(Previously published by the Heliconian Club in Musings: An Anthology, 2021;
The Arts and Letters Club library has accepted a copy of the anthology.)
“I like walk,” says Shih.
Earth, moon, space, planet, night are printed across the classroom chalkboard’s entire width.
“You like to walk at night?” I point to the end word, hoping my expression stays as serious and earnest as those facing me. To other groups, I’d admit my stab in the dark, and we’d smile together. These students don’t know enough English.
“Yes, Miss. Dark nice.”
Most in this large high school English as a Second Language class are good attenders, conscientious about assignments. Notebooks are open, word lists ready, sentences created for homework visible underneath. Silently, Shih picks up his awkward metal chair-desk, sets it down to abut Mei-Ling’s. She moves her binder so he can also see it. He was absent yesterday.
We’re reviewing vocabulary before today’s quiz. Our text is a puny pamphlet, a tale of a man who soars into space instead of going to bed, and talks the friendly aliens he meets into bringing him home to Earth before daybreak. It was the only reading material in the storeroom easy enough and with copies for all. The plot is ridiculous, illustrations juvenile.
On the board, below each target word, classmates have chalked sentences using it. Most are about the solar system. One, for space, concerns crowds on Toronto’s subway in the morning.
“Shih, you can write I like to walk outside at night,” I tell him.
He pauses for help with outside.
Sentence complete, Armando says, “Me, too. Alone very late. Three o’clock is beautiful.”
Armando has spread his arms wide. Shih faces his classmate, lifts a hand toward the windows. They’re sharing a secret passion.
Into my head strolls a shadowy male form. Crossing a street under a moonless sky, the figure gets flattened by a delivery van. The body could be Armando, Shih, any of the other fellows. Not waiting to see who might speak next, I put beautiful, stars, black, on the board, then add safe, using the side of the chalk to make its four letters large and thick.
“How,” I ask, “do you stay safe outside, alone at night?”
In halting English, class members explain about lights, main streets, 24-hour shops. I ask if it’s okay for a girl to enjoy the wee hours by herself. Everyone agrees it’s not. It can be unsafe for a solitary guy, they also agree. Watching them write their quiz, I’m glad for the silly little book about the space travel fantasy.
They read more of the story as I mark and return their papers. Nearly all pass, two-thirds with 100 percent. Shih failed. He even missed “night.”
He always sits beside Mei-Ling. She’s in class almost every day; he comes three or four times a week. Her first language is also Mandarin. Once in a while he says a word or two to her, muting his resonant baritone. Sometimes she points to something in her binder for him.
I want him to know his presence is valuable, help him match his marks to the worth of his words in our class conversations. I want to know why he appears so irregularly. His marks, hardly any passing, none high, may be discouraging or confusing him. Lesson finished, I start a chat. He seems to listen but doesn’t reply. Maybe he thinks I’m criticizing.
Others in this group pair with classmates of the same gender. Mei-Ling is eighteen, older than all but Shih. Perhaps the two are friends, or cousins. They might be a couple. I don’t dare ask.
Some ESL teachers insist on calling students by the names in our records. Some give English-language names to those without. My students may do as they wish. A number don’t change. Others switch to English names, often experimenting with a variety. Homonyms and names already popular are common inspirations. Curious over their decisions, I inquire. Understanding bursts in eyes, and a young person’s words come in response.
In mid-September, Varvara becomes Barbara, then Barb. “Friends said, Miss.”
The next week, Kathy explains, “Kanakapriya too long, Miss.”
In early October, what work Shih hands in is labelled Geode.
Pointing to his name on the list, I ask, “Geordie?” I write the nickname on a bit of scrap paper for him to see.
He shakes his head back and forth.
“Geode, Miss, Geode,” is all he says, turning it into three syllables. He’s too polite to say “no” to a teacher, but my error is clear.
“Why Geode?” I ask. “Like the sparkly quartz inside a rock?”
He says, “School today, Miss.” He hasn’t understood.
The next week, the only day he comes, he brings his paper to my desk, writes Shih, points to his name, says, “Stone, Miss,” and then writes Geode underneath.
“Your name means ‘stone ’,” I say. I nod, tap his names on his paper, beam at him, doing everything I can think of to show him I’m happy for his explanation. His choice of name is the most unusual any of my students has ever made. He’s giving me another chance to learn his reason for it.
