I feel like Santa Claus coming with books and baby strollers and a head full of verbs. I wonder if I should try and find a chimney to climb down but instead I take the stairs.
The stairs in the stairwell leading to the first floor of the apartment building in Hull seem very narrow to me. As if only people with very small feet would ever use them. Then I think of the petite and beautiful French Canadian women and the stairs make much more sense. Although the mixture changes over time, these descendants of the voyageurs were no doubt the main group of people living here in these apartment buildings likely back in the 60s when they were built. On the first floor to the left, a short six steps on those linoleum tiled stairs, is a family from Mexico and to the right my Syrian family. And they are decidedly “my” family, not in a paternalistic patronizing kind of ownership way, but in a sense of affection for a fellow human being when we will both be learning something together for a period of time.
I’m greeted at the door by the husband and in comes the wife. She is particularly more pregnant it seems to me in just a week. Her great circumference of a belly is as round as the eyes of her children who are all excited to tell me that they had been to the doctor today and the child will be arriving a lot sooner than they thought. The mother does not seem to be as tired this time but she is sad to learn I do not have children. I tell her that is why I love her children now. She smiles. I’m not sure how much she understands as of yet. But I realize she is very quick to learn but much shyer in letting me know. He is very quick to learn. There is no question.
He is clearly frustrated with French classes. He has spent a year and feels as though he has not made any progress. He laughs and shows me his daughter’s head trying to put her head into his because she is fluent with ease in Arabic and French. He wants to be young like her and able to do that. He laughs though with that frustration. He tells me how easily some of his friends have managed to learn English in such a short period of time because they live across the river in Ontario. It isn’t even the fact that it is English but that it is a language that is easier to learn and gets his friends up and running more quickly.
I feel for him. French is the ultimate language of diplomacy because of its precision, but it is that precision that makes learning it a nightmare for some. The comparison of lives and languages is likely unique to our region with the provincial borders five minutes away. It is a vast difference however for the immigrants learning new languages. It would be wrong of me, without any nuanced understanding I’m sure, to say perhaps that this is unfair on humanitarian grounds to expect to learn the complications of French over the simplicity of English. To say such is not intended to start another Separatist movement but to simply state the obvious and question our compassion for a group of people already up against a lot of odds. Far be it from me to say. It is my humble observation. We are not after all Montreal or Quebec City with its vast employment resources for French-speaking job-seekers. And I don't wish to take anything away from the french teachers who are laboring hard to bring this group up to speed. It is simply a question of logistics and humanity at this point.
The children tend to drift in and out while I spend my time intensely teaching the mother and particularly the father tenses of verbs. Once the father understands something, he’s immediately making sense. He is almost making complete sentences. As I explained the present tense of the verb “to be”, a light seemed to go on. "I am,” he says. Then he says "You are... You are crazy!" It is his first complete sentence. I think it is hysterical. I am crazy. You are crazy. He is crazy. We are crazy. I explain it is probably not a good idea to use that phrase for a bit. Then I think, ah hell. It's likely true. We're all crazy. Each and every one of us. It is good to laugh. I think of all the sadness life has to offer and how this family and myself went through what we went through and end up sitting at a table across from each other a world away from where we began. Still alive. Still able to laugh. Looking forward to the birth of a new child into this world. I think of that quote from Ehrmann “With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams it is still a beautiful world.”
I tried to explain to this father, this family that the gift was to teach them and that I thank them for the opportunity. But I’m not sure that the machine that does the translation explained that very well. It will simply have to be understood.