My Seneca students don’t speak English as their second language. It’s their fourth, or seventh, sometimes ninth. (Ever want to feel inspired to accomplish more with your life? I invite you to come talk to these kids, who come all by themselves at age nineteen to a brand new country where they work two jobs AND go to school AND get all As AND AND AND.)
So I’m standing in front of my students and I’m saying, “I understand being afraid to speak in a new language. Hell, I’m at the very beginning of learning the Hindi alphabet and I’m terrified to say the sounds of the letters out loud.” And then my brain says to me, “…so, now that you’ve said that, it’s obvious what you need to say next, right?” and I’m like I DON’T WANT TO and my brain is like, “You KNOW what to say NEXT, SAGE,” and I give up with a little whimper and say, “Um, I’ll make a deal with you. I promise to come to class next week and write and say Hindi letters if you promise to be super loud when you’re telling your stories.”
And I do. I practice like crazy and a week later I’m standing in front of the kids and I’m writing and saying the letters. (I’m telling them the stories I’ve made up, too, like how Ma is a mama holding her baby and Na is a cool counter leaning person and EE is the sound you make when you see that SNAKE) and yeah, it’s terrifying. The Hindi speakers in the room are gently helping me, the kids who don’t speak the language are turning to each other and whispering, “The teacher is being taught!” and though I don’t get them all correct, I am proud of myself for trying.
Later, one of my Hindi speaking students comes up to me in the hallway. “I just want to tell you,” she says, “You did a great job in there with those letters. You are learning well.”
And I feel awestruck. By the time these kids take – in the midst of holding down jobs, missing their families, studying hard, commuting for two hours just to get to school – to be really, really, kind.