A few weeks ago, an adult student in a class I was teaching at TAFE said that I didn’t speak English. She didn’t say my accent was hard for her to understand. She just said that I didn’t speak English. She followed this assertion with a question. Did I believe in Australian values? I had obviously come from somewhere else, so how did I feel about embracing the values of the country that had given me refuge? She herself, as a fourth generation Australian, believed it was important that people who came to her country should be very clear about the sorts of values they were expected to uphold. She finished with a final question. I bet, she said, you don’t speak English with your children at home, do you?
Before I comment on all the assumptions inherent in this monologue; before I begin to say how sorry I am that my daughter does not speak anything other than English; before I remember that 30 years ago, English speaking migrants with double degrees (like myself) were considered highly desirable; before I reflect on the values of respect, curiosity and humour that I share with my family and friends – before all that, I had to compose a reply to my student.
A few options came to mind.
I could stamp my foot and storm out of the room (satisfying perhaps, but unprofessional).
I could challenge her assertions and turn this into a teachable moment.
I could point out that her interruption was impacting on the rest of the students and get on with the class (which was about choosing appropriate books for children).
I went with the third option. My lady wasn’t done with me yet. But you don’t speak English, she repeated. I want to listen to someone who speaks English. Ah.
Words are sacred. Tom Stoppard says. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little. I was being nudged. How was I to respond?
I looked around the classroom, at the faces from Rumania, Hungary, South Africa, Scotland and England. I thought about the variety of Englishes they spoke, not just in my microcosmic classroom, but out there, in my country, in Australia. I remembered my daughter at the age of five asking if it was possible to wash the yucky brown off her skin, after her first week at school. I remembered her teacher’s response, she’s very perceptive. Most children that young don’t even notice they’re different. And then we had grown into our skins, comfortably, and forgotten we were different. Until Pauline Hanson came along and told us we were in danger of being swamped by hard work and determination. Or she might have said Asians. I thought about the Aboriginal students who asked me if I’d ever been followed around a shop by an assistant or been doubly condemned for my race. They blame us for looking Aboriginal and claiming welfare. They also blame us for not looking Aboriginal and cheating on welfare. Did I ever feel like a foreigner in my own country? No, I said. I had not experienced any of that. They hugged me when I cried and called me sistergirl, a compliment I hold close to my heart.
It is easier to dismiss instances of racism as ignorance. It is harder to accept that people intend malice. The student who challenged my ability to speak English is a grown woman, a grandmother; an aspiring Education Assistant who will work with vulnerable children. I do not intend to debate the philosophical implications of screening suitable applicants before sending them out to the workforce. I knew my work there was done. I did not have words in the right order to nudge the world.
I sent the students out for a ten-minute break. I set the classroom up for an interactive activity so when they returned they had something to do. I resigned from my position as a Lecturer after almost twenty years. I did not cite racism as a factor in my exit interview.