A Wonderful Nightmare

I‘m living in a dream.

I say this to myself many times, probably every day. I live in a non-descript eastern Polish town, just east of Warsaw. I walk to school every day and down the street are bakeries and ice cream kiosks and used clothing stores. Our apartment has hot water and wifi. My English students are charming and vivacious and intelligent and beautiful. There are friends in town whom I can always call or visit and who give me way more than I deserve or could return to them. All around me is tangible, rich culture and history.

Sounds rosy.

It is!

And it isn’t.

The hardest thing in this place is the language. It’s the primary reason I’m leaving at the end of this school year. By then it will have been 5 years of speaking fractured, childish Polish and constantly doubting my understanding anyone. Like last week when I asked the landlord if he remembers about the broken oven part, and he said Lavern will take care of it. But I’d misunderstood him 10 days earlier to say that he’d take care of it himself and we’d been waiting all this time for him. I get things screwed up even in English, and don’t hear what people say,  and it’s 200 times worse in Polish.

It puts me in a cage, and I can function, but not fly. It is a bitter thing.

I keep thinking about the bitter water turning sweet in the old prophet’s day and how the miracle is still true.

How what is rosy and sweet isn’t only that.

And what is bitter isn’t only that.

I’m usually an all-or-nothing person, but I’m learning that most of life is not about either/or, but more both/and.

So this monster of a language has shown me grace like nothing else in my life. It has been both brutal and gentle, like when I croaked out my requests at the village store and  the sweet shop keeper said I say ‘butter’ very nicely. The Polish word for butter is one of the easiest words ever and I chuckled all the way home at how eager he’d been to compliment me.

This bitter cage is sweet because it lets me look deeply into my students eyes and say I know exactly how they feel. I know how scary it is to expose how little I know. I know how it is to understand way more words than I can produce. I know how it is to know a word but not be able to access it in all the folds of my brain. (Who was it who said the greatest sermon is “Me too”?) So I can give them understanding on several levels, and it is sweet, the way they like me and keep coming back.

My anguish becomes something good? It’s hard to admit it–indeed, the admission comes through clenched teeth–but I have to believe it because it’s so obvious. The bitter does become sweet.

This bitterness repeatedly hands me sweetness. In four years, I have never had someone shout or get angry at me for not being able to say what I want in their language. They just wait, or suggest another word, or show by gestures. hmmm, I take that back. There were several women at train ticket desks who obviously think the whole world should be able to speak Polish.

This bitter cage shows me that saying “I don’t know” when asked for a word, or to say a completely wrong word doesn’t stop the universe in its orbit . Nothing–especially failure–is usually as bad as it feels at the moment. But it’s painful. Especially to someone who has been called a walking thesaurus. It’s living with clipped wings instead of soaring.


I took this photo on the train from Warsaw to Berlin, Germany. The hysterical English translation is not unlike some of my mangled Polish sentences.

But this isn’t wasted time, I know. I can’t express myself with words above a child’s level, but I today bumped into an acquaintance on the street and listened to her telling me that she finished her masters degree and is going on Monday for an interview for her doctorate. I congratulated her and said simple, positive, affirmative words and smiled and nodded a lot. She feels heard and cared for, and that’s something sweet, and what most everyone wants most of the time anyhow.

Communication and presence and soul transcend words. This is what helps me survive and even thrive in this town where the average adult can’t speak English. This is what sustains relationships in which I can’t talk above a 6 year old’s level but do experience an ocean of love and the silent language of kinship.

I will always be grateful for living in this place of dreams and nightmares–unutterably grateful. Which proves that sometimes there aren’t adequate words.

Even in an English thesaurus.

Sitting with Masters


I’m blown away this week with my students who are masters at what they do. To tap into their interests and abilities gives a lesson wings to take off and fly high.

One is a checkers player, so I asked him to tell me how to play the game. I didn’t have a real playing board, so I printed a board and cut out little black and white checkers. Of course I’ve played checkers a looooong time ago, but forgot most of it, and I’d never played with someone who routinely plays in tournaments. It was a great exercise for him to explain everything in English, and as we played, of course he creamed me, but the exciting thing was that he talked non-stop.

A teenager? Talking freely and not putting his head down on the table? He was in the moment, explaining positions and fields and defense moves. I was agog. He explained that in the past weekend, he’d been at a competition and his team won 2nd place in Poland in his age division. Plus, the team they were coaching won 2nd place. He said each player has 90 minutes to play a game, and sometimes it take 30-40 minutes to plan one move.

“Is it hard to concentrate for so long?” I asked.

