One of the highlights of my holidays was a reunion with my former student, Elodie Gomes. Of the 500 French-speaking students I taught, I always had a soft spot for Ellie. I admired how she survived the “school of hard knocks” to succeed in school and later in business. Plus, she was one of my best writers, with a sparkling personality.
Ellie’s parents left their beautiful but tiny village in Portugal to take over the family office-cleaning business in Paris. Ellie grew up in Trappes, which she described as the “worst suburb of Paris, with the most high-rises.” Her parents rose at 3 a.m. each day and didn’t return from work until 11 p.m. Ellie and her older sister, Christine, were often on their own. On weekends, they helped their mom and dad clean offices.
Ellie went to public school, where she had to act tough. She later worked some tough jobs, including moving furniture in a warehouse. Although she did well in school, she struggled with English and initially hated it. But she showed her usual determination by teaching herself English with dictionaries, DVDs and watching American TV.
In 2014, she came to Chicago to improve her English and polish her marketing skills. She wrote an essay about “The American Dream,” which was so good, we published it in the Review. Before coming to Chicago, Ellie believed the “American Dream” was propaganda to lure tourists to America.
But she found it was real. “This idea that when you come here you leave everything behind and start something brand new,” she wrote, “that we all deserve something better, something greater than us.” She wrote of how Americans “make us foreign people feel welcome and loved. You are the American Dream. You are this hope. You are this love.”
After she returned to France, Ellie kept in touch by email. Following the November 13, 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, she poured her heart out to me in an email. Who can blame her? One of her school friends was among the 89 slaughtered in the Bataclan Theatre, which is next door to her workplace. But Ellie and her friends don’t scare easy. They made a point of frequenting the nightspots in the neighborhood to show “we’re still here.”
After our presidential election, she sent me another emotional email. She was concerned because she views the leader of the U.S., as “president of the world.”
When she visited us, we didn’t discuss the election during our delightful time at Starbuck’s. I was so glad my son Mark joined us. He had met Ellie at my school and they share a passion for watching Friday Night Lights and American football. Ellie is 27 now. She works long hours at a marketing company, where her co-workers have become her close friends.
We talked about her “American Dream” essay. She gave the article to her father, Manuel, as a birthday present. He appreciated the gift, so proud that Ellie had been published in an American newspaper. That’s when Ellie discovered her love of writing had come from her dad. She learned Manuel had a secret passion for writing poetry and she read the poems he had written to her mom. The essay created a bond between a dad and daughter, who had been separated so often during her childhood.
That framed article now hangs on the wall of her Paris apartment. It describes a country I no longer recognize. But, as Ellie wrote, “Just think about this giant family of yours, and how great your journey is going to be all together.”
Let’s hope this isn’t a pipe dream.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.