When I tell people I teach English as a second language, they usually say, “Oh. You speak Spanish?”
“No.” I wait a beat. “Most of my students don’t speak Spanish either.”
My students come from Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Spain, France, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan, Taiwan, China, Thailand, Japan, and South Korea. In other terms students have come from Vietnam, Indonesia, Burkina Faso, Madagascar, India, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Serbia, Bosnia, Poland, Georgia, Germany, Guinea, Kenya, Morocco, Libya, Guatemala, Panama, Bolivia, Uruguay, Cuba, Peru, Syria, and Qatar.
I’ve probably forgotten someone, but you get the idea.
There is that moment when you ask a student where he or she is from. He might say, “Turkey.” And you can say, “Wow. I’ve been to Istanbul. What an amazing city!” Or she might say, “Japan.” And you could say, “Oh, I hope to go there one day.” Or the student might say, “Iraq.” And your brain stumbles over what you should say. I settled for momentary confusion “Iraq? Well, that’s great,” followed by adequate recovery, “It’s good to meet you and I’m glad you’re here.”
One field trip I was walking with a student from Vietnam and we met a Vietnam vet. They got along very well. Another term I had a female student Bosnia in class with a male student from Serbia. He’d been a soldier. They never sat together. And I’ve had a student from China correct a student who said she was from Taiwan. “No. You are from China!”
I’ve seen Muslim students hug our Jewish teacher and listened to them share jokes about not eating pork. I’ve seen a Japanese student marry a Korean student, and a Thai student hit on every female nearby no matter where she was from. “You are very pretty. Sit next to me. Please!”
If I can’t make a living writing and making art, this is the best job ever.
A few weeks ago, I was looking for a particular student. Her friends were in the corner of the school’s lobby. Ten Muslim women, some sitting, a few standing. One is dressed in jeans and a long sleeve shirt and her brown hair is down to her shoulders. Some of the young women wear the hijab. Of those few, a couple have strands of hair pulled free while most have every bit of hair hidden away. Two women are completely veiled, and I can see only their eyes.
I thought I was used to being around veiled women. Happens every day. One did take me by surprise by complimenting my hair. I guess I had this idea that if there is part of my body I’m not allowed to show, I wouldn’t go complimenting other women on those parts…but hair is different. And I’ve always been obsessed and unhappy with my hair.
But in that closed in corner with a group of veiled women looking at me, I felt exposed. And a bit like I was doing something provocative. The audacity of bare arms and hair. And I felt like I used to as a 6-year-old girl approaching nuns in their habits.
I teach several of these women writing, and while I lead my class like I’ve always done, there is that tiny noise in my head that I may be encouraging them to expose themselves. Where will that lead?
Where does it lead once we go into a world we haven’t been before and expose ourselves?