I learned more from teaching that class of Polish students than they ever learned from me.
It was the early 80s and I was living in Winnipeg with my family. I got a job at a language school, teaching ESL, and my first class was made up of 15 Polish adults who were refugees. They had all escaped from their communist-ruled country. Many had children with them. They had recently arrived in Canada and in 20 weeks, they had to know enough English to get a job.
The classes were held five days a week for five hours. Most of the students didn’t know one word of English and I knew it was going to be very difficult for them to concentrate for so long without a break. Sometimes on Friday afternoons, we would play Bingo. I figured it would help them learn their numbers in English and they really loved it.
One day about two weeks into the course, I noticed that Waldemar looked withdrawn and that he seemed to be frowning. I asked him what was wrong. He pointed to his head and said, “No good”.
After using his Polish/English dictionary, I learned that he had a headache. Through a combination of broken English and several gestures, he asked me what to take to get rid of the headache.
I suppose it really struck me then. These people couldn’t even ask for an aspirin for a simple headache. What if it had been something more serious?
My heart seemed to tighten as I looked at my class. What did I see in their faces? I saw happiness and I saw hope. They were learning English in an effort to get jobs to support their families and I couldn’t believe how cheerful and optimistic they were.
I could hardly speak as I wrote the word, “aspirin” on a piece of paper for Waldemar.
The next morning, he was fine and back to his usual cheerful self. The aspirin had done the job and Waldemar showed the rest of the class the piece of paper with the precious word written on it.
The whole class copied it down.
I learned more from that class than they ever learned from me. I think of them often and hope that they are all happy and have been successful in their new life in Canada.