I stood in front of a room full deaf children. As of five seconds ago, I was supposed to teach them English.
Aunty and I had arrived at the deaf school that morning. The city was warm, but the dark little hallway that led into the school was damp and cool. Aunty had been here before with Uncle, when they had spoken to the people there before about the possibility of me having connections with the school once I came, so she knew to take the first door on the right – or more accurately the doorway with the red curtain. Inside was a little wooden waiting bench and a long desk some staff worked behind. A woman said something in Urdu and motioned us across the hall into the room across the hall. We went through another red curtain and, as is the custom, slipped off our shoes. We waited on wooden couches with softish cushions. I adjusted my dupatta (the scarf I wear around my head) and Aunty flipped through her Urdu-English dictionary.
A woman came in. Big smile. Friendly hurry. She Salaamed us – the greeting in this place meaning “Peace be unto you” – and asked how we were. We said we were well, and Aunty explained in Urdu how she had been there before with her husband and how she hoped I could sit in on classes.
That was the last thing I understood.
There was Urdu. There was Hindi. There was the man in charge of the college sitting and nodding and questioning and nodding. There were staff running in and out and chattering in the local language with the man in charge and the friendly woman. There was a problem. Oh, wait, there wasn’t a problem. That is, he didn’t smile at all… except for sometimes. And the people spoke very loudly and very quickly and then very slowly. And sometimes they spoke to me and, before I could asked them if they could possibly say that again in English, they were off in another direction.
The man in charge said in English “If it benefits her and it benefits the students, we will do it.” Which sounded like something between permission and probation. Then, we were escorted quickly by the friendly woman into a room full of Indian children, all of them deaf.
We were introduced to the teacher, and then both the teacher and the friendly woman left, saying as they were leaving “This is English class. Teach them English.”
So there we were – standing in front of a room of deaf children to teach them English.
“Um…” I said to Aunty “I don’t think they understood our request.”
“No, I don’t think they did.”
“Well,” she said after a moment of thought. “Let’s find out what they are supposed to be learning.”
So, we began. We chose one exchange out of the book:
Where did you go yesterday?
Yesterday I went to the playground.
And we began.
We found out one boy was not profoundly deaf, and when Aunty spoke to him loudly and clearly in Urdu he could even speak some things slowly and (mostly) intelligibly back. That combined with my knowledge of sign language (though my sign was American and not Indian like theirs) made communicating somehow possible. By the end of the hour the children seemed to understand both sentences well and happily.
I couldn’t help feeling a bit triumphant as we left the classroom, saying goodbye to the waving and smiling children.
“How did it go?” asked the friendly woman.
“Very well,” Aunty answered. “Can we come back tomorrow?”
“You can come back next month,” the woman said smiling, and walked to her office.
We followed after her. Aunty questioned her in Urdu and the woman explained: The children would be studying for a big exam for the next three weeks and there would be no classes to sit in on. That is, the children would be in class but they would not be learning – just studying. We could come back next month after the exam, the friendly woman repeated.
So, we went home. Over dinner, Uncle asked me how it went. “Your aunt told me her version of how it went, but I’d like to hear yours too,” he said “And what you’d like to do with all that in mind.”
“Well, there’s not much to say, we were thrown into an English class we had to teach and then told to come back next month.” I replied. “So, I’ll be happy to help you all with the work you guys are doing until exams are over.”
Uncle laughed at me. “We don’t give up so easy,” he said.
And he was right. Before dinner was finished we had a new plan for making connections with the deaf school….