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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WEAPONIZED WORDS

I can’t imagine what would have happened to me had I not been raised in a language-rich home. My parents’ plan was that their daughters should be bilingual from the cradle, and they set about making it happen. They also filled the house with books and read to us.

I’ve been robbed of the language of the cosmos—mathematics—thanks in part to terrible teachers in high school, to a pervasively rotten approach to math education in North America, but mostly thanks to my ineptitude.

But I seem to have been born with a brain that loves language and loves using it.

A source of joy in my life as a teacher of French as a second language is the way many classes spontaneously (and temporarily) morph into improvised linguistics workshops during which we stop to consider the complexity of French verb conjugations (%$#!!) and the comparative weirdness of English spelling, or marvel at the frequent-flyer status of ordinary words that exist simultaneously in English, French, Arabic and Russian (no mean feat!), and delight in idiomatic expressions that can create hilarious befuddlement.

I suppose it’s because they matter so much to me that I’m also so easily hurt by words.

In these Trump-saturated days, I’m in agony.

Last Sunday (October 9th), I tried to watch Donald Trump’s interactions with Hillary Clinton (there’s no way these can be referred to as a debate). After oh, maybe 30 minutes, I had to stop. I had to INSIST that we change the channel. We’d just finished supper and it was the end of a beautiful day, when I noticed that I was starting to feel sick: my pulse was elevated and my stomach was beginning to cramp and I thought that if I didn’t get away from the constant stream of Trump’s diatribe, I was at risk of vomiting up my meal. Trump’s voice and words were proving as effective as ipecac syrup.

Contrary to Mr. Trump, there’s no hyperbole in what I’m writing. Listening to the distortion and abuse of language that flowed almost exclusively out of his mouth, I began to feel that we were all, every viewer that night, being spattered with something toxic. It was as though a fire hose had ceased spraying water and begun dousing us all with the contents of a septic tank.

It was painful, and it made want to turn it off. My agitation surprised me, but my exposure to Mr. Trump’s flow was genuinely hurting me.

I read that more than eighty million people tuned in. I wonder how many made it to the end. Probably most of them. Perhaps you did.

If so, then that makes me different, but it may only be that my threshold’s lower. It’s possible that my love affair with language has made me more vulnerable to weaponized words.

Most of us were taught a simple phrase as children: Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me.

I was never sure how I was supposed to use it. I think our parents meant it to be a kind of verbal placebo or else an incantation, either of which they hoped would act as a shield in the face of our tormentors. But instead, we often chanted it like a dare: a kind of “Bring it on!”.

I learned very quickly that “sticks and stones” was false bravura.

Supervising children in the school yard for many years made it impossible for me to forget what we’re like as children—what we’re capable of saying to each other. I remember many of the times in my youth when my words were cruel. Those memories sometimes float up from my conscience like daydreams gone bad. Sometimes I imagine myself tracking down the person I was hurtful to on that day, and apologizing. It’s never too late to apologize.

I also remember those times when I was on the receiving end of a similar lack of kindness. And worse.

What I remember most clearly about all of those moments is the feelings I experienced on each side of them. Those are the feelings that I carried into adulthood. They’re memories of pain and guilt and sadness. They’re memories I’m pretty sure I’ll die with and that’s  good because it’s the best guarantee I have that I’ll continue to be careful with my words. That I’ll try hard to not lash out, to not use words like guided missiles.

In adult life, things should be different. We should have learned important lessons. We should be able to avoid the world’s bullies. We should be able to see them coming and walk away. And in our personal lives, surely it’s possible to live in loving relationships with friends and family and neighbours that are safe and respectful and genuinely kind.

My three sons, all adults, have never said an unkind word to me. Never. I’m sure they had many moments of internal eye-rolling and grumbling that mercifully I could only guess at, but since the day they were born, they’ve always spoken to me with benevolence and have never even raised their voices. My husband, who grew up in a similar environment, has always tried to avoid using words in anger.

This is at least in part because they know what screaming and violent language does do to me. What its effect would be. And none of us want to live that way.

But what of the things that need to be said between people? Those hard things that we feel choked by—those verbal elephants in the room—when resentment and misunderstanding have filled up the space between people and want a voice?

Then we find ourselves in a minefield.

It has happened twice in my life that a relationship that I believed to be a friendship came crashing down in a torrent of words.

 

In both cases, I was ambushed. I never saw it coming. In each case, the person venting was a woman. Each in their own way—one in real time and the other, in an email—decided to blow up our friendship by telling me everything they thought was wrong with me.

The first time happened more than twenty years ago, and I remember feeling like something had detonated near me. In time, I’ve come to understand that the seed of her frustration and resentment was something about which there was nothing I could have done.

The second time was only last year, just after the November Paris attacks, when a woman I had known professionally and who had since become a friend, a Parisian who has lived in Quebec for decades, was so infuriated by something I wrote on my Facebook page following the terrorist attacks that she sent me a blistering, hateful email. And that was that.

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Being on the receiving end of these assaults was immensely painful. The first time, I walked around in a daze, unable to think of much else. It felt like a cloud of noxious gas covered my life. I played and replayed her words in my head, trying to figure out how she could have been storing such anger for so long without my seeing it or feeling it.

The second time was different because the words were written, and so they could be read and re-read. Had my laptop zapped me with an electrical charge, it wouldn’t have been more jolting. In this case, I began to see cracks in a person I admired for her intellect and cultural sophistication. In this case, I felt shaken and uneasy.

I’ve since purged my computer of all emails from my Parisian acquaintance, and spoken several times to my neighbour and former friend who lives just around the corner. I still think about each of these events, and consider what my responsibility is in each of these failures. These women held up a mirror to me that cast a reflection I found difficult to acknowledge and triggered a lot of soul-searching.

What has struck me hardest is how lasting their effect has been, and how difficult to step outside of their pall.

Weaponized words can never be taken back and shouldn’t be responded to on the spur of the moment.

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It isn’t a fluke that all of this has been spinning around in my head since the Trump campaign began. I’ve seen so much footage of people on the campaign trail holding placards and screaming poisonous things at strangers and video cameras that I’m beginning to wish that we all came equipped with a mute button.

 

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

—Mark Twain