Down the turnpike and around the world

A kid named Ben Redden wrote this almost 20 years ago.

One of the most interesting parts of the trip to Boston University was the part when we could go around the room and collect everyone’s signature. It was hard to remember each person’s name, and what country they came from. The lady from China was sitting in her seat, and I came up and asked her if she could sign her name in Japanese instead of Chinese, by accident. But it was fun and neat to see the way she wrote my name. I’ll try to write it at the bottom of the page. It was neat to meet so many people from different countries.

For many years, my class made annual trips to Boston to visit the classes of Janet Entersz, a Boston University teacher of English as a Second Language.

Each of Janet’s classes included students from all over the world. Mostly in their 20’s, some older, they had traveled far from their homes in Korea or Colombia or Saudi Arabia, and many were lonely for younger brothers and sisters, for their own children, or for nieces and nephews.

My students, averaging eleven years old, lived in rural or suburban towns well to the west of Boston, where they were exposed to plenty of ethnic variation, but few speakers of other languages.

Janet’s students and my students, and the parents who came along to drive us and join in the fun, all were equally exotic to each other, and in some way equally thirsty for each other.

To help us feel less ignorant, Janet sent me her current group’s country list, a couple weeks ahead. The kids and I ran a country treasure hunt, seeking and sharing information. We practiced skimming by searching the Boston Globe for references—a crash course in world geography.

During the visit itself, our conversations evolved into another kind of crash course, in comparative linguistics. A typical group of Janet’s students spoke ten to fifteen different languages, just counting their first languages. They wrote in four or five (once seven!) different alphabets or writing systems. Seeing samples of all these languages was a treat for the international students, too, since their ordinary class sessions focused on the language they were working hard to share—English.

janetatboard cropped

Many of Janet’s students could write English beautifully, but resisted speaking in class. Others spoke easily in class, unafraid of making mistakes and eager to make contact—but they dreaded writing.

In any case, almost all the international students relaxed, faced with the eagerness and innocence of my students, who soaked up a sense of shared language as a source of power, and of unshared language as a source of possible confusion—but also a source of fun. The richness of difference; the value of work to bridge difference.

One year, Janet suggested that the international students tell the Massachusetts students what various animals said in their languages. We all laughed and laughed, hearing what cows say in Japanese or Ibo; what roosters say in Italian or Arabic.

Janet Entersz, wonderful teacher, dear friend, brave soul, developed cancer when she was still in her 40’s; continued teaching with a scarf on her head through rounds of chemo and remission and return; and left us in 1999. Moments before she died, I sat at her bedside, reading aloud her favorite Antoine de Saint-Exupéry story about air flight over northern Africa.

And Ben Redden, the student I quoted at the beginning of this post? He eventually learned Chinese, and now lives and works in Beijing. No kidding. Here’s a link to his blog full of wonderful photos and wild tales from his travels in China and nearby:

And here’s his rendition, from long ago, of how the Chinese lady wrote his name: Whatever it lacks in accuracy, it makes up for in spirit!


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