On Mondays, I go to a local community centre where ESOL classes are taught by the local Adult Education Organisation. I teach a supplementary beginners class after the ‘proper’ class; the teacher sends students to me who are struggling, or just need all the help they can get with their English. Some weeks there are two students, some weeks there are ten. This morning my beginner class is made up of seven Somali Bantus and a married couple from Peru. The seven recently arrived Bantu refugees are carefully and colourfully wrapped up against the bitter cold of a Vermont November. All except one. Ismail is the youngest of the group; at 22 he looks 17 and is dressed as if for a warm spring day. All through the class, my eyes are drawn to his shirt which is a Hawaiian short sleeved number, with a footballers head duplicated all over it in place of the more traditional lotus flowers or toucans. While my students practice the structures Hello, my name is……, My address is……., I try to work out which footballer it is.
They are a cheery bunch this morning. While the Peruvian couple work slowly and meticulously, the Bantus spend a lot of the lesson laughing at each other as they study; the stronger ones also offer plenty of help to the weaker students. One man in particular has appointed himself their official translator. His English is better than the others, he’s been in America much longer and often asks me questions and then relays the answers back to the others. There is an uproar of laughter halfway through class when Hadija falls off her chair. After making sure she is not hurt, I seize the opportunity for a bit of impromptu vocabulary teaching.
'She falls', I say. There is a rumble of repetition amongst the giggles. The football shirt wearer says,
'In Somali, kuffee. Falls.'
I am delighted to repeat my first Somali word and am greeted with more laughter until I get the pronunciation more or less correct. We establish that it sounds a little like coffee and mentally, I know this is how I’ll remember it.
More hilarity ensues when there is confusion over the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. One of the question structures in the course book asks if they are married or single. Everyone is the room is married, but when Ismail says he has a husband, the class laughs heartily until we establish that he has a wife. In between giggles, everyone else very carefully replies with the correct answer. I think they are all making fun of Ismail in Somali while I ask them the questions, but it seems very good natured.
I announce that we have finished class for today but when I turn around from erasing the blackboard, I see the students still sitting there. I have to do a little mime of closing books, and I point to the door as I say various words signalling the end of class. As the students file out I ask Ismail who the footballer is on his shirt.
'Beckham!! You know?' Once again the universal language of football is spoken.
'Yes, I know Beckham. He’s very good yes?'
As Ismail nods and grins and files out of the room I wonder who the footballer really is, as there is no way on earth that the face is that of Beckham. I can’t ever remember him having normal brown hair!