English as a Second Language

by Cynthia Bruckman

They ordered him to leave the country in a letter that began:


How eerie, I remember thinking about that strange combination of words, and also, in the back of my mind: how perceptive.

We consulted a lawyer, and he guessed that a bureaucratic error might be why the government had denied him another visitor’s visa. He encouraged us to appeal the decision. But it wasn’t long after our visit to the lawyer’s office that like Canada, I, too, saw through his façade and had enough.

His rental van screeched backward and crushed a rain gutter on the side of the house before he sped away. I stood there, feeling completely cut off from the rest of the world, and cradled my cracked cell phone like it was a lifeless bird in the palm of my hand.

A few weeks later, I heard, as if for the first time ever, the word “boundaries” spoken by someone in my women’s group and slowly realized how methodically he had crossed mine.

We had driven over the border just seven months earlier, all the way from Asheville, North Carolina with our two dogs. In short order, I secured a position as a university instructor, teaching ESL to international students, new immigrants, and refugees.

One morning, he dropped me off in front of the building where I worked. He was yelling at me, and he knew that he was embarrassing me in public, but he didn’t care. From then on, I drove myself to work.

When I returned to work after I had kicked him out, I wasn’t confident that I’d be able to stand in front of a class and model coherent speech, let alone decent grammar, but I knew that the routine of my new job would be a healing distraction. So I flipped off the switch to my emotions, and I wore a smile like a mask. I was so convincing that students praised me on evaluations for being “funny” and “passionate about teaching”.

In one of my classes, there was a young man from the UAE named Mohammed with a spectacular Afro. A discussion about religion got out of hand. Mohammed, embracing his free-spirited, new lifestyle in B.C., had offended a more conservative classmate who told him that not believing in God would cost him his life back home. I redirected the conversation, trying to de-escalate the anger in the room – a skill at which I had become highly adept.

In another class, a Chinese student presenting as a trans male, who took the English name “Tim”, confided in me that he could not identify as a man back home, or his parents would disown him. I felt protective of Tim in his black leather jacket and owl-like glasses, and I loved calling on him in class because I could see that every time I said his name, I helped him speak himself into his new existence.

Every night after work, I’d come home, drop the smile, look numbly into the mirror, and exhale all of the air that I’d been holding in to keep myself upright in front of my students.

I’d try to relax before bedtime by opening a book, but a frustrating side effect of things was that I could no longer read. In books, I had found one of my life-sustaining pleasures, but now, because I had to read every sentence three or four times to glean any sort of meaning from it, I wasn’t finishing them.

Thankfully, this did not affect my ability to teach. I even earned extra income tutoring on the side. One of these learners was a young woman from Saudi Arabia who had to read my lips because she was partially deaf.  I remember the day when she proudly announced that her father bought her a new car, when women were still not allowed to drive in her home country. She was beaming.

“Congratulations!” I told her. “Now you can do anything you want to in life.” She gestured that she didn’t quite get my meaning. “A car is independence. You can take yourself anywhere now!” She had been watching my lips, but it was only when her eyes met mine that we shared a moment of real understanding.

Occasionally, one of my students would ask me about my personal life. “Are you married?” “No. I recently broke off an engagement.” Thankfully, that was enough to stop the line of questioning. I think that many of my students, when they discovered that I was single, liked to imagine me as an adventurous, independent, woman-of-the-world. I happily let them latch on to this version of me because it not only modelled strength to so many that seemed to need it, but it also became my protective armour.

A new student from Syria showed up in my class, looking several years older than the birth date printed on my roster. She appeared shell-shocked and anxious. I recognized myself in her by the way her smile belied a hidden grief behind her eyes. For a writing project, she listed “water” as her biggest fear. She explained that she had seen many people drown when she was crossing the ocean on her way to a safe haven. She will have a hard time here, I thought to myself, living on an island, where there is water all around her, every day, as a constant reminder. At a class potluck, she thanked me for teaching her English. She called it the language of power, and she hoped that by learning it, she might find peace and stability in her new life.

Soon, I was tasked with teaching a class on Canadian culture to new arrivals. Being a new Canadian myself, I watched “8th Fire” to orient myself to Canada’s indigenous history. There was an unspoken expectation that I would teach students about hockey and maple syrup, but after watching an episode that showed how children in the residential schools were compelled to speak English and systematically stripped of their cultural identities, I stopped enforcing our department’s “English only” rule in my classroom. I found it incredibly satisfying to empower my students with provocative questions like, “What do you want people to know about you that is different than the stereotypes?”

“Not all Asians are good at math!” shouted a young Korean man in the back of my classroom one day.

Just before the summer term began, one of our most beloved instructors died unexpectedly. Our Associate Dean asked me if I would take over his class two days later. I was unnerved at the prospect of trying to fill his shoes, but several of my colleagues expressed their confidence in my abilities. Word in the department was that I had a pretty good storehouse of teacher empathy.

On my first day with this class, I encountered a small group of students who were stunned into silence, and they stared at me as I struggled to find the right words. Sometimes, when you’re at a loss, your empty hand reaches into your teacherly bag of tricks, and you grasp at some tool (like a magic wand) that ends up being perfect. I found myself spontaneously recycling the same exercises that a counsellor had used with me several months before:

“Look around this room, and observe five things that are circular in shape.”

“Feel the floor underneath your feet. Feel it solidly supporting you.”

“Take three deep breaths.”

I showed them a short film on the theme of mindfulness and the importance of being in the present moment. I told them how it would add light-heartedness to their lives, and I sort of felt like living proof, but I didn’t mention that.

When I left work that day, I took a long walk in the forest. I thought about my colleague who had left behind two young children, and I sensed him there in the woods with me, reassuring me that my first lesson with his class had struck just the right notes. I knew that they had accepted me, and I was starting to step back into the confidence I had always worn like a second skin; like it was this long-lost language I was meant to revive. We would be a great help to one another, and that was comforting.

My troubles seemed to momentarily leave my body, float high up in the trees, and disappear.∎

Photo by Rubén Rodriguez.