Annie Campbell and Sam Soon Lee are sitting face to face over a long table. “Cabbage,” Campbell says. “Cab-ooge,” Lee responds.
They bat the word back and forth like a Ping-Pong ball.
“Cabbage.” “Cabooge,” says the small gray-haired woman.
Lee sits back and smiles. “Yeah. Understand.”
Campbell is satisfied.
The 71-year-old Campbell has been teaching English to a group of Korean women for about six months at the Retired Senior Volunteer Center in Panorama City. Every Tuesday afternoon for two hours, Campbell tries to lead the women further into the language with different themes and constant coaxing.
This Tuesday was vegetable day.
The women pored over two sheets from a children’s dictionary that match photographs of vegetables with their Korean and English names.
While Campbell stood at a board, writing sentences about going to the market and buying vegetables, Lee started chattering loudly in Korean.
“What are you saying to me?” Campbell asked.
“Watercress,” Lee said in a near perfect accent.
Campbell chuckled and turned back to the board.
“They’re delightful. You just have to like their spunk,” Campbell said later. “They have a burning desire to learn and a stick-to-itiveness that you have to admire.”
Some say the same about Campbell.
“I just think Annie is the greatest person there is,” said Fay Day, director of the Volunteer Center of San Fernando Valley, who has known Campbell for years.
An Oregon native, Campbell was a Catholic nun for 30 years, teaching in Portland, Philadelphia and Pasadena. In 1975, she left her order to become a counselor at a now-defunct Los Angeles psychiatric hospital.
A few years later, at an age when many people are planning for their retirement, Campbell became director of the Retired Seniors Volunteer Program in Hollywood. She headed the program for 14 years before retiring in August, 1992, at age 70.
Not one to sit still, Campbell volunteered when she heard San Fernando Valley’s RSVP needed teachers.
So, in addition to working out at a health club nearly every day, walking three miles four times a week, taking care of her aging cats, and reading to children at public libraries, Campbell comes to the RSVP center from her Studio City home every week to teach.
“It’s inspirational, but it makes you feel guilty. I have come to realize that English is an abominable language, to be perfectly honest,” she said.
The class can be a tough audience. Campbell wrote the word spinach on the board.
“Spinach makes you big and strong. Popeye loves spinach. You all know Popeye the sailor?”
The women just stared. Popeye didn’t ring a bell.
Campbell said she realized the importance of her students’ efforts when she heard belatedly about a Japanese high school exchange student mistakenly shot to death in Louisiana in October, 1992. The 16-year-old, who went to the wrong door while looking for a Halloween party, didn’t understand the command “freeze” given by a Baton Rouge homeowner.
“I went to class the next day and asked, ‘Do you know this word?’ Well, of course they didn’t know the word freeze . So we went over it and over it and over it because any one of them could be in a situation like that,” she said.
At the end of class, Lee couldn’t muster the hard “C” sound in watercress, a word she had blurted out only moments before.
Campbell tried other words to help coax Lee. “Cross, crowd,” she said. Lee mimicked her.
“That’s good. We’re getting someplace,” Campbell said.
“Well, we’ll keep working on it.”
Personal Best is a weekly profile of an ordinary person who does extraordinary things. Please address prospective candidates to Personal Best, Los Angeles Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, 91311. Or fax them to (818-772-3338).