Seeking English As a Second Language

Teach me," a soft voice murmured, as a shadow fell across my desk. A long black overcoat loomed up beside me. It was topped by a pale face with a saturnine expression. "Teach me," the figure breathed again.

This was one of the memorable first encounters with a student when I was director of English for Foreign Students at a university in America's heartland. He refused to sit. "I Iraqi. Name, Sirwaki. Go Paris. Study art. French language no good. Go London. No understand there. Teach me!" he implored once more. Paris, London? I wondered how he got to central Indiana.

* * * *

A first encounter with another foreign student began similarly when a young man, American this time, appeared just outside my office door. "I ... uh...." he said.

"Come in," I invited.

He advanced one step. "I ... uh ... she...." he pointed over his shoulder.

Suddenly, he shot into the room, as if pushed. A small Asian woman brushed past him. "Tell her," she demanded.

"She ... uh ... she wants...." he said.

The young woman pushed him toward a chair in the corner and sat in one beside my desk. "I Jane, Jane Smith, Korean. He ... hubby. He go school GI Bill. Teach me English. I go, too. You have class for me?"

I gave her the necessary form, and directed the couple to the registrar's office.

"Where ... uh ... how?" said Hubby.

"We find," said Jane, pulling his arm.

* * * *

A gentleman with gray around the temples approached with a formal, "Professor, pardon," and bent slightly as if to bow or even kiss my hand. His business suit was neat, though frayed, his English labored as he searched for words. "I am custodian at junior high school," he explained slowly. "When much work to finish maybe I come late to English class. I pray you excuse."

I learned that he was Dr. Nagy, formerly a professor at a prestigious university in Budapest. Revolution had forced him to flee his country, leaving his wife and two young daughters. "Perhaps someday we be together, and I even teach again," he sighed.

* * * *

A sandy-haired young man stormed in. "Everybody here is crazy!" he exploded. "A bloke over there at registration told me I must take a course in English as a Foreign Language because I have an 'accent.' Has nobody in this wild North America ever met a Scotsman?"

I wrote a note exempting him.

* * * *

Perhaps the most dramatic encounter took place in a graduate course I taught for language teachers. The first class had just begun when what seemed to be a human butterfly flitted in. Her golden sari attracted everyone's attention, but what was more arresting was her face. On each bronze cheek, beginning near the outside corner of each eye, were three black stripes, becoming broader as they radiated out. She crossed the room with complete self-possession. "Sorry to be late," she said with British intonation. "I misunderstood the location of the classroom."

This young woman had a friendly manner, and her appearance soon ceased to matter. She explained that the markings were considered beautiful at home and had been applied when she was nine years old.

What became of these students? Apparently, foreign languages were not Sirwaki's metier. He disappeared before the term was over. Jane Smith made phenomenal progress in English, but an academic education was not for her husband. He went to work in his uncle's gas station.

Dr. Nagy thanked me when the class was over with another formal bow. I never heard from him again, but learned that he was no longer a custodian. The Scottish lad was absorbed into the general student body. Girls thought his Scottish accent was "awfully cute." And the young woman with the beauty markings? She told me she would be a faculty member of a university when she returned home.

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