One by one, the students arrive, rubbing their hands against the cold December air. An older gentleman from Bangladesh. A charming woman from Argentina. A smiling man from Korea. An elderly woman from Ethiopia. They wait patiently in the lobby, talking amongst themselves about what they’ve learned since their last meeting two days ago.
Finally the door swings open and in walk Ned and Lydia Stone. The beloved couple have taught English classes at United Community for more than 15 years at three different United Community programs, and have helped dozens of students from as many countries and socio-economic backgrounds to adapt to life in the United States. The Stones’ love and dedication to their students is not lost to anyone.
“Anytime there is something I don’t like, I think immediately “how would Lydia and Ned react?,” Connie shares. Connie has known the Stones since they first started classes at the Sacramento Center. “They are such wonderful, loving people.”
Lydia and Ned began their dynamic duo in teaching several decades ago; though Lydia had been teaching for some time before that. Lydia is a professional translator who taught ESL classes as a volunteer assistant for Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), while her husband spent 25 years making aircraft surveillance systems at the Naval Research Lab. A Yale and Harvard graduate, Ned’s primary passions were physics and working with a local ecology community group called the Friends of Dyke Marsh.
Then one day, Lydia asked Ned to substitute for her while she went to a conference for translators. Ned enjoyed his substitute teaching experience so much that he didn’t want to leave. When Lydia came back from her conference, she found that her husband had taken over her class, forcing her to start teaching a different group. After a few years, though, the Stones decided to move on from FCPS’s ESL program and eventually found themselves teaching at United Community.
The Stones have fond memories of teaching amongst dozens of coats in the space they shared with the old Back Porch thrift store, as well as lessons taught at the Progreso Center and at the main office on Fordson Road. But the couple says their favorite classes have been at the Sacramento Neighborhood Center.
“We love teaching at the Sacramento Center because we have the flexibility to teach how we’d like,” Lydia explained. “We print and prepare our own materials, we don’t charge our students, and we don’t require them to come every week.”
The result is a sort of “learning community” that attracts immigrants from a wide range of social and ethnic backgrounds on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Walking into Lydia’s intermediate class, one can hear Chang, the smiling man from Korea chatting with the charming woman from Argentina.
“How do you say “Happy New Year” in Korean?” she asks.
He answers, grinning as the Argentinian and a woman across the table from Mexico stumble through a mess of unfamiliar syllables. Chang then asks the women how to say this phrase in Spanish, as he stumbles through his own pronunciation of “Feliz Año Nuevo,” before class begins.
Fortunately for Ned, most of the students in tonight’s beginner’s class speak Spanish – meaning, he only has two languages to keep track of, as he explains the difference between using “have” and “have got”. Tonight’s lesson gets a little more in-depth than most, as Ned answers a few questions that Mansoor, a Bangladeshi gentleman, poses regarding the Constitution.
The Stones make a concerted effort to incorporate cultural references into their language teaching. For example, one of Lydia’s favorite lessons came after her class read a book about Martin Luther King Jr.. To help students visualize the book better, the Stones’ rented the Civil Rights movie “Selma”, and spent an evening watching the film (with Spanish subtitles).
“Many of our students had little concept of what the local African-American community went through during the Segregation era,” Lydia explains. “Watching the students’ reactions during that film, you could tell that many of them not only understood the words that were said, but they also had a deeper appreciation for the history behind them.”
Tonight, there is no film. But there is a tradition that all of their students have come to enjoy.
“My belief is that if you get the language in your head and in your mouth, then you will hear yourself saying it,” Ned explains. “So every night, we end the class by singing a song together!”
Usually students are treated to a ballad by Pete Seeger. Tonight, however, they sing-along with a recording from the King of Rock and Roll, himself – Elvis Presley. Lydia hands out lyrics to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” printed in English and Spanish, and everyone ends the evening by singing along – first with Elvis in English, and then acapella in Spanish.
Words can scarcely describe the legacy that the Stones’ have left on United Community, its clients, and the Route One community, at large. In a few weeks, the couple are moving to a retirement community in Sandy Spring, Maryland. As for the Stones, they will tell you they’re just grateful for the opportunity.
“Teaching this class has been wonderful for our marriage,” Ned explains. “It’s become one of our favorite things to do together. We’re really going to miss our friends, but we’re excited to make new ones – as we plan to keep teaching after we move.”