Saturday, 8 January 2011

A Lesson

One of the happiest times in my working life was for several years in Stoke on Trent whilst I was teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) in the UK, mostly to Asylum Seekers and refugees. I fell into the work by accident really, having originally trained as an EFL teacher to live and work in Italy and doing so in Mantova, before returning to the UK, to be with a partner I had at the time.

Some of the most innocent and beautiful insights into life and language have come to me through my students. I hope that I have given them some insights too, and opened a few minds.

One of the best (and most nerve wracking) lessons I ever did was on the subject of transgender with an intermediate group, in celebration of national diversity week. Bearing in mind that my class consisted of both male and female, from ten different countries, and included some students with strong religious leanings, this was a potentially risky experiment.

I reasoned that part of teaching ESOL (versus EFL) is the inclusion of culturally diverse subject matters. In my eyes, ESOL is not a 'holiday English' course, it is about preparing learners for the community in which they now live (which may be radically different from their own country) and exposing them to people and ideas that they might well encounter or be asked to give their opinion on, every day.

I spent two lessons lesson preparing the class for the third day, when my friend Sarah* would visit to tell them her story.

We talked about gender, sex and sexual orientation, and the difference between the three. We discussed traditional and sterotypical 'male' and 'female' roles, both inside and outside the workplace, and discussed what personality traits we generally associate with men, and which are generally associated with women. We discussed hypothetical situations and the students gave their ideas about their perceived responses from each gender.

On day two, I gave the students a potted history of Sarah's life (transgender male to female) followed by a written and verbal comprehension exercise and finally asked them, in groups, to write down any questions they would like to ask her.

One man, Igor*, originally from Georgia, became very angry about the subject, and voiced his opinion in class, citing that only God had the right to create the human form, that humans should not be allowed to decide which bits to change through surgery or through the taking of hormones.

He was a Georgian Orthodox and a very 'moral' man, in what I will describe as a 'biblical' way. He had always come over to me as a kind, introspective, articulate person and I often thought that he was in the wrong class for his linguistic ability. We'd talked about his advancement and he'd begged me not to move him up, remaining under confident in his writing.

It had surprised me that he had spoken out, and so angrily. I listened to him and thanked him for his views, and after the lesson, I took him to one side and told him that he would be meeting Sarah the following day.

I asked him if he was comfortable about attending the class. He assured me that he was, because it would be a new experience, but that it didn't mean that he necessarily agreed with it. He also (as if reading my mind) assured me that he would never be rude to her.

The following day, attendance at my class was at an all time high, and it did cross my mind that maybe I was making a mistake. I didn't want Sarah to feel uncomfortable or to be laughed at by my students, but I held my nerve and told myself that I knew them well enough to rely on them not to embarrass anybody. They were kind people, with the obvious common denominator that they, along with Sarah, had changed their lives radically in some way - and some because they found themselves being discriminated against in their own countries.

Sarah arrived, confident, happy and looking well. She'd lost weight, a recommendation from the medical team working on her case - she was pre op and looking forward to her operation in the coming months. She's a practicing Pagan, we had discussed this over coffee some weeks previously. I privately wondered if this fact would horrify some of my learners more than her being a transexual.

Sarah sat at the front of the class, leaning casually against a table, and introduced herself. The students introduced themselves and told Sarah which country they were from, and how long they'd been living in the UK. She had a brief chat with each one. She proceeded to tell her story. I won't tell that here, because it's not my story to tell, suffice to say that her journey had been a long one, of self-acceptance, of pain (physical and mental) and of the acceptance of those around her. It occurred to me (not for the first time) how cruel people can be.

At the same time, I could see flickers of recognition on my students' faces, shadows of understanding that maybe, somehow, their lives weren't as different from Sarah's as they had at first thought. All of them had had their own struggles, both private and public. Some had run, some had been forced to face their struggles head-on, their freedom of choice having been taken from them by another. Whatever their point of reference, they no longer saw 'a man dressed as a woman'. They saw Sarah's bravery, they felt her strength.

The second half of the lesson involved them asking questions, about which I asked them to take notes in order to produce some writing later on. That writing turned out to be the best any of my classes had ever produced. A few deviated from the questions I had vetted, understandably. New information had presented itself and they were curious to find out more. From an ESOL teacher's point of view, I was delighted that they had understood the information sufficiently to be able to construct a question around it.

Sarah answered unflinchingly. One young man from Kurdistan asked her if she 'liked men or women'. She simply answered that as a man she had been (unhappily) married to a woman for almost twenty years but that, at the moment, there was no one special in her life. She added that she wasn't really on the look out but when she found the right person, she felt she would know. She also added that from that marriage, came a daughter, a girl of whom Sarah was fiercely proud. I could almost see the cogs of comprehension whirring in my students' minds.

The end of the lesson came, and I explained some vocabulary that had come to light, before asking if anyone had any comment. Igor raised his hand to speak. I steeled myself, thankful that I had warned Sarah prior to her visit that he had strong opinions on the subject. I knew by now that nothing phased her.

'I just want to say', he said, quietly, 'Thank you for coming in today. I want you to know that we're really grateful to you. We're not laughing at you or making fun. I think I am speaking for everyone when I say we think you a very brave person. I think that this service (sex reassignment) should be made available on the NHS for people like you'.

My God, I almost cried.

* Names have been changed to protect the innocent.


  1. It was an incredibly brave thing to do Victoria, bringing Sarah into your class. Not just for you, but for her and for your class.

    Most prejudice is born of ignorance. My dad made derogatory comments about homosexual men for years until he found out that one of his best male friends was gay.

    Having grown up in Glasgow in the 70s and visited New York and San Francisco in that decade, I became used to seeing gender queer folk, transvestites, fetishists and (probably) a fair few transexuals. What I never had the chance to do was to talk to them about the stuff that they have to deal with every day and how they cope with prejudice and fear.

    The more that we come across diversity - whether sexual or ethnic or whatever - the more educated we are and the richer are lives are for understanding.

  2. Thanks so much for writing this. I'm so touched.

    I dated a guy in high school who is now female. The reactions, even from people I thought I respected, made me so upset - if that's how it made me feel, goodness knows what it does to her. Even the simple concept of calling her by name or using the correct pronoun. It was gobsmacking that people were simply incapable or unwilling of comprehending that their perception of 'he' was actually she. She had always been. The change was nothing but appearances and the social recognition that went along with it.

    If only your kind of classes were run in the places that need them most - the ones where they think they don't.