English, speaking of which.
I see they fall somewhere between 16 to 60. They also fall in the lowest of income groups. Some are immigrants. Some are refugees. Political or environmental. Some work. As baggers at supermarket stores. In housekeeping. As daily wagers. As house wives. Uneducated. Semi-educated. And, I volunteer a few hours a week to help them learn English. To read, write, speak. To get by. The literacy program coordinator walks me around.
"I've no experience in teaching of any kind", I make sure she knows.
She leaves assuring me that more than anything, the task wishes compassion and commitment.
No problem there, I think in my head.
I choose a classroom filled with about twenty. "Thicha". A could-be-thirty year old nearest to the door beckons. Reflexively,I correct him. "Its not Thicha, its Teachurrr". Now he repeatedly points at me. "Buthiful", he smiles widely. Amused as I am, I sermonize "Its not the best thing to say. To teachers. To classmates.Or to anybody here for that matter. You can say all that outside.To other people. Also, depending on who you are with. Mm??" He stares at me blankly. "Um.. forget it. It's nothing", I shake head and wave hands in the most reassuring way. He smiles. Then asks, "Espanol?".. "Sorry, I know only English", I confess. Then its a re-run of the last few minutes. Thicha. Buthiful. Creepy smile. I scoot.
I see a group of women in burkha sitting huddled around a table. I watch them trying to read. One of them looks up and smiles. "Need help?" I ask. Its a page containing an exercise in conversation primarily using words 'you' and 'me'. "You", I point at her. "Me", I point back at me. She repeats my action. "You", she says pointing at herself. "Me", she says pointing at me. "No no..You is the second person. Me is the first person". Now everybody stare. I get what the program coordinator means. English is not exactly the primary language, at least in this English class! So, I take refuge in keywords. And miming. WATER EAT PEN BOOK CHAIR YOU ME US...
Some are brisk even after two hours.Some bored, and can't wait to get out. By the end of month, I can match faces with names. I learn too. For starters, I'm aware that the mostly cheerful Moroccan woman next to me is prone to sudden rapid outbursts in Arabic. Today, she just can't write the letter 'e'. Her muscle memory must be becoming too dormant, I try to find reason. I hold her hand and make her trace a few times. She gets it right before losing it again. She apologizes. "Don't, if this was Arabic you'd be the teacher", I try to cheer her up. Of course, she cannot know what I'm saying.
Before I vex her, I turn my attention to the Italian teenager next to her, who jokes and winks almost as often as he blinks. "I like Shahrukh Khan", he says. "Good for you", I say. He sexist-laughs,"You haav boyfriend?". I ignore, close the book between us and ask him to spell words that he can't see any longer. He pretends to sulk but gets them right. He is actually not a poor student, I remember. I ask him to spell out a whole sentence. He gets that one right too. I throw more words and sentences at him until he stumbles. Practice more, I suggest.
Most days a Chinese man comes up with words scribbled on the inside of his arm asking me to pronounce them. Today there are two: CAT THE. I feel these inked unfamiliar words on his loose skin look more beautiful than any tattoo I have ever seen on any arm. I put sentimentality on hold and pronounce. "Caaaaat Ohhhhh", he remembers with a huge smile. "The" "The". He repeats and by-hearts. I'm his fan-girl for life, I pledge.
A happy-go-lucky woman from Egypt has no interest in learning the bloody English. She must be here either because all her friends are here or more due to her children's compulsion. She gleefully taps her head and signs to me that there is nothing inside. Even if it were true, such trivialities are not enough to upset her being. She opens her bag and invitingly waves a Snickers bar. We take bites in turns.
Even though no body is supposed to favor any body, I can't help having a favorite student.An Ethiopian woman, who looks too young to be the mother of her five kids.I remember her from her first day -- extremely non-receptive; knew just enough letters that string her name together and now, I can't help learn from the person that she is. She takes it all in, with sponge-like easiness, and assists everyone around her. Like a boss. Whilst in the middle of something, she catches my eye. "Right?", she confirms. I don't know what she's talking about. Still I nod. Its more probable that she's right than wrong.
Most instructors are volunteers, like me. A few others are trained educators. I study them, to later imitate. Based on individual learning curves, it's conversation making or comprehensive reading or mini-essay writing or scrabble or phonetics, as the system strives best to accommodate the least common denominators...
Its break time. Some offer me goodies to munch. Eat, they insist. Go ahead, I resist. Another volunteer joins me in admiring the Ethiopian woman. I wish to know more about her. Socially. Outside of classroom. How she is like in her everyday life. Her ways. Her folks. Her aspirations, if any. I think about asking her to pose for my camera. But then I feel reserved. Another day, I think. Cheers all around me. The Moroccan woman has succeeded in writing the whole alphabet. I walk up to her and we high-five. "Shukran", she kisses my hand. "Shukran to you too". I return the love. Break is over.
When Romney gets pwned in the elections, there's unbridled excitement for days after. Obama is the winner. That's a new word for everybody. Winner. They imprint it in their minds. "Does anybody know what party he belongs to?", the program coordinator asks. Nobody answers. A well-informed Guatemalan lady suggests in half doubt- "Dhimocrath?". A round of applause.
It's going to be International celebrations in a couple of weeks.I'm helping young housewives from Jaffna in another class room. We have an hour to brainstorm how to map the essence of Sri lanka on to colored chart paper sheets.I watch on as they bounce ideas. Soon they get distracted and show me wall-papered babies on their cell phones. We switch to Tamil and bond like high school girls over an unexpected free-period. One natural story teller recollects with great detail her trip across the Arabic, Mediterranean, Atlantic into JFK. I share memories, of an accidental visit to Sri Lanka thanks to a connection flight delay.Topics hop around films, cricketers, radio ceylon and Mia. Later as the chart papers lie forgotten, we panic and exchange phone numbers to coordinate the event over the following week.
Finally its D-day and end of term. I scan for familiar faces at the venue. The Italian teenager waves at me. He takes my coat, pulls a chair and hands me a pastry cake on a paper plate. I feel honored by this revived gentle-manliness. "Don't you want any?", I point at the cake. Hunger subdued, we walk around learning random DidYouKnow's about people of the planet. It's weeks of excitement, camaraderie, rehearsals and hard work that's coming to fruition all around us. At one corner, four Zambian ladies in flowing gowns jive in synchronized motion. At another, a Haitian man sings in a Pavarotti-like voice. A dolled up Japanese woman serves tea to curious visitors . An Israeli kid animatedly introduces her country to listeners. Its a mood of ephemeral homecoming everywhere. How does culture checkmate human minds?, I idle-muse over crispy medhuvadais at the Sri-lankan booth.Then it ends like conventional last days. Hugs, kisses, laughs, tears. Another Volunteer offers to drop me home. I wonder out loud if I was dumb not to ask the Ethiopian woman for her contact number. "I don't know about that but I got yours", he quips as it all cuts to black for me!