It has begun surfacing once again— intermittent, sudden, fleeting.
Something that I can best describe as an internal lurch; a quick and uncomfortable dropping feeling in my belly that catches me off guard.
And I’m reminded that though I’m absorbed in what I’m doing: preparing to teach, heading off to teach or actually in class with my adult students, my body knows that change is just around the corner, and sends tiny internal depth charges to remind me.
It’s a very familiar feeling of apprehension mixed with a drop of dread that’s part of a cycle that I’ve lived with for the past 7 years.
It’s almost time to move on.
That’s my body’s message. For five of the ten groups that are mine right now, our story ends next week.
That’s because all of the contracts that allow me to go to students working in companies around the city eventually come to an end—usually after five to eight months.
When I start a new contract and meet a brand new group of students, strangers all, it always feels fresh and hopeful, the way beginnings should feel, and the road ahead feels clear and promising. It’s the luxury of time.
Though I’ve had many dozens of such groups since I began teaching French, and come to this point of parting with them time and time again, it’s still as hard as it was the first time.
“When you care about things, it ends up wearing you out.”
― Sakisaka Io
I first started in my school board’s adult education centre. It was a real boom period then, and classes were filled with people committed to learning French thirty hours a week. Imagine that. Thirty hours. Groups of twenty to twenty-five people brought together, full-time, hoping to emerge speaking a new and essential language.
I was always given the beginners, the newbies, which is a fantastic privilege because it gave me the chance to welcome them into this new French-speaking world. To set the tone. To make them forget all of their fears and previous experiences of school. To relax and trust themselves, and trust their classmates, and trust me.
It has always felt important that my students enter class with a smile, but even more so that they leave smiling.
Oh! the insanity of it. Because each level lasted only eight weeks. Intense as it was, our time together was a mere two months. Sometimes I got to take them a further 8 weeks, but not always. And so, that last day of each term was a big, messy, bittersweet party that included an international (and delicious!) pot luck lunch.
It was incredibly gratifying and also just exhausting for me and I always came home feeling wrung out, a bit low, and relieved that the pressure of parting had been released.
“Parting with friends is a sadness. A place is only a place.”– Frank Herbert
The special allure of adult language education is that each student in my class is a peer. And each is a potential friend. Could be. Might become one.
Going into companies to teach changed things around for me because in most places, I only see my students once a week for two to three hours—just a drop in the bucket—but we journey together this way for four or six or nine months at a time.
The average size of a group is usually six, though it can drop to three or go as high as a dozen; and this has freed me. In the intimacy of a small group, no one is ever looking at another person’s back—we are always in a circle, always face to face. In a small group, names are learned quickly and a far more personal tone is set. Also, the possibilities of what I can bring to them and what we can discuss and undertake isn’t as rigidly structured as the Ministry of Education program. Everything is fodder for conversation in French.
You can’t hide in a small group.
Each develops its own, unique chemistry that leaves a distinctive imprint on my memory. I remember them in feelings. I remember the interplay between them: the unexpected pairings of personalities that emerged in class. I remember what made them laugh. And which of them made me laugh. I also remember what made them fearful and stressed—lay-offs and company closings are the darkest possible clouds that we’ve travelled under.
“Also, I suppose I wanted to say goodbye to someone, and have someone say goodbye to me. The goodbyes we speak and the goodbyes we hear are the goodbyes that tell us we’re still alive, after all.”
― Stephen King, Wolves of the Calla
When I say goodbye to five of my groups next week, it will be without knowing how long these goodbyes will last.
Just two days ago, in the company cafeteria, a man tapped me on the shoulder and said Bonjour Madame, and I recognized Luren, an intense and interesting man who had been my student in 2012 at a different company location. He was starting his day and only had a minute, but he wanted me to know that he had been back to Peru and had married a woman that he had known since childhood, and that he was very happy. When we parted he said, smiling, that perhaps we would meet again in a French class.
These are special moments in my life, when I feel how lucky I am that my work brings me into this stream of humanity.
Next week, we’ll say hopeful au revoirs. Maybe classes will begin again some time next year, and many of these wonderful people will re-register. In an ideal world, we could pick up where we left off.
Maybe some will find me on Facebook and I will be given a different window into their lives.
Maybe that’s it, and I will never see them again.
Or maybe, like Luren, we will meet unexpectedly one day.
When that day comes, even if it’s years down the road, please, may I remember their names.
Paola, Leon, Ying Yao, Anita, Liang Yu, Leonardo, Georgi, Graham, Chih Tao, Daniel, Yun, Azer, Leo, Keith, Jun, Pramod, JiaCong, Hong Ming, David, Manish, Stephen (Big Steve), Amira, William, Cristinel, Calin, Azadeh, Emanuele, Veli, José, Li, Yan et Manmohan.
“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”
― Frank Herbert