The atmosphere was quiet, as I waded through calf-deep snow toward a little apartment on the outskirts of Poznan, Poland. The light in the windows was inviting. This kind of winter was new to me, a Florida girl. The night sky was a deeper blue, as the moonlight reflected off the snow.
After spending the summer in Poland, and the fall semester back home at University of Florida, I decided to go back to Poland for the final semester of my senior year. Here I was, in the middle of an osiedle, a Polish housing community. The towers of lighted windows reminded me of Miami Beach. But I was a far way from there.
I was going to meet Krysia, an 11-year-old daughter of one of the university officials. She wanted to learn English. I had committed this semester to living my Polish experience to the fullest. I was here not just to complete the credits I needed to graduate. More than that, I wanted to squeeze out every ounce of this adventure. So I volunteered to teach English to this sweet little girl.
Her apartment was different from most of my Polish friends. She had her own room, for one thing, and a piano in her room. Her walls were beautifully painted and covered with posters that looked not unlike an American teenager’s decor. Cozy thick carpet and lots of pillows piled up made me feel young. Everything was bright and colorful, including her disposition. She had a beautiful smile and a giggle that bubbled up with joy.
I didn’t know her background, other than her parents were divorced. I knew nothing of the circumstances that led to her living in what seemed an affluent place, in the middle of this snow-blanketed osiedle, two tram lines away from my dorm. But this was part of my experience, so I embraced it.
We spent an hour together, two evenings a week, and in between she practiced. I asked her questions about her life, and her school. She tried her best to recount, in English, things that happened during the day, which opened a window for me into the life of a Polish girl. I knew it wasn’t a typical window, as she went to a private school and lived in relative luxury. But it was a window into her young world, and I appreciated that.
With her vocabulary largely self-taught, she stumbled over the words. When she didn’t understand something I said, in English or in Polish, she simply giggled. Her eyes showed genuine joy. My heart felt light too, after each session.
Even so, we weren’t making much progress. I knew it; she knew it. Her father tactfully expressed that he knew it. I wondered if he would fire me, but he said it was good that she spent time with a native speaker from America. However, it was clear he expected more. While she wasn’t a disrespectful child, I could tell she wasn’t terribly worried about her father’s wishes for her language skills. But she was thrilled to spend time with someone from the States.
That’s when it finally hit me. “What questions do you want to ask me about America?”
The barrage tumbled out of her heart, with a mixture of Polish and English. I smiled. Now, we’re getting somewhere. I asked her to spend time that week writing her questions, in Polish, in her notebook. I would answer them – in English – the following week, and we would talk about them.
Her pages were filled when I returned. Although I spoke Polish, and I understood more than I could say, it took several dictionaries and the full hour for me to understand some of her questions. I took her notebook home with me and wrote my answers in English. The next week, we had so much to talk about. In English.
Her improvement was amazing each week. One night, I walked in and she had sheet music from a song that was popular in the States. I helped her learn to speak the lyrics, and to understand (most of) what they meant. (She was 11, after all.)
At the end of the semester, her father gave me a bonus payment. I used it to buy her a gift, and we enjoyed a celebration.
The creativity that was needed in teaching her was something that would inspire me through many years as a teacher, in equally challenging situations. Do what works. Do what will stick. Make a connection. Be present. Get to know and appreciate the person you are teaching.
I will never forget that little girl, in the moonlit apartment, in the snowdrifts of a suburb of Poznan.
Do you have memories of teaching, or working through language challenges, or unexpected connections in places away from home? I’d love to hear them.