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  • Natacha, my seventy-something year old student, sits her small five-foot two-inch frame to the left of my desk, curbed back, both hands hidden between her thighs. Despite her delicate petite frame, she projects a tough as nails personality. Her blond slightly greasy mane, kept off her dark green eyes with copper brown hair clips, shows the obvious signs of aging as the gray roots sprout through it unapologetically. She speaks to me armed with her rough Slavic accent and poor grammar. Her grades are not where they need to be, and so she is here to seek my help. I start by asking her about her study habits, but somehow the conversation takes a more personal turn than expected. She begins by telling me that she lives alone and that she doesn't like it. She glances over to my pin board and asks if I am married looking at my children' pictures on there. It has been two years since the separation, and it is still difficult for me to say out loud. "I used to be" I reply hoping she won't hear my words break a little. She nods as if she knows all too well that life "happens" and that happy endings may not be for everyone. She then begins to tell me about her life in Russia as a young piano teacher. "It was hard...you know... for kids there; too much poverty, too hard to have children... you know" She looks straight at my kid's pictures again and then looks down at her hands as if feeling ashamed or regretting not having any of her own.

    Her algae green eyes, that seemed at first tense and distrustfully piercing, begin to change to a warmer hue as she continues her tale. At times I think I notice her eyes water with emotion, but I am not quite sure, so I continue listening to her attentively as to not seem in any way disrespectful . The woman could be my mother, if not my grandmother, yet somehow I ended up holding some magical key to her academic future. In between sentences, she massages her left knee in discomfort. That is when I notice her physical pain for the first time, and I ask her what is the matter. "It is chronic" she says. She needs an operation, but she claims it is not worth it at her age. "I am old... you know, I cannot have this operation" she repeats. "Where have I been? Haven't I noticed her obvious limp as she enters the classroom every class period? I have. I know I have" I think to myself.

    I later realize that her knee was not the first ailment to welcome her to the new world. Ontario, Canada "a beautiful country with very nice people, you know" was her first port of arrival. The Arctic cold produced never-ending migraines that would leave her hopelessly wounded in bed for days. South Florida came to be her home for that sole reason. She likes it here; especially the beach which seemed to have been a God sent for the headaches. But now, it is her knee. Her Russian girlfriends in Aventura, who in her words "only care about money and the good life... you know" are trying to persuade her to stop attending class. "They say I need to rest it... you know...my knee" she says as she covers it with the palm of her hand. Something tells me she wants to hear my opinion, but I decide to keep my thoughts to myself. The word Ikigai comes to mind. As part of her two-hour daily commute, she manages to sit in three classes while carrying her handbag full of thick college books to first catch the bus, and later the metro rail. My insight tells me she won't be tamed in spite of her suffering. She has something for which to wake up in the morning. Learning English is her Ikigai. She makes it home feeling exhausted and in pain, but it is quite alright as long as she continues moving somehow.

    She eventually pauses for a moment, looks at me, her eyes visibly shaken, and says "It is hard... you know". This time I react and I get closer, now with a tissue in hand. I tell her I understand. I tell her I know how she feels. As I embrace her I whisper.... "It is hard" I say, "I know".
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