THIRD in a series about teaching English to refugees. Here, a major hurdle right off the bat.
* * *
We get a new student and nobody knows her name.
New students are usually brought in by the Director and introduced, but this one slips in. She and her husband wander around upstairs, lost and unsure where to go, until at last they spot someone.
“Class? English?” the man asks. The wife is escorted here.
We greet her warmly and want her to feel welcome, but she is unable to answer the most basic questions, like “What is your name?” and “Where are you from?”
Most students arrive able to give at least that much information. Some even have their information memorized like a speech. You greet them with “Hello” or “Nice to meet you,” and out it comes:
“My name ….
They say it the same way a soldier gives name, rank and serial number, like it’s the 500th time they’ve said it. Perhaps it is.
I sometimes feel like I’m standing on the dock at Ellis Island, my hair in a bun, a clipboard in hand, and they hope if they say the right words, I’ll let them off the boat. I’ll grant access.
But access has already been granted. Our job here is to help them step into it.
About half the new students recite a little speech. The rest just give their name. Not this student, though. This student says nothing. She looks at whoever is speaking, but no response comes.
I make three attempts. I come at it three different ways. No luck. All she does is nod at me. I get her going on some alphabet work
* * *
Names are very important. Once I have a name, I will use it, and often.
Please sit, _______.
Here’s a pencil for you, ______.
Here’s a notebook for you, _____.
Do you know A-B-C, _____?
Let’s practice, _____.
Here is “A,” _____.
Say “A,” _____.
Practice making an “A” here, _____.
Good job, ______.
“A” is for apple, _____. (show picture). “_____, say “apple.”
See you tomorrow, _____.
I may say her name 30-40 times before noon.
Saying students’ names aloud is important for more reasons than I can list, but just from a selfish standpoint, all this repetition helps me remember. That’s IF I learn the name.
Someone is sent off to find the Director, to ask.
* * *
At break time, we are still in the dark.
Muka arrives. She is late due to a doctor’s appointment. Muka has been a student for two months. She is a challenge. Nothing sticks. Newer students, starting at the lowest level, have come in and surpassed her. Her sporadic attendance does not help matters. Then one day a couple of weeks ago, when I had just about given up all hope, she signed in, printing her full name all by herself!
There is something about the nameless student than reminds of Muka. Muka used to give me that same wordless nod when she first arrived. Have they come out of the same culture?
An idea comes. I wonder if Muka can get the new student to say her name. It’s a long shot, I know. Muka’s native tongue is Kinyarwanda. Only 0.15% of the world speaks it.
I ask Muka to ask the new student her name. Muka’s English is very limited, so this is how this goes:
I say to Muka, “My name, Marilyn. Your name, Muka. What is her name?” There’s a lot of pointing that goes along with this, first at myself and my name tag, then at Muka, then at the new student. Pointing is a big part of teaching English. Forget everything you learned about it not being polite. We are talking survival here.
I make the request twice.
My name, Marilyn.
Your name, Muka.
What is HER name?
Muka strains to understand what I want, seems to, but isn’t sure.
“In Kinyarwandan!” I say.
That unlocks the door.
Muka utters something to the new student.
The new student brightens, smiles and responds to Muka.
The other students – from Nepal, Burundi, Syria – all smile and clap.
We have a name! SUCCESS!
Half-a-morning’s work, this.
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