A Success Story

A few years ago, I had some free time, and wanted to give something back to the community that had nothing to do with music. I was introduced to a very shy, robust, young woman named Svetlana Barkash, who had just arrived from Latvia with her husband and two young daughters. Svetlana needed help with her English. Okay - I spoke English, and began visiting with my new friend every Wednesday afternoon.

In Riga, Latvia, Svetlana had been a pharmacist. But she couldn't get a license here until she passed the California State Pharmacology exam. When I met her, Sveltana had been in L.A. about ten days, was already enrolled in ESL class five mornings a week, was taking computer classes two nights a week, and pharmacology classes three nights a week. She was also married to Joseph, who drove a hundred miles each way to work every day to earn $7.00 per hour. In addition to her schooling, Svetlana was raising two daughters, being a wife, going to the PTA, cooking, cleaning, shopping for food, walking her younger girl to and from school, and coming to see me on the bus every Wednesday afternoon. Her only indulgence was watching "Melrose Place," which, she claimed, was very good for English Grammar.

In spite of all the ESL classes she was taking, Svetlana never practiced her English, because everyone in her neighborhood spoke Russian. It was easier to communicate in that language, since everything else in their new lives was so difficult. But I didn't even know how to say that one, all-critical phrase, "Where's the potty," in her native language, so when Svetlana came to see me, we only spoke English.

Russian and English have different alphabets. I tried once to learn the former, but threw up my hands after a few night classes, retreating into an entire one pound bag of peanut M & M's when I realized that I'd never be able to read a street sign, let alone "War & Peace," in the original text. So I knew how tortuous it must have been for Svetlana to learn a new alphabet.

But she was very bright, and picked up everything quickly, with the exception of pronouncing "W" as "V," and vice versa, and never using an article, definite or otherwise. "I vent to grocery store," she'd say. Fine. I kept inserting "the's," but they never took. Fine. What did they have to do with pharmacology anyway? If you were at Thrifty Drugs and needed mouthwash badly enough, you wouldn't care if Svetlana told you "aisle three, next to lawnmowers". Her use of a definite article wouldn't change the formula of Listerine, would it?

Of course not!

Every Wednesday afternoon, Sveltana and I went to a restaurant, or a museum, or sometimes we just went shopping. She needed practice with functional English, and she sure wasn't going to get it with my old copy of "Fun With Dick and Jane". Each week, she seemed a little surer of herself, and each week I was prouder of her determination.

When Thanksgiving came, I invited Svetlana and her family for dinner. Some of my clients came too. One played a Bach concert for us on my old upright piano during the hors d'oeuvres, which, by the way, Svetlana and her family didn't touch. They didn't know what it was, and were afraid to taste it, even though I assured them that's what the characters ate on "Melrose Place". Marc, the keyboard player, ate everything in sight, including half the carpet, so it wasn't like food was going to waste. But I wanted Svetlana and her family to try some American food. They wouldn't. Period.

Same thing happened with dinner. All anyone in Sveltana's family ate was the pumpkin pie, because they'd had it before in Riga. I promised myself I wouldn't get upset - I wasn't going to give these people guilt for not eating - no siree Bob - uh uh - not me. I was just disappointed they didn't try it.

I purposely purchased everything already cooked from Gelson's, and then transferred it to corning ware and later, good china, so it looked like I was Martha Stewart.

My concern was the Barkash's weren't assimilating. They were living a Latvian life in America, which is exactly what I was supposed to help them not to do. As a Thanksgiving gift, one of my clients who worked at a radio station, got them coupons for Jack in the Box. But Svetlana wouldn't go. She couldn't understand the voice on the speaker. Like I could, right? Another client got Svetlana tickets to a Janet Jackson concert. They wouldn't go there, either. "Not good English," Svetlana said.

Meanwhile, she kept going to ESL, computer and pharmacology classes. That December, she took the pharmacology exam. In February, she found out she'd failed. I was more upset that she was. Look how hard she'd worked, how many classes she'd taken - all those endless hours of studying. Man, I would've put a fist through a brick wall, and the wall next to that one, too. But Svetlana said very matter of factly, "I vill try harder next time". Which she did, while being a good mother, a wife, walking her daughter to and from school, cooking, cleaning her house, renting the second bedroom to another Latvian family so Svetlana had more money for food, taking buses everywhere and continuing her English classes. She also had a part time job, earning $6.00 a hour, at a drug store somewhere in Hollywood. Thinking I could help her get a better salary, I showed her an ad in "Variety," saying they needed young women with Slavic accents to speak to "gentlemen callers". But Svetlana drew the line on lascivious dialogue. "I am pharmacist. Not floozy". Even the $50. per hour wouldn't change her mind.

Meanwhile, she kept studying, took the pharmacology exam again the following December, and failed again. But this time by only five points.

I raged into the phone to Sacramento, trying to get the governor to give Svetlana a temporary license, while she took some kind of remedial Robitussin test, but nobody in our capital city would buckle to my Mollyness. Svetlana was back to square one.

The following Thanksgiving day, I called her, just to say hi. "I can't talk to you now," she said. "I make turkey. I learned from you". No you didn't, babe, I thought. What you would've learned from me was to call Gelson's and have them cook. But hey, she had the holiday spirit and I was very pleased to see her "becoming an American".

Then it was December again, and Sveltana took the pharmacology exam for the third time. I think I was more nervous than she. We were at the Santa Monica Pier, dangling our feet into the Pacific, when I asked how it went. She sighed, said "not bad, ve'll see ven results come," and then produced a large bag of peanut M & M's from her purse.

Last week, Svetlana called to tell me she had passed! She was thrilled. Me too. I invited her to lunch - any place she wanted to go - my treat. Maybe some place fancy in Beverly Hills or Malibu, like in "Melrose Place". We set a date, which she had to cancel because she had a job interview. But at the follow-up lunch, at Jack in the Box (her choice - she loved the burritos), she announced she was now "official pharmacist".

I have never met anybody who stuck with it like Svetlana has. And I thought you songwriters could learn something from her. I sure did. And it has nothing to do with an article - definite or indefinite.

Related Articles

Molly-Ann Molly-Ann Leikin