He shook his head. “No, I love it!”

I’ve been teaching him for two years now, and never knew he had it in him to talk so long and excitedly. Or that any teen is happy to sit and think in silence for 30  minutes. I wanted to cheer!

Another lesson was a listening exercise for a student who’s a musician. We watched one of my favorite TED talks, and it connected with him since he’s a conductor and music teacher.  We talked about poetic words like waft, and of the connection between musician and listener, and of Zander’s definition of success: how many shining eyes are around us. At first, my student wasn’t sure this definition of success applied to businessmen and shop keepers, but as we discussed it, I saw the light dawn on his face. Because he understood what it is to empower others and enlarge their capacity to learn and perform, he acknowledged that commerce also needs shining eyes.

During another lesson, my student talked about how she makes baskets from willows. Her English level was low. I think none of my students has ever used the word “willow.” She did, because it is her interest and ability. She loves to work with her hands, knows folk art and hand crafts, and can respect others’ work.

These days, I am absolutely drained by evening, and try hard to stay strong and not melt into a puddle of  exhaustion. What helps is that most of my work does itself if I just tap the right buttons and pick up on what  my students care about.  And it’s wonderful to sit and listen to someone talk about what they do well. I see the light in their eyes and the passion in their gestures, all unconscious, and I’m so happy that I get to sit with masters.

Related post: Tigers’ Shining Eyes

Golden Lives

I was catching up with an acquaintance.  He asked me why I’m still in Poland, his country.

“I love teaching English,” I said simply.

We talked about his family, farm, neighbors, and circled back to my job.

“My students are wonderful,” I said. “I LOVE my students!”

“No,” he corrected me seriously. “You love your JOB.”

Hmmm, well. That’s not what I just said.

He was making the point that when you’re happy in your work, you’re willing to put up with bad days, and it doesn’t make you start looking for an opening somewhere else.

I love my job, it’s true. When class is in session I forget about pretty much everything outside the classroom. It always surprises me how soon the clock say it’s time to wrap up. (There are rare exceptions.) I’m definitely in my zone when I’m teaching English, but it’s way more than my joy in gerunds, infinitives, and pronunciation.

Because my students are absolutely the best. They are brimming with life and whimsy and cleverness. They tell me the wildest stories and ambitions. They are quick and kind. They are beautiful and fascinating and brave.

So I laugh with the lady who told me she’s so practical that her boyfriend’s first gift to her was a mixer. To the new father whose baby cries a lot, I say that I’m praying for them, and he is profusely grateful. I’m in awe at the woman who lives in joy and forgiveness for her husband who divorced her. I treasure the surprising turn of phrase and sparkling eyes. I do everything I can to equip my students to have good English conversations, but most of all I want them to feel safe and loved, no matter their level of English.

Most people have few places where they accepted just as they are, without being judged or scowled at for their clothes or education or occupation or performance or weight. Disapproval especially seems to hang thick in the air of this post-communist country. Hardly a generation ago, people on these streets were paid to be informers on their non-conformist neighbors, and old habits die hard.

But the tendency isn’t unique to certain political systems. I know my own insidious tendency to rank, cull, and venerate at will, and I know only Jesus’ presence is what can erase judgement and disdain. He is my leader, and His love was magnetic, and I want to be like Him.

This is what I pray and sing:

Heal their hearts, feed their souls,

Their lives can be golden if Your love enfolds.  –Bill Whelan



Blogs and Teaching ESL

1. I usually enjoy changes, but I still miss Google Reader. I use Feedly now but get disgruntled with it for several practical reasons.

It doesn’t give the date of a blog post, only the number of days since it’s been posted. Who on earth keeps track of how many days have passed since any number of events?

It doesn’t say how many comments any post has, so I can’t quickly tell how much interaction it inspired.

It doesn’t say how many Feedly subscribers a blog has.

Any practical advice about this acute First-World problem?

2. This week someone emailed me for advice for a beginner ESL teacher. It was fun to think about what my philosophy of teaching is, as I’m not ‘trained’ or ‘schooled.’ I sometimes teach with more passion than knowledge but sometimes when the day is long and the energy is short, the knowledge outweighs the passion. This is not a good thing in the classroom.

