Monday, 2 March 2009

Something in Common

Hallelujah: it's the beginning of the term and attendance is down because of a storm; the classroom is entirely empty. It looks like I'm going to get out of teaching today! I've got coffee on my mind, and the sesame seed rolls they bake fresh every morning and sell in the cafe downstairs...

But just before I can gather up my books, along she comes. She's a sturdily built girl with long black hair, and when she sees that no one else is in the classroom, she stops there in the doorway, one hand on the doorknob, her mouth open in surprise.

"It looks like you're the only one," I say and she freezes, then seems to understand. "Only one," she breathes, entering the class and putting her books down.

"I'll understand if you don't want to stay," I tell her and she stares back at me, stricken: clearly she doesn't understand.

"It's okay if you want to go home," I try again. "You don't have to stay."

Her face relaxes as she seems to understand. "I go?"

"If you want to."

She still looks puzzled.

"Because you're the only one," I say a little desperately. This is supposed to be one of the higher classes!

"Ah." The girl looks uncertain, but she starts to gather up her books. I feel bad.

"If you want to stay, you can," I tell her. "You can have an individual lesson."

The girl licks her lips. "Okay."

I'm bowled over: given this girl's low level of English, I honestly didn't expect her to take me up on this. But this girl obviously needs extra English and a short one-to-one lesson is always interesting. It's always fun to learn what I have in common with each and every student: there is always something.

"What's your name?"


Melis sits back down and we manage a conversation of sorts. Her English is rock-bottom basic: she can't even tell the difference between an information and a yes-no question, so we start there. But it's touch and go. Good thing I've got markers, a whiteboard, and my hands to gesture with.

I do a lot of gesturing. And try not to think about the sesame seed rolls downstairs.

It turns out that Melis and I have absolutely nothing in common. Her favorite food, she claims, is grilled meat; I prefer vegetables. She has four brothers; I have two sisters. She can't stand cats; I love them. Her hobbies are hunting with her brothers and playing football; I'd rather lick the toilet floor than do either. Melis likes Arabesque music and has never even heard of any of the stuff I like. She doesn't like reading, can't stand cooking, and as far as I can tell, her chief ambition is to attend the formula 1 grand prix in Istanbul with her brothers. The very thought of this bores me half to death.

Then the door slams open and two boys peek inside the room.

"Tee-cha, lesson today?" one asks, wrinkling his forehead.

"If you like," I say. "But we're just talking."

The boy mutters something to his friend in Turkish.

"Talking," the friend leers. "Girls talking!"

I catch myself just before I say Oink, oink; I don't know these boys at all. More importantly, this is a Muslim country and I'd hate to have to explain my insult.

"Girls always talking!" the friend laughs back. "Talk, talk!"

"Boys talk too," I blurt out, unable to help myself.

Still grinning, the boy says something to his friend in Turkish and Melis bristles. Tilting her head, she fires something back. The boys protest, but Melis interrupts, eyes narrowed and lips pursed. Eyes full of righteous indignation, she makes a tsssk sound as she jerks her head back -- the Turkish gesture of disapproval. Even I feel intimidated.

The boys back out of the classroom, tails between their legs.

"What did you say?" I ask. Because whatever it was, it had to be the Turkish equivalent of oink, oink.

She shrugs. "I have four brothers."

Melis, the meat-eating, cat-hating, football-playing formula 1 fan, is obviously not prepared to take any nonsense from The Other Side.

I just knew we'd have at least one thing in common.


Jacqui said...

I love your description of her retort. Pure venom. Thanks.

Jessie said...

I have been reading your blog for quite awhile - I love your writing, I'm there watching everything in my mind that you describe...and I love this. I have 3 boys and now a baby girl - I have a feeling in some ways she will be a lot like your student here :0)

debra said...

Common ground transcends differences, I think. Great story.

Carrie Harris said...

Wow. Maybe next time she'll be able to put them in their place in English. :)

Mary Witzl said...

Jacqui -- I've been trying to copy the tsk-tsk gesture she used for some time now, but I still don't quite have it. Maybe in a few more months...

Jessie -- Thank you for reading and commenting!

Any girl with brothers has to learn how to be tough, I think. Melis told me that she loves being the only girl in a family of boys, so here's hoping your daughter feels just the same.

Debra -- I agree. I just wish I could understand Turkish; I'd love to learn a few put-downs myself.

Carrie -- I fear that Melis has a lot of catching up to do before she gets to that level; her English is woefully basic. Still, I'd love to see her try.

Robin said...

She sounds adorable. I love that she was able to put the boys in their place. For some reason I imagined girls being more timid in Turkey. Clearly, I need to be put in my own place by Melis.

Ello said...

Good for Melis!

Christy said...

Go Melis! That's terrific - even if she didn't catch the subtext that you just wanted an hour off. I'm curious - how do you teach that sort of body language? Is it something that students just pick up along with the regular lesson? Or do you give specific lessons on gestures and such as part of the language class?

