Wednesday, April 6, 2016

E is for ESL (English as a second language)

Shekhawati, Rajasthan, 2014
A six year old is bossing her friends and siblings to sit cross-legged on a chatai (mat) in a cool corner of her grandfather's garden. To the left of this corner is the old shed with its greyish greenish tin roof and to its right--the voluptuous grape vine, hanging heavy with dark green bunches of young grapes. The six year old is behaving just like her grade teacher does with one hand on her hip and the other moving across a blackboard that exists only in the collective imagination of the pretend teacher and her not so willing pretend students. The six year old knows she will  be a teacher when she grows up.

That she'll end up as an ESL teacher, teaching adults in the Arabian Gulf, wouldn't have occurred to her in a million years.

Well, she did. Yes, it's me:) I wasn't a pleasant didi (older sister) at all--if memory serves me right.

Four plus years of teaching the language I love to students who've shown me the warmth, humour, charm and kindness of Qataris has fortified my belief that humans from different backgrounds, cultures, countries, religions, race and gender are all the same. We all have the same needs: to be loved, to be appreciated, to be understood and to live peacefully.

I may have taught them what an adjective is and that in English we put it before the noun, unlike Arabic, where it follows the noun (so old airport becomes Matar Qadeem - airport old) but they opened my heart to a culture I'd only heard of (second or third hand) from friends and visitors.

Unless we talk and exchange ideas, our understanding of another culture is based on our preconceived notions, media images and the news. I've been pleasantly surprised by my students- men dressed in pristine white thobs and women clad in black abayas.

My female students showed me how independent they are. Many choose to stay single and wait for the right life partner instead of settling for the sake of it. Divorce is not taboo. Married women rule at home, just like they do in India and in England. Married men complain about how much their wives spend on shopping, just like the rest of the married men in the rest of the world. Single men have to save money to be able to find a bride (not like in some families in India, where the parents of a baby girl start mustering together dowry from the day she's born). Single girls sometimes spend an entire month's salary on ONE handbag and then wait for the next pay day!

The topic was food. The students were learning new food vocabulary-- we were looking at 'dairy'. A student put his hand up and asked,

'Cheesus, teacher...What food cheesus? Say cheesus...cheesus...in Hollywood film...many, many times.'

'Cheesus?'I asked, puzzled and perplexed.

Moments of pondering and wondering later, it dawned, 'Do you mean Jesus?'

Lessons are peppered with funny moments like this one. Humour comes easily to the Qataris.

A friend of mine was teaching an intro level class; these students know only the alphabet and just a few words of English.

"It's odd, he keeps saying moustache in class. Apart from 'my name is...', and 'good morning', that's the only word he says." shared my friend in the staff room one day.

Both of us did a quick upper lip check for each other to be sure. No, nothing there.

Almost a month later, she found out that one of her stronger students had taught this gentleman that the English word for an 'eraser' is 'moustache'.

I quit my job this year to focus on my writing. I miss the energy and warmth of my students. I miss how some of them would tell me proudly that they were now able to help their children with their English homework or order their meal in a restaurant and not use any Arabic. I miss the pride in their eyes when they scored an 'Excellent' grade. I miss how a thirty-three year old police officer would show the smiley face I'd drawn on his writing practice to his classmate sitting next to him and how his twenty year old coast guard partner would then ask me for one, too. I miss that.  ESL games brought out the innocent child in these men of rank. They fought, tripped each other, cheated, laughed, made fun of the losing team and talked about their win in extremely loud voices over cups of karak at break-time. Lieutenants and Warrant Officers became like any other learners and students I've come across in my teaching career -- willing to give it their best shot.

 I miss the hugs my female students gave me. I miss the teasing, the sharing and the learning.

But most of all, I miss my unlearning -- unlearning the notions I'd grown up with about men in thobs and women in abayas.

Thank you ESL for this unlearning. One day, Inshallah! I may go back to teach and unlearn some more.
My last batch of students -- on a field trip.
I'm wearing an abaya and my students are all in thobs.
A birthday surprise organized by a class of ladies:
the letters on the right are their initials.

20 comments:

  1. Sounds like you taught your students well, and thought taught you too.

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  2. Nice glimpse into your teaching world!

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  3. Great post Arti! I loved the ending. :D

    What a nice cake they got you!

    Shelly @ http://hangryfork.com

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    1. Thanks Shelly. They were an amazing class.

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  4. I have been eyeing on your space wondering what would be E? Perfect punch of memories and your joy of teaching. I happen to be a part time International language Instructor for our mother tongue (Gujarati) on Saturdays here, and I enjoy more or less the same feelings being with my students, though they are just kids ;)

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    1. That's an awesome thing to do Pinkz-- to teach your mother tongue. I wish I'd insisted on sending my children to a Hindi language school when they were growing up.
      Yes, I too cherish the privilege that is teaching.

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  5. Arti....I agree with each word written here! Yes, the students absolutely make your day with their antics. ESL is a fun field, no doubt. And it has given so many people an opportunity to travel and get a glimpse of a different culture. Thanks again for putting all this in words....something we all feel time and again. Yet another interesting post :-)

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    1. Thanks Ruchita. I do miss them and you:)

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  6. Just got caught up on your A to Z entries...now off to read the rest of your blog and watch the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie TED talk. And I'm looking forward to your entries for the rest of the month!

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    1. Hi Jane. It's lovely to see you here. I've read Adichi's Half a Yellow Sun and more recently, her collection of short stories. Unmissable, is what I'd say.
      I was picking blogs to visit (at random) on the long long A to Z list. Pub floors-- this was worth clicking on, I thought and it so is.

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  7. Beautiful post, as always, Arti. Amazing that you are doing this A to Z project. I'm sure it's a great writing exercise, and it gives all of us a little more insight into your life. Can't wait to read what you have in store for the rest of the alphabet.

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    1. Thanks Tara:) What can I say? It's indeed challenging to post everyday. But thinking about a letter a day has thrown up so many different ideas; some that I'd never write about normally. I'm surprised myself. Maybe, you can join in next year?

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  8. Arti this was the first one I read. Missed A to D. Now I'm going to go back and read all of them.
    We do love our preconceived notions- makes life seem more orderly I think. But its a pleasant surprise when they're broken. Like the day recently when I witnessed a family squealing with delight at the birth of a baby girl, when I broke the news to them- usually its the other way round- girls births are (mostly) met with stony silence

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    1. A family squealing with delight at the birth of a baby girl makes me smile. You know what's sad, though? The fact that you still get stony silence. And you practise in a metro where mostly educated live. Thank you for reading and commenting Gopal.

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  9. Thank you for helping me unlearn too. I scrolled down to see the photos first (weird habit of mine) and had all those notions about men in thobs. After reading your post though, I look at them in a different light. :) xx

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    1. That's not weird at all Shweta. I used to read Agatha Christie mysteries' ends before the beginning! You know, one thing that moving around and living in different countries has shown me is that we are all the same- the human race--all of us, under the clothes we wear, the food we eat or the music we like. Sad to see how we then draw these lines to divide ourselves into nations and live all our lives fighting to protect those lines.

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  10. Too good Arti!
    I loved the bit about 'unlearning'.... I did a stint with Injaz Qatar as a volunteer and got an opportunity to teach their Life Skills training modules in 3 different schools acroos Doha and each time I came away with the feeling of having got much more than I gave at these sessions. I am so grateful for my opportunity to unlearn and learn.......

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    1. Absolutely Ketaki. A friend recently called teaching a privilege and it is- 100%.

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