So this is most of what I wrote:
To someone just beginning in ESL, I advise them to be comfortable with naming and referring to parts of speech. Know what the difference is between adverbs and adjectives, what past perfect continuous tense, comparatives and superlatives, and a direct object is. This is esp useful if your students have studied at another language school and use those terms.
Most of all, and this is impossible to over-emphasize: never love the lesson more than the student. If you lose the student, the lesson is lost. Walk beside them (figuratively and literally). Look them in the eyes. Read their body language. When you don’t share a common language, you need to tune into the unspoken words they say. If they’re uncomfortable with something but can’t tell you, they won’t learn. Make sure you take them with you at every point in the lesson.
They need to feel safe with you, and need to hear that you believe in them. Correct gently and praise generously. Language usage is very emotional; it’s not only grammar and syntax. Give them reasons to be GLAD to study with you, so they don’t dread it or fear English.  Be excited and enthusiastic. Vary the tones of your voice. Move around the classroom. Touch their shoulders sometimes.  Use objects and photos as much as possible.
These approaches work well for me. Every student learns differently. Every teacher teaches differently. It’s the teacher’s job to meet the student where they are and provide for their learning style they best they can. This is what makes every lesson an adventure!

Small Packages

This is an effort to return to the short-lived Thing One and Thing Two posts.

1. Last night my students and their mom invited me to meet them for pizza. I taught the brother and sister when they were 5 and 7, and now they’re 9 and 11 and don’t come for English classes, but they all, the mom and dad and grandma and children, still treat me like family whenever we meet.  I stomped through blowing snow to the pizzeria to eat yummy pizza and drink Coke and listen to rambling, delightful, brave English.

“I remember when we read Amelia Bedelia! And the photo of me with ice cream all over my mouth. I remember…”

“Did you hear the joke about the Russian and Ukrainian?”

“The pessimist said it was dark, and the optimist said it was light and the realist said it was a tunnel…”

“I dream of living in America even more than England, and making a new life there.”

Hours later, outside in the cold again, after all the laughs and the hugs and well-wishing, they brushed the snow off their car windows but the youngest one wrote in the inch of snow over the hood: “I ♥ ANITA.”  awwwww

2. Oranges are in season somewhere and even though they consume how-ever many food miles to get here, what I ate the other morning made think that an orange is proof that God exists.  It comes in biodegradable wrapping and perfect portion control size (except I ate two) , and bite-sized segments. I revel in its refreshment and all the sunshine that’s packed in it.The flavor is comparable to nothing else and when an orange is fresh and cold, it’s better than chocolate.


Words, People, and Chocolate

1. I was showing two women photos of Ireland and my family. Our little crowd of six offspring, several spouses, and 11 children usually blows students out of the water. “When there are so many of you, do you sometimes get angry and not talk to each other?”

“Never,” I said. “Sometimes there are problems and misunderstandings. But I’ve never experienced anyone saying they’ll never talk to me again.”

“My brother said he’ll never talk to me again. What I said to him wasn’t so bad, but it was 17 yrs ago, and we haven’t talked since then.”

“By our nature, we are selfish and unpleasant, but Jesus changes our hearts so we can love each other. Does that make sense?”

“It sounds nice.”

This. This is why I love teaching English.

2. I was playing Taboo with my teens and describing “dentist.” I couldn’t say teeth or mouth so I said, “This is the person you go to when you have a problem with your face.”


3. This is a stressful time, with major surgery on my near horizon. Lolita knew what would make me cheer, and gave me a Lindt bar that says “Hello. My name is Crunchy Nougat Chocolate Bar. Nice to sweet you!” I’m nibbling the chocolate slowly, but I’m not throwing that wrapper away.

Tigers’ Shining Eyes

1. I have this group of pre-teens and in the teachers’ room we call them our tiger class. Last Thurs. they completely wore me out with their mischief and naughtiness, and I was quite numb for several hours after the lesson and felt like a colossal failure.

But yesterday they had completely transformed. They focused on their work and came up with amazing things. Their eyes sparkled with energy and intelligence. They acted out and guessed vocabulary with hilarity and creativity. Crazy whirling arms to show a helicopter’s blades, and fierce fangs to show Dracula.   I sat at the side of the room and laughed and laughed with them. Had they transformed, or had I? Maybe both. I only know I fell in love again, with all six of them.  Their shining eyes completely charm me. And they are still tigers because they’re so beautiful and alive.

2. Speaking of shining eyes, I recommend musician and motivational speaker Benjamin Zander’s speech at TED here. I’m not musical enough to follow some of the technical chord progressions he explains. But in general he’s talking about music and passion and I interpret what he says from a teacher’s standpoint. His bounding energy and way of thinking outside the box makes me feel that no problem is insurmountable.

“I have a definition of success. For me, it’s very simple. It’s not about wealth and fame and power. It’s about how many shining eyes I have around me.” –Benjamin Zander