Friday, November 19, 2004


I had a sad but somehow funny and hopeful little exchange with a student today. Andaloo's blog entry about racism in Spain reminded me of it.

I had been asking students to tell me a funny, frightening, exciting, or embarrassing thing that happened to them. (I've been getting them to tell anecdotes.) One very small student, a gormless wee lad, chose to tell me an embarrassing story. His story was in terrible English which I won't try to reproduce here, but the gist of it was that one day he was at the train station and three foreigners approached him and asked him for directions. He was a high school student at the time, and he was 'very surprised.' He said he knew they were speaking English, but he couldn't understand what they wanted. So he told them he didn't speak English. Then he went to the other end of the platform, and then realised they'd wanted directions he could probably have given if he'd tried.

(I mentally translated this into a terrified, "No English! No English! and a panicked dash for safety - I've come across this behaviour before - and tried not to grin.)

I asked him why he was so embarrassed by this incident, and he looked up at me and said, "They were black." And then he looked down, quivering. I think he knew it wasn't really an adequate explanation, and his English wasn't adequate to explain more, but... well, in a way, it was adequate.

This kid is 18, and he's little. He makes me feel big, and I'm not. He breaks into a sweat whenever he has to talk to me, even though he has improved over the year and doesn't shake quite so badly these days. I'm not an imposing person, but he still makes me feel like some sort of monster. So I can only imagine his reaction to being approached by not one but three foreigners, and not just foreign but tall, black foreigners. He must have been petrified. All three were men, and he said they were 'very tall'. (I should add here that he thinks I'm 'very tall', and I'm 164 cm, so it's equally possible that they were very short.) He'd never seen a black person before. There aren't many, here. I can just imagine three friendly black tourists towering over this wee boy and unintentionally scaring him witless. I asked him if they were friendly, and he looked surprised, and then said, "I think so," and looked ashamed.

But what I liked about this story is that he clearly knew there was something wrong with his reaction. He felt bad about it. I also like it that he told me - it's sort of weird, really, since I'm also a foreigner and he is also scared of me. It felt like a confession, and also a step forward.

I asked him if he would try to communicate next time, if something like that happened again, and he got an inward look on his face as he struggled to imagine it. The idea clearly scared him at the same time as it made him think very, very hard. But finally he looked up with a frightened face and whispered, "I hope."

I thought that was a lovely, honest answer. I hope, too.