I have recently begun teaching English to adults here in Ottawa. It’s been a bit of a steep learning curve- no singing, no dancing, and no stickers. The upside is that my students don’t punch each other or cry if they lose interest, or don’t understand.
At the moment, my class is made up entirely of Libyans. The Libyan Embassy is across the street, and so my class is made up of the daughters, wives, and sons of Libyan diplomats. It’s fascinating; I’m learning LOTS about Libya.
Over the past few weeks, various locations in Canada have come up in conversation but my students have not known where they were in relation to Ottawa; they have a very, very limited sense of Canadian geography. Not that I judge them; I have a very, very limited sense of Libyan geography.
This week, I decided to spend the last few minutes of class labelling a map of Canada. Nothing major, just the provinces, territories, and the oceans on either side.
“Is no Libya,” one of my students muttered, pushing the map back at me across the desk.
“Well done!” I exclaimed brightly. “It’s not Libya! Gold star for you!”
“No Libya, no interesting,” he returned, impervious to my sarcasm.
“How wrong you are!” I replied in an overly cheerful voice, determined to teach them something, anything about the country they would be living in for the next 4 years. “Canada is very interesting!”
My students may not have understood my exact words but they got the tone. We were going to label the map or die trying. Sighing and muttering in Arabic, they picked up their pencils and looked at with barely concealed resignation. I couldn’t really blame them. Does anyone really want to learn how to spell Saskatchewan?
I gulped, suddenly nervous. I had made a rather large claim: Canada is interesting! And it is but how do you explain extraordinary natural resources and multiculturalism to people who had trouble with the days of the week in English?
Slowly but surely, we made our way across Canada. One student had a cousin in Vancouver so British Columbia was covered. Another had lived in Fredericton for a few months so we could cross off New Brunswick. Gradually we named all the provinces except Manitoba. And there I drew a blank. What was interesting about Manitoba? It had the world’s coldest intersection but I wasn’t sure my charade skills were up to that. What else was there?
Mosquitoes. I had a vague memory of hearing about great clouds of mosquitoes in Manitoba. I wrote mosquitoes on the board but no one knew the word. I buzzed and flapped my arms.
“Honey?” suggested one of my students.
Finally I drew this Picasso-esque mosquito.
“Is no mosquito. Is RPG,” came a small voice from the back. It was an elderly student who I could have sworn was deaf and mute. I’d never heard her make any sort of sound in English or Arabic, and she’d never reacted to anything I’d ever said or done.
“Is what?” I replied weakly, hoping RPG meant something else in Arabic.
“Is RPG! Teacher, you know! RPG!” she explaimed as if I had rocks for brains. “RPG! Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee…. [insert explosion noise here]!!!!!”
The entire class perked up, and began making what I assumed to be RPG noises. Never having seen or heard one, I can’t be quite sure. They appeared to be part of daily life in Libya though if my students’ reactions were anything to go by.
A young man at the front of the class put up his hand, and using the sentence pattern I had been trying to teach them all week said, “Teacher! In Manitoba, there are RPG mosquitoes!”
And where could I go from there? Absolutely nowhere. How do you top rocket-propelled grenade mosquitoes?
“Goodbye everybody, see you tomorrow.”