Life classes, November, 11th, 2016

This week has been such a sad, stunning one for a lot of people. It is still very hard to find the words to describe it. My friend Kate described the feelings of many as she talked about her own shock and frustration at this week’s election. This has preoccupied me more than any other historical nonsense before, yet I still find myself at a loss for words to accurately define how this affects me. In time, it might be less painful, just like everything else. Time heals everything, hopefully it will our poor planet from man’s follies as well.
What also heals, a great deal, is grace. Overall, as one people, in our shared world, we have lacked it so much of late. We have hit so many lows, and no, it’s not always possible to respond by going high, as Tuesday sadly proved, but we must endeavour just this. Only by elevating oneself above this general, gloomy outcome that will define the fate of so many on the planet can we possibly, in the long perspective, stop that mad machine to run. Masks are falling, one by one, and they reveal us our neighbour’s darkest thoughts. But it also tells us a great deal about the righteous among us.
Grace. It is a bit otherworldly, yet one experiences it every now and then, when one cares to look. This week, as emotions were raw, anxiety high and lack of sleep blatant, these small moments of grace that enables you to go on no matter what were gifted to me so many times, in so many forms. When the whole world went havoc, I experienced those beautiful experiences in what I would have deemed a highly unlikely place for it just a couple of years ago: my classroom.
I was improvised music teacher last year on the grounds that I know music theory and play an instrument. This is yet another role for which I feel like an impostor, but it is relatively easy to share my basic knowledge to kids who have no previous knowledge of Western music at all. Teaching music to welcome classes isn’t just about teaching them the notes and what Baroque is, it’s about awakening their ears to the variety of music existing in the world. Interacting with these kids I also realize how limited our own musical education is. Who has been taught about Arabic, Turkish, Afghan music at school? Aside from the “let’s make the kids sing one exotic song for Christmas” kind of initiative. As things stand, I do have to emphasize Western music so as to give them the basics of what they will need in the regular classes. Only it doesn’t have to be uninteresting for them. Learning to be a music teacher also taught me to let go of so many apprehensions I could have about teaching. And learning in the welcome classes definitely taught me to not be self-conscious anymore. These classes are special, they ought to be fun, attractive, soothing, and this week I realized how much of that the two of them I have have become, and that is complete, entire grace.
As I walk into the classroom, just as I was greeted by hands tapping on the tables on the rhythm of “We will rock you” last year, by the kids whom I taught one thing or two about Freddie Mercury (and condoms, don’t ask. Well, it’s here if you must), this week the kids give me the greatest gift you can offer to a language teacher: they all begin to sing along, spontaneously, the very fast-paced rap song we started to learn last week. They know the refrain and first strophe by heart, they’re dancing, with each other, and they’re laughing their heads off when they miss a word. I’m genuinely baffled, they are all actually rapping in German: five Syrians, two Iraqis, one Sri-Lankan, three Afghans, and they do love it, and they are just as they should be, even if just for that moment: happy, careless kids. I just can’t believe how fast this is happening, how good that worked out. I think that it will be the highlight of my week but it’s just the beginning. During our time together, we untangle some more lyrics. I send them to the board to write what they understand. We translate the lyrics in Arabic, in English, in Farsi. There’s a joyful buzz in the room as they scribble and mumble the lyrics along. Lately A new Syrian girl, who came with no previous knowledge of the latin alphabet, comes forward to write the lyrics. In two months, she managed the cursive writing better than some of her fellow students. As she carefully draws each letter, I turn to her friends with my thumbs up and show my astonishment. She’s still writing, it takes time for Arabic speakers to know how to form letters in the right direction. The Bs and and Ds for example are traced from the right to the left, which makes it so difficult for them to instinctively go on from the left to the right. Sometimes even as they watch me draw the letter on the board they don’t manage to trace it just the same. So, they’re used to that now, I do what my piano teacher used to do: I place their hands on mine, as I hold the pen, and I let them feel the letters as I slowly, very slowly trace them, again, and again. Also, the level of embarrassment that it brings, especially to the boys (they’ve touched the teacher’s hand!) is usually enough to make them never mistake the direction of their writing ever again. In spite of that, that moment also is a very special one during which they realize that I care about each and every one of them, as individuals, and not just as a group of kids who ought to learn a language hard to master.
