LOOSE THREADS

Yesterday, I said farewell to three groups of students I’ve been working with since last February.

Perhaps it was simply au revoir, but only time will tell. It felt that way because it was relaxed and informal. We left each other smiling, with the promise of a lunch date sometime in the new year. I hope I’ll see all of them again. I plan to make that lunch date.

The conference room where we meet. Waiting for students to arrive.
The conference room where we meet. Waiting for my students to arrive.

Last evening, it hit me that I had forgotten to take a picture of them, and thinking of it now upsets me. My son Christian said: You were just living the moment, and of course that’s true. I had actually written a reminder to myself on a paper that I felt sure I would have within sight while with them, but I was swept away by the then & there.

Our near year together wasn’t always smooth. These people work very hard in an industry (nuclear pharmacology) that allows no slouching and no errors, and absenteeism was always a problem which we lived with each in our own way.

Never knowing which of them (in the three groups I saw every Friday) would be able to attend class on any given week meant that my integrated and interconnected lesson plans would always be more like moth eaten teaching attempts (or Swiss cheese?) from their perspective; that there would always be someone who didn’t quite feel in sync with the group.

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I’m not sure who was bothered most by this. Inexplicably, this pressure they were under, their struggles to attend class, brought us closer. We arrived at an unspoken understanding.

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There was even a Friday when a student arrived late looking frazzled, sat down, sighed and apologized for being late and then said in her tenacious Cuban accent that though she had work up to her ears and even several meters above that, she had come knowing she would escape all of her stress for two hours. She then plunged right into the activity we had started and gave it her full attention.

 

Even if it’s only for two hours a week, you learn a lot about people that you see for ten months. Their individual narratives are revealed in uneven scenes and chapters according to their desire to share on any given day.

There’s no end to where language can take us. One of my greatest motivations is to bring them to a level of fluency that’ll make it possible for them to express everything they want to share, with nearly as much subtlety and nuance in French as they have in their mother tongue. I hope to reach the point with them when the medium and the message become so intertwined that grammar lessons and verb acquisition meld with the exploration of current events, the vagaries of our daily lives, our pasts and futures, our passions, hopes and dreams.

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In my three groups were people with experience in accounting, finance, nuclear pharmacology, radiation safety, research and development, standards and safety, information technology, chemistry and production. These rarely came up in conversation. In their place were stories about one student’s passion for jewelry making and another’s childhood memories of life in Colombia with a big brother who was a real-life Indiana Jones; about one man’s worries and struggles to care for a mother who is sliding into depression and dementia but lives thousands of miles away; about the stresses of preparing a son for the entrance exams to a coveted school; about one life started in India, then restarted in China, then Montreal; another’s wandering from Iran to perhaps Boston one day (he misses the proximity of the sea); or another’s life that started in Russia, migrated to Israel and now seems to want to settle in Quebec.

Who can account for such trajectories?

Polar Vortex hovering over Montreal, December 2016
Polar Vortex hovering over Montreal, December 2016

Last week, my youngest student, who has been in Montreal for a couple of years now (I think he counts them by winters) told me a great story. It’s the current hovering of this year’s first polar vortex over Canada that brought it to mind.

It happened two years ago. It was a frigid minus twenty degree winter day and a snowstorm was making a mess of local roads. He had recently arrived from India, had started his new job and was driving home with a young Indian friend visiting for a few days. On the service road, just off the TransCanada highway, he hit a snow drift, lost control of his car and veered wildly into the left lane where it collided with another.

Though his car was badly damaged, he and his friend were okay. They were also—as is the case with all new immigrants experiencing the ferocious bite of their first Québec winter—dramatically underdressed. While they stood out in the howling wind and sharp cold, shaking, shivering and in shock, the woman whose car they had smashed emerged from her vehicle. In the back seat, he could see her children. That’s when his heart sank.

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With a wide-eyed expression of incredulity that’s no doubt identical to the one he was wearing on his face that day, he told me that the woman walked briskly toward them and, after listening to him babble his profuse and stricken apologies, simply answered: Well, welcome to Montreal!

 I burst out laughing.

These are just some of the loose threads dangling in my life this week. I want to pick them all up. I hope I will.

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MOVING ON

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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Album art work for Pink Floyd’s The Endless River 

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.

Here’s to:

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.

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There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.” 
― Frank Herbert