Going Back

This week, one of my male students from Afghanistan was bent over during class. He was really quiet, and wasn’t doing anything.

I sat down next to him. “You are sad about leaving Afghanistan?”

These last few weeks, we have been learning words for emotions. I chose these for our core words: joy, depression, grief, trauma, counselor, meditate.

He nodded.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry” is one of my most-used statements as an ESL teacher. That and “lo siento.”

I’m sorry I didn’t give you headphones. I’m sorry I forgot to write you a bathroom pass. I’m sorry I stepped on your foot. I’m sorry you are feeling sad.

“Do you have your family here?” I asked. Our core vocabulary includes “family,” numbers below ten, colors, please, thank you, bathroom. The gestures thumbs up, one finger for “wait,” and the word “good,” which I always try to make the word I use most. I give people thumbs up like a hundred times a day now.

A funny thing about lack of language is that my students respond in the affirmative to absolutely everything. Yet I still ask them questions like, “Do you pencil?” and they nod, just the way I did when I was in Paris, my sole experience of going without English for any period of time. A nod means, yes, I have a pencil, and also, yes, I do not have a pencil, could you get me one, miss. A nod means, yes, I need headphones, and also, yes, I can do my video lesson with my own headphones.

Teaching ESL is like falling onto the bedrock of communication itself. I began working with language constraint years ago, for artistic purposes, and for fun. Only using words without the letter “e,” or combining one text with another to try to make some (albeit odd) sense. When I am at school, and only then, my mind is in a place where I communicate with the most basic blocks of language, and my eyes (no nose or mouth yet), and my body language, and my tone of voice.

My student told me he has ten members of his family here, and twenty more back in Afghanistan, his grandparents, his aunts and uncles.

We know more now about how little we can fix.

I said I was sorry. I said I hoped things got better in Afghanistan.

He said, Taliban.

And I said, I know. It’s very sad. I know the odds of anything be better, any time soon, in Afghanistan, are in contrast to how long nothing has been okay in Afghanistan in my lifetime.

It’s sad, because the people of Afghanistan are good people, I said.

Yes, he said. They are good people, he said.

I mean, most people are good people, if you catch them on the right day, if they haven’t been starved or abused. I’d say that about any country, any place.

They are strong, I said.

Yes, he said. Strong.

I sat there for a minute.

Another hour, another young man sat on the edges of the classroom. I let the students choose where they sit, usually, and though most of the desks are in a big horseshoe, there are always a few by themselves on the side for people who need space.

I went and sat by this kid. His head was down. Then he sniffled, and I realized he was probably crying. I sat next to him. I touched his shoulder. (I don’t touch the students from Afghanistan at all because I don’t know how they’d feel about it, but my students from Central America all seem fine with it.).

I’m sorry, I said. I’m sorry you’re sad.

I brought him chocolate.

I went back to the rest of the class.

I noticed later he had moved to the little hallway area that is part of my classroom, around a corner. I got him kleenex. I asked the sweetest boy in the class if he would go talk to the crying kid. He went.

Later I saw that the female student in that class who drives me the most insane (talking, roaring with laughter, distracting whoever’s near her) had gone out there, too. In a great show of growth for myself, I have described this students as “too much fun.” Along with being “too much fun,” she also has super great social skills.

“What’s wrong with him?” I asked her, when she came back to her desk.

“His dad,” she said. (Again, using some of our core words, right?)

When I taught students who were black, their sorrows seemed to choke them, choke us, poison us. I was part of that poison, being white, and that maybe made things harder. I think it did.

The sorrows of my ESL students are also great. They seem to move in a gentler way, though.

When they get skilled in English, they become teenagers with me. The work is boring, nothing is good enough, whatever, miss. It’s bittersweet. A kid who just went teenager on me revealed he liked Captain America, and I got my revenge on him by assigning him English lessons based on Captain America video clips.

“Really, miss?” he said. His “Really, miss?” and the occasional snarks that contain English that reeks of authentic, organic, breathing midwestern American English delight me. When he started with me, he would say, “Me no English,” and “Gracias, no,” when I handed him something to do. He was easily discouraged. Now he has more English vocabulary and intuitive understanding than anyone in his class. He’s different.

He’s also my only student to always call me by my name. I hassled him about it a long time ago. Students always call teachers “miss,” which is fine. But it’s kinda nice to be called by my name.

The kid looked at his Captain America lesson, then called me over. The district web browser wouldn’t let him do it, probably because the movie is rated R. “Oh, its’ fine,” I said. “I will find another one for you.”

I found one. “Miss Schurman!”

“You’ll love it!” I said.

At the end of the day, I was going to make all the copies for next week. I had already tried once to make copies, during my lunch, but the printer had malfunctioned. Twice. At the end of the day, my computer refused to load any google docs, and when I restarted it, it went to the PC equivalent of the beach ball of death.

Obscenities flew out of my mouth and I actually smacked the computer, and was a hair’s breadth away from destroying it.

It is a laptop that will only function when plugged in, so it sort of deserves to be killed.

I mean I felt violent.

I’m just going to go, I’m just going to walk away. It’s enough. It’s enough. I need to make these fucking copies is that too much to fucking ask that something work to get something done

But on the other hand I didn’t want next week to be pre-muddled by not having copies, by placing a bet that I would be together enough, and the computer and printers would be together enough, to print things on Monday.

I went to rip down all the visuals from our unit that was over, the words anxious, frustrated, grief, meditate, counselor, angry, joy, restless, jealous, lonely.

I went on with some other work, and eventually my computer returned to sanity, and I found another printer to use, and everything for the week got printed.

I think.

I still can’t believe Will Smith hit someone at the Oscars. As someone who gets up in front of people and tells them things they may not want to hear, I felt an immediate fear for Chris Rock.

I like Will Smith, everyone did. I love his wife’s show, and have loved seeing him, and other men, talk in a vulnerable way about difficult issues. If this guy could lose it in a way that disappointed most of the planet, a guy who had already gone to therapy and done ayahuasca and learned from his daughter… a man who has accomplished so much through the mess or racism and the challenges of growing up with violence….

Anyone could. Anyone does. Everyone does. And I’m sorrowful. Sorry.

Lo siento, computer. Lo siento.

We’re not going back.

Image: “The Burning of Sodom” by Camille Corot (1843 and 1857) seemed the wrong image for walking away from painful places, whether they be pandemics, wars, or other trauma. Those painful places weren’t Sodom, with all that cultural baggage. But I do like the image of walking away, pained. (Image is public domain.)

I also wanted to add that the para who works with me, and our school’s counseling staff, and other teachers are very skilled and helpful in supporting our students, and each other, emotionally. That just didn’t fit into the way I framed these particular stories for this particular piece.

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