly is a junior concentrating in History and Education Studies and a Community Fellow for the MET Family Literacy Program. She hopes to keep teaching ESOL after graduation. She can often be seen sporting a hat around campus-- feel free to ask her about it.

When Robert walked in for class that Monday evening, I didn’t give much thought to his appearance: glossy wind-pants, nondescript t-shirt, and a baseball cap proudly embroidered with a Boston Red Socks logo. I also wore a hat, emblazoned with ESPN’s “Bigger, Bolder, Better” slogan. I greeted him with my usual smile, and simple, “How are you?”

Robert, a native Portuguese speaker hailing from Brazil, is an adult participant with the MET Family Literacy Program. University student-volunteers facilitate four different levels of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes at an off-campus site, the MET Community School, two nights a week. Participants and volunteers gather for a meal before the classes start for the evening, giving plenty of time to trade jokes and stories.

I had been meaning for a while to ask if Robert felt a strong connection to the long-reaching Boston sports network, like so many of his East Coast counterparts. Previous conversations had revealed his love for country music, especially Toby Keith and Garth Brooks. I had been surprised by this, and was excited to gain another piece of Robert’s story.

I gestured first to my baseball cap, and then his own. “Nice hat!” His response was quick, the mark of a growing comfort with English: “Are you copying me?”

I grinned and asked him if he was a big sports fan. He responded enthusiastically that he was, especially enjoying the thrill of baseball and football games. “You look very sporty today.”

Robert’s response was a combination of clear physical and verbal communication: Eyebrows raised, slight smirk, head cocked to the left. “Always.”

Of course he looked sporty. This was his “look.” I dropped my eyes to my own clothes, a Hawaiian shirt and worn boots. We chuckled. This was my “look” too.

As we walked up the stairs to the classrooms, I asked him if he enjoyed watching sports, or maybe even playing them. Again, his response seemed to convey “of course.” When he mentioned a love of soccer, I asked him to tell me more.

At first, I thought I had misheard him, so I blurted the words back in a mixture of shock and eager curiosity. “Playing soccer until you were 42?!”

It seemed to be the most natural thing in the world for him to talk about. Robert stuck out his hand to show me fingers disjointed from years of jams and sprains, and lifted up his pant leg to reveal scars on his left shin from a long-ago surgery. As our conversations drew to a close, he explained he had been a goalie on a professional Brazilian soccer team for many years.

Dozens of questions buzzed through my head, but with class about to start I didn’t have time for a single one of them. So instead I just wished him a good class and said I would see him soon.

I hesitate to say our program is changing the lives of the adults who participate. The world did not stop when I asked Robert about his hat. But for those brief moments, two people, different in many ways, were able to connect and share something that transcends language. And maybe that is enough.