“Why did you choose Geode, not Stone?”
He taps his paper, copying my motions, nods and smiles at me. The subtlety of my question is too much for him. The reason behind his choice remains a sparkle concealed.
At the start of November, Mei-Ling chooses her English name.
To “Poppy?” she says, “Flower, Miss. Pretty.”
When a classmate shows the red poppy on his jacket, we discuss Remembrance Day, coming next week. In the midst of a micro-review of a few colours—red, green, black—Geode raises his hand, announces, “Red. Blood. War. White. Peace.” My lesson plan surrenders. Comrades in arms, we conquer concepts together, parading among ideas his words inspire.
He’s twenty. He can stay in public high school through the year he turns twenty-one. He’ll have to find an adult education program subsequently, if he wants to.
The second time he misses more than a week, I embolden myself and ask Poppy.
His family might be relying on his help. Or he might be a refugee, on his own. Maybe employment is a recent necessity. My learning details could help him in my class.
At his return, I ask what he does when he’s not at school.
The young man says the word slowly. Each syllable is distinct. I request details, catch nothing but “hot pot.”
I want to see him in action, smell and taste whatever’s on offer. I don’t try explaining. All I say is, “May I go?”
He writes the address. Last year at a student’s workplace on Queen West one holiday morning, my husband and I were served soft scrambled eggs, whole-grain toast, and cinnamony baked apple slices. The year before in the Beach, where a different student worked, a friend and I lunched one weekend on tender gnocchi in tomato-basil sauce. Meeting my students where they’re confident and respected gives us conversation topics, encourages them to work harder in class.
The hot-pot restaurant, on Spadina, is small. It’s jammed with long tables covered in white cloths. Between them, rows of back-to-back chairs touch. Plenty of seats are taken. As we manoeuvre to vacant places opposite one another, I spot Geode. He’s negotiating the aisle by the far wall at top speed, a tray laden with stacks of clattering plates balanced on a shoulder.
He sees us, slips his tray onto a stand, and strides over. Instead of the jeans and grey hooded sweatshirt he has on in class, he’s wearing a long-sleeved white shirt, and black slacks, vest, and bow tie. He raises an arm to gesture toward the other servers the way he had us look outdoors in class, says, “Many our school.”
A girl who’s not been in any of my classes waves, says, “Hi, Miss,” keeps walking.
Geode lopes back to his tray. The plates ring against one another as he stashes them in a sideboard. Someone else turns on the hot pot between us and brings us a platter of vegetable, meat, and seafood tidbits. My student has disappeared.
Our chopstick clumsiness turns the process of selecting, immersing, and retrieving each morsel from stock simmering in front of us into an achievement. Other diners come and go. Nobody rushes us. At the end of our meal, we savour what the broth has become. Our evening of bright warmth has been welcome in December.
The next time Geode attends class, I extol his workplace. His deep “Thank you, Miss,” reverberates off the classroom walls. I don’t jeopardize my elation by re-questioning him about why he chose his name.
On our last exam prep day, in January, the group learns to play Hangman with terms we’re reviewing. Among the leaders, with immigrant, beautiful, restaurant, is Geode. Most binders are opened to handouts or homework. His desk is clear. He ignores Poppy’s binder. At praise for his memory, he straightens his shoulders. When asked if he has his returned assignments and quizzes to study, he doesn’t answer.
With a passing grade in this course, he would progress to the next ESL level. I’ll need to decide whether his classroom contributions have shown he can succeed in that course, if his exam is decent.
It’s a fail.
As I key class members’ results into the school district’s marks program, dejection makes my fingers pause. Whenever he came, the class sparkled, but he didn’t benefit. I want him to continue in our school, want to see him stride through the halls as he did in the restaurant.
His school success might mean more to me than to him. Supposing he arrived enthusiastic in September and his priorities changed because of my class, makes me feel even worse.
I wonder about his future. Perhaps he’ll choose to become a restaurateur, perhaps find another path. Maybe his English will improve over time. Now I can’t even let him know the value of his presence in my room. Just as I never found out the rationale behind the sparkle of his name, any sparkle in his future will remain sealed to me, inside the rock-hard casing of his failure in my class.