I walk to school in the rain, umbrella pulled up or sideways by a tricky wind. Other solitary figures join me on my early morning pilgrimage, crossing streets dark and glossy in the half-light under soggy gray clouds. We silently wait at the stoplight, the passing traffic spraying us with fine mist, until the signal allows us to cross onto campus and disperse to our classrooms.
My backpack contains no books or binders. I am a 55-year-old educational assistant in a public high school and when I step into the English Language Learners classroom and smile, my is journey complete. I greet the pockets of Indian, Korean, Syrian, Chinese, Colombian, Iraqi, Iranian, Japanese, Mexican and Ukrainian students. This is how I greet the world every morning, and they, in return, teach me about life, love and forgiveness.
It is not easy to decipher the worlds these students represent, in our short exchanges during classes and between bells. It is a gift every time I gain insight into lives so profoundly different from my own. Bits and pieces of ourselves slip out in our exchanges and we’re all intrigued: This student has twenty uncles and aunts – so much for fitting a family tree on a single sheet of paper! This girl wears wigs to school – long, exotic black waves one week, and bouncy corkscrew curls the next. Other girls completely conceal their hair with colourful scarves pinned into place with meticulous care. Another student sometimes wears a pink curler in her bangs as she stoically studies her English. One young man bobbles his head from side to side looking undecided. I found out later that he was agreeing with me!
Sometimes, we get a glimpse into past tragedies. One mischievous 14-year-old with gravity-defying curly black hair enacted a soldier raising his gun and picking off people from his Yadzidi village with a sincere casualness that sent chills down my spine. Another boy from another hemisphere told me that he couldn't leave his house during afternoon and evening hours because that's when his own neighbors, armed with drugs and guns, prowled the streets. Another student proudly showed me his tattered baby picture – one of the few pictures he has from a life he may never be able to return to.
Yet in other ways they are wonderfully innocent. Some of these same students showed delighted surprise to find that the puzzle they had half-heartedly attempted was actually possible to finish.
"Miss!!" they exclaimed in wonder when I finally sat down with them and put a few pieces into place. They watched me match colors, shapes, then, with renewed enthusiasm, jumped in to help. It was magic! We found a place for each piece in what was their first puzzle. They were all just kids again, even after having endured things that they may never be able to verbalize.
A part of me feels guilty, since I am a part of the system to Canadianize these unique newcomers. First, we introduce them to basic English and throw them into gym, woodworking and food classes. Then they’re moved on to the tougher tier of math and science classes before they’re tested by the fire of English Literature and essays (complete with Shakespeare) and social studies – full of vocabulary they’re hearing for the first time, with incomprehensible morals, applications and world views attached. You can almost hear the gears grinding, as we all shift to try to find meaningful traction in this new terrain.
Across the world in their previous homes, they never had to question their identity when they left their houses to go to school or work; their culture was defined by them. In Canada, we are mostly ignorant of their stories and rules. The game is totally changed – a traumatic thing for a teenage migrant. And then, adding insult to injury, our community consistently ranks them at the bottom of almost every class because of their very limited English. This loss of identity plus ability devastates their fierce pride and this hurt comes out in singular ways. Some have tried to tell us, in broken English, how to teach English, or that they don’t need to learn English.
Teachers, who have never even had to consider the somewhat flexible designation before, have been accused of purposefully offering “non-halal” food. Taking away cell phones can trigger "racist" accusations. Some have shaken their tests in my face, blaming me for a low mark that perfectly reflects their English ability, but not their previous mother tongue achievements. There have been tears and real anger and yet the next day, we start again. We are learning together, realizing that we are on this journey for the long haul.
We have also discovered that though this journey will be hard, it has been worthwhile. On this school campus, the “diversity” flag that politicians are so quick to wave, the quick bureaucratic handshake extended to newcomers before they’re sent on their way, is being followed up with real sweat equity. Our little classroom microcosm has shown me that bringing the world into close proximity means rubbing each other the wrong way, navigating the inevitably uncomfortable juxtapositions, and then rolling up our sleeves and actually getting into in the chaos, knowing that we are committed to working it through.
This is the kind of love that wrestles with the imperfect every day in both ourselves and others. It’s the kind of love that extends a hand to the one left on the mat to help them to their feet, because the next day it will be someone else, maybe even you, who’s down there.
For humans in this snow-globe of a planet, where war-shaken cultures are being rapidly dispersed across the continents, to love means to keep re-engaging with each other. When I see that loving my fellow human being means implicitly that I must also forgive them, I am showing them that love is not threatened by our differences.
The irony is that when I first stepped into the diverse world of our ELL classroom, I thought that I had to do most of the forgiving. I had to forgive these students for resisting help, blaming me and others, and refusing to do the work. Over and over, I did forgive them. Their broken pride had to blame someone and I was often in their cross-hairs.
But after some time and reflection, I also realize that I am also asking to be forgiven – for my gross lack of understanding of the devastation that must come from being ripped from identity, country, landscapes, food, family, and friends by war. I also need forgiveness for naively insisting they should simply be thankful for their new home – safe and peaceful, to be sure, but also randomly chosen by strangers – and the new future it diverts them into, an alternate reality where everything is shifted and unfamiliar. And I need forgiveness for assuming that my determined helpfulness to squeeze all of this baggage neatly through our school system is worthy of thanks, as if I were giving them what they were remotely ready for, or had even asked for. At some point you realize the journey of forgiveness is cyclical like this. We forgive and are forgiven in the same breath. This is how Jesus shows me through my students how to love and forgive by showing me how much I need to be loved and forgiven.
One of the students and I have specifically worked through this forgiveness process no fewer than three times – each time, with a little more understanding of each other and a few more tears. My prayer is that we always remember how hard we worked together – not just to pass a class, but also to remain a growing community through the drama of high school and the collision of cultures. We are building something new from love, respect and forgiveness. At the end of the day when we walk back home, I know we are all changed because of each other.