Today was very likely the last day of my Norwegian-teaching career, for two reasons. Number one: upon reaching lesson 5 I realized that we were moving from a teacher-student dynamic to a learning-together dynamic. This is only natural, seeing as my Norwegian skills are surpassed by the tiny children all around me, aka are crap. Number two, as of next week there probably won’t be anyone left to teach. So on this last day, with 10 students instead of the normal 20, 30, 40, we had kind of an open lesson. Kind of an ‘ask what you want to know’ lesson. I was tired because I’m always tired, and worried I was teaching the wrong thing. Worried the grammar was wrong, worried about these faces in front of me, worried about their worry. So I drew faces on the board and wrote the corresponding emotions (how do you draw hungry?), we reviewed Norwegian greetings and replies. How to say “I love you,” and which version to use when. The women practice across the aisles.
“Teacher, I love you.”
I did it on purpose, you know? Brought up emotions. In Norway if someone asks you how you are, you say you are fine. That everything is great.
Things are not great for the people sitting in the room with me. The hotell-turned refugee camp was always just temporary. Temporary in this case was 4 months, and co-residents became family. This week the family breaks up. In my mind’s eye they are ice floe fragments, jagged edged islands being slowly swept away.
“I cried when they left, Teacher. They are like my brothers.”
Maybe the good times are reminiscent of summer camp: strangers sharing late nights, bad food, gathering outside to smoke. A camp with the shadow of fear of being deported back to death and destruction hanging over you. I started coming one hour a week — just one hour — to teach beginner Norwegian. Stumbling over vowels I can’t pronounce myself, pretend confidence covering a multitude of errors. The first lesson we learned, “My name is…, I am from… , I speak ….”
In our last lesson, days after learning they were all going to have to leave Steinkjer for a new holding arena, they asked me how to say “lie” in Norwegian. I looked it up because I didn’t want to be wrong. How do you say “hate” in Norwegian? a young woman asks. She puts together the words: “I hate snow” from her corner of the room, looking out the window with disdain.
“What do you hate, Teacher?”
I can’t answer. I shouldn’t answer. It’s not about me.
From the another corner, using vocabulary learned minutes earlier:
”I hate lies.”
We decide class is over when attention starts to fade. “Teacher, how do you say ‘go away‘ and ‘wait‘ in Norwegian? How do you say ‘I don’t want to leave?‘ ” asks a young man who hasn’t joined us before today, pen and paper in hand. He is clearly gathering ammunition. Getting ready for parting cries in the native tongue.
I tell them what they want to know. Grown ups are allowed to express their emotions. I don’t know how to tell them that if they stay in Norway, if they stay in Oslo where they’re headed now, it might be for the best. It might be easier than trying to make a life in this cold town in the middle of Norway in the long run. If they are sent out of the country, with husbands and children and fading futures, I can not help them with the words they’ll need then.
I can’t tell them that seeing the bravery of the Iranian and Syrian and Pakistani Christians filling in pews of the local congregation helped me to be brave there, too. That seeing people who wanted to be seen was soul-balm for me. That that one hour a week with those mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, who sat diligently writing and repeating words, struggling to verbalize their identities in a completely foreign language — it recharged me. It gave me enough energy to get through the rest of the day, maybe the next two, alert and strong and grateful.
I want to tell them that I love them, too, and that I’m sorry. I hope they know. I wish I had power or influence or even just more money. Sometimes love isn’t quite enough.
for nadia, rasha, hannah, mary, og mai
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