I have decided to try to learn a few basics of Arabic and Farsi again, more seriously, because it helps so much to understand what they’re talking about, and to be able to explain, roughly, what something means when it’s in someone’s own language.So that time, instead of sending one of the Syrian kids to write the word on the board, I lift my pen and carefully write it myself in Arabic. A general silence has fallen upon the room. Shit, I think, I must have written something else?! I pray all the Gods I know it’s not a major insult. I turn around, to see a raw of open-mouthed, smiling, stunned faces. Then it’s a joyful buzz again: “Oh she can speak Arabic!!! The teacher speaks Arabic!!!” they say (in Arabic, that much I understand). Ah, kids are so gullible. That was one word, but it bound us closer. Just because, I say in Farsi that I don’t speak Arabic that well. The three Afghans start to laugh as well. It’s all based on a lie, I don’t master any of those languages, but I now created even more of a bound between them and me because they know I care, regardless of how good or bad I’ll ever speak their tongue. And the very moment that bound is created, the actual, palpable moment this appears, that connexion in the making, is a moment of grace for any teacher.
At the end of this magical class, yet another unforgettable moment, some kids thank me on top of saying goodbye. This is the first time they say it. It’s not a polite thank you, it’s a thank you that means “thank you that you care”, and it feels amazing to receive that.
Grace, again, so much needed. The other welcome class. We got a new girl, from Lithuania. She is so shy, I don’t ever hear her voice. But she takes in all that is happening, she observes, quietly, and she writes, writes, writes even things that she doesn’t need to. Because we got five new kids in that group within two weeks, I repeat some basics. It makes the advanced kids sigh loudly but I tell them that managing to properly express themselves, is their sharpest, most important weapon to cut through the adversities of life. I tell them of survival, more than I would to kids in regular classes, because those kids who arrive speechless and have so much to say, know more about it than I could ever imagine. Right from the beginning, I tell them they had to fight, that life is no joke and that the sooner they can express everything they want in that foreign language they have to learn, the better prepared they will be for everything. In the meantime, I try to make them laugh at it, because well, what else can you do? Lina, the Lithuanian girl, refused to come to the board when summoned. I let her be during the first week, but I have decided that I would be inflexible this week. We go through verb structures, and I want each and every one of them to understand the use of pronouns. So I draw a table, not only for German pronouns, but there is also a column for pronouns in every other language of the class. That makes room for Arabic, Farsi, Polish, and Lithuanian. I ask Lina first. She refuses to get up. I tell her she has no choice. Not that she can understand what I’m saying but I say it with my “don’t mess with me right now” look, and suffice to say she’s intimidated enough to reluctantly come to the board. She is afraid of the others’ reaction, I can see that. She slowly traces “I”, in Lithuanian. They’re all encouraging and try to pronounce each word as she writes them. She looks pleasantly surprised and chances a look at her comrades. Her first smile in my class, when she gives me the pen back. Another moment for the record, and grace, never stopping today.
When it comes to Arabic, I don’t send the usual suspects, I pick one of the newly arrived Syrians. Khaleel, from Homs. He’s also a shy one, but he’s happy to have been picked out. He first writes “I” in Arabic, with a very good handwriting, but then makes a mistake at “you”. The four other Syrians start to joke about it and tell him so many things that I can see him losing all confidence and the handwriting starts to look worse and worse. These kids are bullying him, they don’t mean it, but that’s what they do. He’s panicking right now. I tell them to stop, and me and Khaleed at the board correct the mistakes he makes one after the other because his self-confidence is all gone now. I regain what can be regained from it by letting him teach me how to write the pronouns but he’s ashamed when he goes back to his place. I decide to address the class, especially the bullies. I tell them that I’m disappointed. The Syrians apologize. I keep my sad face on to tell them that we’re in that boat together (if you ever need a pep talk, there is a contact button somewhere on my blog). That I never thought I would have to teach them, of all kids, about respect and tolerance. That what they just did was cruel and Lord-of-the-Flies-like. A hand is up: “Miss, what does that have to do with flies?”. Ah, nevermind my analogy, that’s not the point just now. I tell them I want it to be the last time I see that, and I tell them that it’s not because each of them is in survival mode that they should ever forget about kindness and empathy. A sea of sheepish looks welcomes that. “So-oorry miss…so-oorry Khaleel…”, they all say. It’s really hard not to laugh. They hate to displease me which makes me feel like Louis the Fourteenth in Versailles. They genuinely think I would hold an eternal grudge against them each time they do something wrong, while I care for and love them too much to ever do. We study further. I make them laugh by scorching words in each language on the board, but they do learn their pronouns. At the end of the hour, one of the Syrians comes over and says: “I just want to thank you, today we’ve learned so much, thank you”. I’m at a loss for words, but I manage a “oh well this is my job” as an answer. This is the best return one can hope for. Kids who enjoy school, and the learning process. It is my job to transmit my love for knowledge, and knowing that at some scale I sometimes succeed in doing it, is one of the best feelings I’ve ever experienced. Every bit of it feels right.
This, as well as the certitude that there are enough pure, righteous minds on this planet who care to open their minds and arms to heal it, this gives me hope, which we so direly need right now.

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