Once upon a time there was a girl who lived in Tehran, Iran. She had a pretty good life. She was surrounded by family and friends, had a cat she adored and was a good student. Then one day everything changed. Her father had decided that their family of four would move halfway around the world, to Vancouver, Canada. He had good reasons, but little pre-teen Mandana didn’t understand them and despised the idea.
Before long, she had to say bye to all that was dear and familiar, and set off for a land and culture she knew nothing about. On the day of departure, while waiting at the Mehrabad Airport, she felt listless and lethargic. How can this be happening, she thought. What was going to happen to them in the new country? How would she make friends again? How would she understand the culture and people? How could she live so far away from all the people she knew and loved? Would she ever see her grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends again? Would she ever be happy again? So many thoughts occupied her young mind as she slouched on her suitcase, looking forlorn and miserable, resting her hands and chin on the multi-coloured canvass umbrella her Uncle Bahram had given her. She couldn’t remember a time when she felt so sad.
In the few years that followed, Mandana had to face a few challenges, among them learning English, getting rid of her Persian accent so she could feel that she fit in more, making new friends, understanding Canadian culture and growing up as a teenager in a foreign land. She felt like an uprooted tree, feeling strange in her new surroundings. Many days she came home from school crying. She just couldn’t understand how some of her classmates could be so cruel and tease or bully her. She had enough to deal with as it was. What did help, however, was her mother’s sympathetic ears and positive encouragement, her new friends that she would often walk home with, and the 12-page letters she and her friends in Iran would exchange frequently.
Finally, five long years went by, during which her parents got divorced. She finished high school, learned to drive, got her driver’s licence and started her university studies. That was another disappointment as she felt isolated and lonelier than ever before. She struggled through some courses and aced others. Her experience was quite different from what she had often heard about university life being fun and memorable with many kindred spirits and lifelong friendships.
Fast forward to 2007. I’ve been asked to write an article about my profession as an ESL instructor for the Inner Peace Movement’s international publication called Grassroots.
The first thing that comes to mind is how grateful I am for so many blessings. Twenty-seven years ago I was full of questions and confusion. It has taken me this long to connect the dots and understand why I had to travel that path. I believe that in order to really understand others’ pain and difficulty, and to be able to help them, we need to have had similar experiences. I’m now convinced that teaching ESL is a big part of my life purpose. I’m not just a language teacher. I’m also a mentor, guide, counsellor and nurturer.
A typical day in the classroom involves teaching immigrants, refugees and visiting students English through books, self-generated material, language cards, games, audio-video material and computer programs. I help my students improve and strengthen their skills in listening, speaking, pronunciation, grammar, reading, vocabulary development and writing. From time to time we also go on fun field trips and have the occasional guest speaker. Interlaced in all these classroom and outdoor activities, however, I also play a much-loved role as a motivational speaker. My classroom is my stage. I don’t need a big audience in a hotel conference room. I can convey my messages of perseverance, persistence, patience, fortitude, self-confidenc
e, self-love, self-discipline and self-discovery to the small audience before me in small doses whenever the occasion rises. I give them a shot in the arm of the medicine that I know works. And my listeners listen attentively because they see my passion and hear my conviction. They know I’ve travelled the same path as the one they’re on now. They know that I know what I’m talking about, and that I care to help them through their challenges.
One of the stories that I like to tell my students is about an embarrassing experience in my Grade 8 cooking class. In groups of four we had been assigned our own kitchen to work in. That afternoon I was looking forward to learning how to make chocolate chip cookies. My job was to fetch a cookie sheet. I looked everywhere but couldn’t find one. So I yelled across the room, “Ms. K., where is our cookie shit?” The next moment laughter exploded throughout the classroom. I froze on the spot, not knowing what was going on. Why was everyone laughing? What was so funny? Was it something I said? Well, before long I was told the correct pronunciation. “You mean ‘cookie sheet’, not ‘cookie shit’,” explained one of the girls in my group, still giggling. All I could feel at that moment was my burning hot face. The laughter in the room kept echoing in my head and ears. I just wanted to melt and dissolve into the floor.
The difference between tense and lax vowels wasn’t the only pronunciation challenge I had to overcome. It took me a long time to master the “er” sound in words like hamburger, murder, neighbour and quarter as well as “the flap”, or the double “t” sound, in words like letter, kettle, cattle and bottle. Since these sounds don’t exist in my native Persian language, I had to work on them a lot and teach myself. Before long I found a strategy that worked quite well. I’d listen attentively to native speakers on the radio, TV, streets, restaurants and buses. Then I’d record the target word or sound in my head and I’d play it back over and over again while repeating it until my tongue could match it. Imagine the challenge with the word “water” as it contains a combination of the two sounds that were troublesome for me!
As for fluency, I taught myself what is called backformation in linguistics. Take a sentence like, “How long does it take you to get to school?” I didn’t want to sound slow and choppy. So I’d practise saying one group of words at a time and then I’d link two groups and then three groups and so on. So for this sentence I’d say “get to school”, then “take you to get”, then “does it take you”, and then “How long does it take you” a few times each separately until I’d master each phrase, and finally I’d put the whole thing together. The idea is to break down a challenging chuck into manageable segments. A similar technique is applied in learning to play a new piece on the piano. Years later, I formally learned this backformation technique in my university course when I was studying how to teach English as a Second Language.
In a way it’s ironic that I became an ESL instructor as it wasn't the first, or second, thing that immediately came to mind when I was soul searching, wondering what I wanted to do with my life after university. Even more ironic is how I ended up blindly following a bunch of my Grade 12 classmates into the Pre-Commerce Program in my first year. To this day I’m astounded that I did that as math had long stopped being one of my better subjects to say the least. Here I was trying to convince the remedial math professor, begging and pleading with him, to let me into his course. Not long into the semester I found myself desperately trying to pass his course with the help of a weekly math tutor. It felt like a nightmare. I hated being there, in that situation, beating my head against a wall. Not surprisingly, I crawled back into the professor’s office one afternoon, this time begging and pleading with him to let me drop the course. I’