Teachers and their personalities are the most important factor in our relationship to what we are learning. Unlike teaching how to solve mathematical equations through using rational skills and an ability to transfer the logic from one’s mind to another while dealing with abstract concepts and numbers, when it comes to teaching languages, teachers have a different kind of subject embodiment to do. Languages have their own personality that in a bigger sense points to the general personality of its native speakers. Learning a language is not only the words we memorise, but it is learning a whole new culture, a slightly different psychology and a set of nuances that the language teacher quite often may not be able to escape if they were to do a good job in delivering the learning.
I was nine, I looked at my glow in the dark watch and it was 12:45am. By now I knew everyone was in bed and it was my chance to go put on the one and only french speaking tv channel where they show some pseudo-erotic films or just films, and no one will know. In the middle of a scene in which Julie hesitantly refused the hungry kisses of Gerrard, my mom showed up in the living room with a big “you are screwed!” expression on her face. I quickly changed the channel and insisted that sleep refused to visit me that night and TV5 was an absolute coincidence of bad timing as I flipped between the channels, of course.
French is a beautiful language, but something about its teachers is often out of the norm for me. In Khartoum, when I was in high school we had a compulsory french lesson, and perhaps if it wasn’t compulsory, our experience with it would have been a lot more different. Especially when there is really no use of french in a country like Sudan. We had two teachers over several years. The first one, Mr Abdelraheem, was the strict type who seemed to be angry at the loose state of the education system and the lack of ‘anal’ discipline they glorified from the old days of British colonisation! – Which, in his defense, justifies the confusion and his inability to be an effective french language teacher. We couldn’t really care about understanding what’s being taught in his class. Our biggest motivation to study, if at all, was avoiding the painful punishment of flogging at any price.
The second teacher we had was the clown of the class whom we bullied just like any new student in the premises. I often felt bad for the guy, who was a young lad keen on teaching us French, but we really couldn’t get past les jours de la semaine with the class ending half-time, every time, because Mr Khalid “left the class angry slamming the door behind him promising to never come back again” as we would laughingly report to the other hooligans in the neighbouring classrooms. Even the school management and the flogging failed at correcting this situation.
Years passed and I had different experiences learning different languages, which I have come to appreciate a lot. When I moved to Brussels where the majority is French speaking, I had to reconcile my relationship with the language so I signed up for a course. The class I joined usually began with a lot of chatter and laughter about various topics. Monsieur Brel was good at coming up with topics and driving conversations smoothly in a way our level could comprehend. Now that I am keen on speaking the language, I generally enjoyed the class. However, I wasn’t able to overlook the subtle attitude of racial categorization of students wrapped in humour. In a room where there are about 9 nationalities, it could be quite the way of maintaining a racist environment when in every other example, certain cultural references, nationalities and languages engulfed with sarcasm and subtle mockery are brought up. Even when it goes unnoticed. Because it doesn’t.
In my class, I found myself to be the only person, or as it was made to seem, the only representation of the Arabic and North African world which the common European population is generally ill-informed about. And so in many questions and examples about culture, language or music, I often found myself on defence attempting to change a negative stereotype about where I come from. Everyone else was accepting of the stereotype given to them, as they are considered harmless humanly joke-serving European notions. It often feels like Monsieur Brel gave me a special treatment, a very subtle kind of treatment where he is both wary of me, but somewhere he is also an admirer. He secretly admired my difference when he asked several people what a certain word in their language would mean, and as he skips past me, I would jump adding my answer uninvited in Arabic, English and sometimes Spanish, kind of imposing myself and just slightly challenging his worldview each time. I think that’s why he tried to prove that he is well cultured and not a racist by bringing up the topic, saying he heard a radio conversation on racism, going on and on about it, while looking in my direction, or right in my eyes. It so happens that on the same day we received an email from the school to evaluate our teachers.
Monsieur Brel was a nice person, I believe so, he smiled back when I beamed him with light from my eyes and teeth, and greeted him with bonsoir and bonjour, but I am also good at picking up the fake smiles out of the real ones … So it makes me think, how many people like myself who carry le Moyen-Orient, Nord-Africain or Musulman tag on their face and body, are having to counter the alienating stereotypes on a daily basis, in a country like, France for example? Do they get carried away in the kissing scene till some sort of home-grown morality police shows up? Do they feel conflicted and pressured by the frustrations of a snobbish French colonial attitude and they comply anyway to avoid the ‘flogging’? Do they rise over the stereotypes, belittle them and eliminate them out like we chased Mr Khalid out of class many times? Or do they just accept the jokes, play along, impose their presence once in a while and then decide to change the scene like I decided to change from Monsieur Brel’s class?