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm still goggle eyed at "rather lick the toilet floor than play football."

Whoa. I'd rather play football by myself against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

adrienne said...

I have two brothers but don't think I'm half as tough. I'd love to know what she told them... :D
Despite the language limitations and lack of common interests, you certainly covered a lot of topics!

Mary Witzl said...

Robin -- I pictured this too! I had this awful stereotype of demure Turkish ladies in headscarves. The truth is that they're just like us: lots of different personalities. I'm going to do a post on this one day. The first person I got to know here is a fellow colleague, a tall, glamorous, willowy woman in her late twenties...who was once an officer in the Turkish Army. She's even got photographs to prove it. Imagine my amazement.

Ello -- Yeah, good for her! Wish she'd scored a little higher in the placement exams, though.

Christy -- I teach body language whenever the need arises. Most Japanese and Turkish students need to learn how to shake hands, for instance, and I always teach this. In Japan, there are a lot of gestures that are completely different from what we use in the West -- so much so that they are misleading. I always taught the correct 'western' gesture so that students would realize that there was more to a language than words.

Charles -- Notice that I didn't specify WHICH toilet floor here. If we're talking Grand Central Station, for instance, I'm okay for a little football. But I'd lick my own toilet floor rather than play football any old day. Especially if I'VE cleaned it.

Adrienne -- I grew up with only sisters and I always figured that girls with brothers got a real headstart on learning how to deal with men and boys. Melis certainly knew how to talk to them -- and she didn't have to make any porcine references either. Wish I knew what she said...

Kim Ayres said...

Wonderfully written, Mary, as always :)

Charlie said...

Since Blogger just ate my brilliant comment, all I will say is this:

Can you say "spitfire"?

Nandini said...

I love this story. Cool how she sent them packing. Don't know why people think feisty women only exist in the west. Though I bet you could have taken them single handed tee-cha ;)

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- I'm not really writing them anymore, you know. I just sit back and watch/listen to my students and lo and behold, there's another post.

Charlie -- She spat fire all right. Wish she could have taught me how to do it; it'd come in handy in my writing class.

Nandini -- I got the idea that Turkish women might be meek and submissive from living in Holland, where a lot of Anatolian Turks live. The women there tended to be veiled and well covered, but I now know that under those veils is a lot of feisty-ness.

I'm learning to handle boys like that, but it's tough going. I think having loads of brothers gives a girl a great advantage.

Marcia said...

"What did you say?" I ask. Because whatever it was, it had to be the Turkish equivalent of oink, oink.

She shrugs. "I have four brothers."

Love this!!!

Kim Ayres said...

That's like saying you're not taking a photo, just pointing the camera where the action's happening. It's all in the choice of what to leave in, what to leave out, how to construct it all. If it's coming more easily, it doesn't mean it's not happening

Tabitha said...

Ha! Love it!! :) You go, Melis. :) And, of all things, I'd choose this to have in common with another woman. :)

laura said...

I'd rather lick a toilet floor? Thanks for a saying that I feel I'll be using frequently from now on!

Carole said...

Such good stories. Such a good writer. Such a fun read.

problemchildbride said...

This is so blooming well-written, woman. I love the way you frame your stories: the attempt to find something in common, for example. It adds different dimension to the anecdote, it feels more crafted and personal, and it is a real Mary Witzl marker. You have a warm, clever and unique style, Mary. It's a really appealing mixture. I love it.

Mary Witzl said...

Marcia -- Thank you. I just wish I could have reproduced, word-for-word, what Melis said. Or better still, the way she said it.

Kim -- That's a good analogy, and thank you for writing that.

Tabitha -- I agree! As I watched Melis putting those two boys in their places, I felt an immediate connection that made all our other differences seem trifling. It's so nice to see spirited, fiery girls who won't put up with nonsense.

Laura -- I'm happy to be of some use. I figure we can both use that toilet floor licking with clear consciences: as long as WE've cleaned the toilet floor first, we have nothing to fear, right?

Carole -- Don't forget: such kind and sympathetic readers, too. That makes a big difference.

Sam -- Reading that from you helps so much -- especially since only two minutes ago, I opened yet another rejection e-mail. My writing doesn't have 'enough pathos'. So your kind words are a perfect balm, as are all the nice things people write here. Wish you guys were the ones reading my query letters.

Bish Denham said...

What a wonderful story! There's hope for women everywhere! Go Melis!

Barbara Martin said...

Wonderful for women everywhere!

Mary Witzl said...

Bish -- I agree: it's nice to know that there are plenty of hardcore feminists among the new generation.

Barbara -- Sometimes I get discouraged when I think that girls aren't making the most of some of the ground that's been broken for them. Then I meet a girl like this and I see that the baton hasn't been fumbled after all.