Cover Yourself

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?

11 thoughts on “Cover Yourself

  1. It’s so cool to hear about someone doing a job they love!

    I find the veil very troubling. I want to respect people’s customs but I can’t help feeling that covering women up so completely is a way of keeping women down.

    I’ve never been in a large group of veiled women and I wonder if I’d have that same sense that I was too exposed – I suspect I might. I still feel that a greater acceptance of people’s bodies is healthier though, and a greater equality between men’s and women’s dress.

    1. Sometimes my job does drive me crazy, but when I think about, I wouldn’t do anything else (except, of course, write and make art).

      I find the veil troubling too, but since I talk every day to women who wear the veil, and my husband’s best friend is an American convert to Islam who wears the veil, I find my feelings about it are extremely conflicted. And I can’t begin to get into it in a blog comment!

      At least, though, the American Muslim has the choice to wear the veil. My students from Saudi don’t. Not if their husbands and fathers want them wear it. And not one of my Saudi female students are here without a man.

      Amazing how political and charged women’s dress can be.

  2. Love that picture.

    go into a world we haven’t been before and expose ourselves

    You mean, like, in writing fiction? 🙂

    I think to go into that forbidden world, or most others, is to set foot on a slippery slope — like they used to say about eating Lay’s potato chips: “Bet you can’t eat just one.” Which I think is why The Authorities forbid taking that first step, no matter how innocuous. It’s like a hit of an addictive drug, at least for certain personalities.

    I’d never in a million years be able to do your job. LOVE the fact that you love it so much! (And yes, even factoring in the times which you’ve also told us about — when you wish you weren’t working at all.)

    1. There is so much about my workplace that is CRAZY. But I love my students (most of the time).

      Ha, yes. Writing fiction. But of course for women, that’s physically too. I mean, in some countries, a tank top is scandalous. And sometimes when I’m with my veiled students, I feel as though I’ve just walked out in a nightgown. It is hard to explain.

  3. It’s interesting to hear your insights on the many different views from people, and the impact you might have on them as a teacher. I don’t know why, but I enjoyed this particular post a great deal.

  4. Exposing oneself in an unfamiliar world … well, I guess it would depend on how safe that world was. I’ve been in familiar worlds where exposing myself was a bad idea. I’m not talking physically, but just in expressing my own thoughts kind of exposing. I had to leave that world, which really is all to the good in the end.

    In a safe world, or a self-created world, that kind of exposure can be a beautiful thing. What is more lovely than being seen and loved for who and what we are?

    1. Leaving an unsafe world is a good thing. There are many of us who glad you did just that.

      Ah, to be seen for what and who we are… the trick is to know that for ourselves first, I suspect. Or how will anyone else recognize it?

  5. It didn’t seem dull at all Marta. In fact, this post reminds me of a book I just finished re-reading: “If You Want to Write” by Brenda Ueland. It’s hard to explain, but something about the way you wrote this reminds me of the kinds of examples she gives of really great writing: a kind of honesty and care in the details, straightforward language, etc. I loved this post. I could have kept reading for a whole books’ worth…

  6. Let me know what you think. It was written in 1938 so some of it is a bit dated, (she exclaims that Van Gogh’s paintings sell for two million, and talks about women who work as servants ) but not the advice.

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