I had tutorials this week. These are occasions to meet up with students individually and discuss any issues they have and review or set academic and pastoral targets, or do risk assessments, or get their latest news. With our ESOL students, these can sometimes be pretty tough: we've had a wave of young Afghan lads having their asylum applications turned down recently, and often they're going back to situations where they are likely to be either killed or used as footsoldiers for the various clans, druglords, Taliban groups, Mujahideen groups with grudges to settle, or often a combination of all these. One lad was forced to watch his father being shot, and then his uncle was bombed. He spent a year and a half trying to reach the UK - now the government is keen to wash its hands of him.
We also get people with mental health problems, domestic violence victims, students with doctorates and great work histories who can only get jobs as cleaners, motivated people who get spat at because they wear hijab, or they're the wrong colour, or they speak in a funny way, or because they walk the wrong way - and I'm really not making that one up. I'm actually quite fortunate - I generally don't have to deal with the real horror stories, but we all have to accommodate these students, these real people, these non-statistics. We act as confidantes, unpaid social workers, and we have to be concerned but dispassionate, and above all hold in check our anger at the utter shittiness that some people get dealt.
Then again, there are bright spots. This is what a student said to me this week, and while in one way it seems dark and disturbing, in another way it is a little bright ray of light.
A. is a devout Muslim from Pakistan. He holds a British passport, works in the local mosque, drives a minibus for disabled people and works nights as a security guard. He sends money back to his family in Pakistan and regularly goes back there, determined to fight Islamist Extremism. He would like to take a chaplaincy course so that he can work on university campuses and prisons. He is a gentle, soft-spoken and deeply kind man with a sense of humour that often catches people by surprise. And, being a devout Pakistani Muslim, he wears what is generally seen as traditional muslim clothes, a beanie cap and a beard. A few weeks ago, he flew to Chicago to celebrate Eid with some relatives. I'll paraphrase his words slightly, while trying to keep a flavour of the original, but this is what he told me about going through US Passport Control.
"We came to passport control, and this man from the FBI took me to one side, and also some African men, a Chinese man and a muslim man, I think from Saudi. He told us we will have an interview before we can go through. I said to him, I don't speak good English, can my wife come with me and be interpreter? He said no, and took me to a room. I was very very nervous, because I thought I can't understand his questions. Usually when we travel, my wife translates. I waited in the room five minutes, then the man came back. He looked my passport, my British passpor, and he said, 'how much did you pay for this?' I told him I'm a British citizen, and he said 'you're a liar'. I told him I was born in Pakistan, but I got my citizenship three years ago, but he didn't want to believe. He asked me 'how close do you live to Afghanistan?' I told him where my family live is quite near, he asked me 'Did you visit Pakistan for military training?', I told him my job, he said 'I can send you straight back home', I said 'it is your choice, it is your country'. He asked me questions for 45 minutes, same questions, different questions. I was very worried, but I answered him.
And do you know? At the end, he said 'why did you lie? You speak very good English' and he smiled, and he let me in. Then I knew that my English has got better, and it is because of my teachers. I was nervous, but I could answer him by myself, and I couldn't do that last year.
So, I said a prayer of thanks for what you and the other teachers have done."
It says a lot about passport control security and a lot about him. He realised that he had the ability and the confidence to deal with the situation, and he'd got that from learning with us.
This is what we teachers do. We make a difference.
So to hell with all you bean counters who reduce all human life to a number. I do something that you can never do - something good.
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