A great song lyric from Rod Stewart’s Forever Young
Listening to Irfan’s voicemail message, my mind darted back to a November morning in 2007 when he and his older brother Arman walked into my class.
They stopped, stared, and smiled. They said hello and sat down. They pointed to their names and addresses on the paper they carried. They had barely made it to level 1. As a novice teacher in the first year, I was more nervous than they were in the multi- level classroom. At 22, Arman was shouldering the responsibility of caring for his widowed mother and younger brother. At 18, Irfan had moved to Canada with no knowledge of English. They had worked in a factory for a few months before they’d been laid off. He wasn’t even aware he was entitled to Unemployment Insurance (EI now).
The months that followed found me using every method I knew to wrap their heads around the English alphabet, turning the pages of a book from right to left (and not the other way round), the days of the week, the months of the year, and more. Irfan’s responses were zealous. In the meantime, the class, with many senior citizens (all women), were enjoying the newcomers. The devilishly charming older brother had a way with everyone; he spoke the language of the heart and easily fostered friendships. He entertained everyone, becoming the much- loved clown of the class, while the subversive Irfan, who was used to letting his brother be the star of the show, focused on the words, the language, the nuances of the culture, and more.
Four months after their enrolment in the program, I gauged Irfan was ready for assessment. He was thrilled and mustered up the confidence to share his secret ambition to join the police force here. He wanted to be ‘educated’. He thought it might be impossible because of his lack of English. I spent a week of one-on-one time with him after school to convince him that English was already a part of his life and that he should pursue his dream and take a grade 12 equivalency. The following week he made it through the assessment with flying colours. He was a LINC level 2 student who wanted to leap to Level 3 “ASAP”. Soon after, the brothers had to move to another city to take up jobs to make ends meet. As a farewell, the class made Irfan promise that he would pursue his dream to get educated.
After persistent phone calls, enquiries, tests, determination, heart breaks, and assurances, Irfan made it to pursuing grade 12 in Toronto. He worked on weekends to help his brother with the household expenses and saw himself closer to his ambition. As we closed another Facebook chat session, he typed impeccably, “Suma, thanks for everything. You’re like an older sister to me. It’s your turn to visit my home now. In our culture we don’t visit people if they don’t return our visits….lol”. I double checked….yes, he had typed “lol” with the ease of any other boy his age in Canadian society!
I didn’t quite have the words to tell him that it was he who had brought me closer to finding my feet in my first year of teaching. It was he who helped me find the meaning of this noble profession. I had changed careers from ‘marketing’ to ESL teaching because I was tired of always having an agenda while meeting people. Now I have a different agenda while meeting people: “to be able to make that difference.”
And Irfan, I continue to hope that you will get “educated” and eventually realize your dreams in Canada. Good luck, my boy!
Suma Balagopal is an occasional blog contributor to the TESL Ontario Blog and was the recipient of the TESL Ontario’s Sparks of Excellence award in 2014. She teaches from a practical standpoint, and addresses the perspective of the student with an aim to opening up the learner’s mind to new possibilities. Suma finds the methodology of practical and collaborative teaching extremely effective, particularly when dealing with learners in the process of cultural on-boarding.