“He say…he don’t like everyone in class.”
The fifth grade girl paused, trying to formulate her next statement. The two other fifth grade boys held the same, thoughtful expression, trying to add to the explanation. T’chelet, Itai, and Shai were the students in my tutoring group today, but something kept them chatting away in Hebrew, and I wanted to know what it was (and why it was so much more important than completing their exercises in English).
“Itai,” I said, “Is that true? Why don’t you like some of the other pupils?”
Israeli textbooks, by the way, teach the word pupil instead of student. Every English class begins the same way:
“Good MORNing dear PUPils.”
“Good MORNing dear TEACHah.”
It’s still pretty funny.
Back to my fifth graders: Itai’s palm rubs to his forehead as he tries to find the right words for my question. He is grinning, but his English is weak and he’s stuck with no answer. Finally, he starts to say something in Hebrew, stopping to hold up fingers around his eyes.
“You wear glasses, Itai?” I say, holding up my fingers to mirror his.
“Yes, yes, glasses” He responds, in Hebrew. “And…ehmm…”
“They call him…ehmm…” Shai shakes his fist trying to find the word. “How do you say it, ‘chnoon,’ in English,” he asks T’chelet.
“Chnoon,” she wonders. “Chnoon…”
Finally, I hand my phone over to Shai, and he enters the word into my translator app. He passes the phone back to me, and I see the English text, sitting bluntly on the screen:
“Ahhh,” I say. Then my face twists. “Geek? They call you geek? That’s what this is about?” Itai shrinks down a bit and gives me a half-smile, looking a little embarrassed that I found out.
“It’s not nice for them to call you names, and try to hurt your feelings. But Itai…you know who is really a geek?”
I point to myself and laugh. The three are taken aback, eyes wide.
“No, no,” T’chelet tells me, “Kloowee, you are not chnooneet…(the feminine form)”
“Sure I am,” I retaliated. “I LOVE school. I LOVE to learn. And THAT makes me a geek, no?”
The three looked at each other, unsure, but also excited by this new idea.
“When I was your age, Itai, I was a geek then too. And guess what, I wear glasses too! And, yes, sometimes other pupils made fun of me, and tried to make me feel bad. But these are not such bad things. Today, I am so, so happy to be a geek. I love being a geek!”
T’chelet nearly leapt out of her seat to speak next. “Klowee! Last year, they called me…they called me…SMALL! Because…I was small!”
“Oh, did they…” I responded, equally wide-eyed, and looking to Shai. He nodded firmly, and I could feel the sense of unity building.
“Well I don’t know what’s so bad about being small,” I told her. “When I was your age, I was small, too. But I do know one thing – you three are fun, and great stu- erm, pupils, and I LOVE being your teacher, AND chnooneet.”
The bell rang, and the three quickly gathered their things, excitedly continuing the conversation with each other in Hebrew. As I waved goodbye and watched them go, my heart felt torn. The “when I was your age” speech is no new trick, but I felt I had accomplished something special today, providing comfort and perhaps helping to grow small seedlings of self-confidence.
Yet, I wished I had more time to listen to this way, about how these kids felt about school, about their friends, about life in Israel, about…so much more, outside of English. We fellows are constantly trying to take the material from the books and create personal connections. It’s hard to do so with the language barrier, and to still keep the kids on task, but it’s so worth it to make this time. I hope that as I get my art-and-English volunteering underway with personalized approaches to learning vocabulary, I will have even better opportunities to know my students.