Curry, colours and kindness. These are the first things I notice when I arrive at the Seniors’ Center for the English Conversation class. The smell of curry lingering in the air. The bright warm colours of saris, skirts and hats. The kindness in the eyes of the aged Bhutanese and Nepalese eager to learn and speak a few words of English with trusted teachers. All of it is beautiful.
Those of you who are familiar with the Lethbridge area will know that many of these people lived for many years in refugee camps, with little or no education. The students greet us with laughter and clapping of hands. I can see their pure joy and happiness to be among one another. The students giggle when the teachers point out that all of their names start with J. Some students who understand laugh in amusement. Others follow suit even if they are unaware of the joke at hand. The students stammer through sentences such as “My name is ___” or “I have a ___”, but each one comes to the front of the class with a smile and a confidence to state their words. All of it is beautiful.
These students are referred to as babies, as their language skills are very basic. Many still rely on repetition and mimicry of body language to reciprocate in communication. One tiny old man sits in the seat next to me. It takes me a few minutes to realize that his hand motions are not a game of charades, but sign language. When it is his turn to say his sentence - “I have a whale” - (seeing as the toy he holds in his hand is just that), he is able to sign his sentence with guidance from the teacher. All of it is beautiful.
These students are not here to advance their careers or because someone is making them. They do not need to learn English, they have supports and translators that help them navigate through daily life. So why are many of them there, especially in the winters of their lives? They are there purely to learn and to embrace the relationships around them. This is education at its best. Education that is not motivated by the desire for success and that is chosen by the student. Even though many of them have struggled and lived though many hardships, they choose to learn a few words with so much happiness everyone in the room could feel their warmth. All of it is beautiful.
Language is such a beautiful, delicate gift once you realize the complexity of it all and what the world would be like without it. The way it defines our relationships, identity and every minutes of our lives. What a gift it is that I am writing this blog to share a personal experience.
In my adolescence, I was an avid painter. Many, including myself, thought I would pursue art as a career. I must admit now, I have a room dedicated to art but the brushes and tubes collect dust. When some people have asked if I paint anymore, they looked disappointed when I reply no. One person said “That is too bad. That is like putting diamonds in a cupboard”. Flattered as I am at the compliment, I disagree because it led me to something even greater.
I believe painting used to give me a way to see the beauty that exists around us. In a world where one can be easily drawn into the sadness and hardships present in today’s world, it is at time necessary to intentionally seek for the good and beauty that exists. The beauty I used to seek through images and colours, I now find in teaching. I see the beauty in helping raise a generation that cares for one another. I see the beauty of helping students of all kinds fight through their struggles. I do not need painting as my window to the greatness and beauty the world holds, I find it in my classroom every day. That is where true beauty can be found.