Number one for English language teachers

Teacher's letter: UK: Light in the dark

Type: Article

Genevieve White wraps up warm and heads out for a night of celebration with her ESOL learners in the Shetland Islands.

Taking a deep breath, I brace myself, ready to be blown along the windiest street in Lerwick. But tonight is unusually calm. As I walk towards the town hall, I can make out a procession of figures ahead of me. I follow it; past the green-eyed gargoyles guarding the entrance and into the chill of the vestibule where a crowd of people stand, waiting. Many of them hold plastic boxes. Enticing smells waft through the Tupperware and the air hums with cheerful anticipation.

Tonight the Shetland community celebrates the achievements of its ever-growing community of ESOL learners, who attend English night classes through the seemingly endless, dark Shetland winter. Many of them do this on top of long hours working in gruelling fish factory and catering work. This night, however, is for celebration.

It begins with a speech given by one of the local councillors. His presence lends the occasion a certain pomp and circumstance. However, I wonder if many of his audience understand more than a few phrases; and when he utters the words “Your English is a lot better than my Russian … or whatever”, I hope they don’t.

With the speech finally over, we settle down to our evening of celebration. The learners read poems in their own languages: we hear a ballad in Latvian, a song in Nepali and an Arabic hip hop number. A dark and impossibly handsome Sicilian entrances the audience by reading a recipe in Italian. My class has made a film about their experiences of life in Shetland: I have been waiting nervously, dreading technical hitches, but none come. The audience laugh at the right places and the faces of the learners next to me are happy and proud. 

After the ceremony, we retire to the back of the hall where the contents of the Tupperware dishes are displayed on plates. What a spread we have prepared together! Hungarian langos, Polish bigos, Thai vegetables and Nepali dhal. One of the teachers has prepared a token Scottish dish: mince and tatties. It lingers forlornly on its plate, outshone by its exotic neighbours.

A handful of us venture out into the cold night: a mixture of Polish, Hungarian and Serbian learners. We head towards a small, fairy-lit pub on one of the lanes: Da lounge. Once inside, we are already planning our next film.

Outside, winter’s first snow floats past the window and the boats on Victoria pier are already iced with white. We spill out onto the streets and stand with our heads tipped back, tasting the icy flakes. An inebriated sailor amuses us with his monologue. My learners, emboldened by beer, banter and laugh with him.

Back inside Da Lounge, the barman is playing jazz on the piano. His friend takes up her guitar and they play on till closing time. By this time, Lerwick is covered by a thick white blanket. We end this perfect night with a snowball fight then walk home through a newly-light town.

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