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First Day

Susan Rosenfeld
Senegal

I walked down the road, hoping I would reach my destination. Please, I thought, half seriously, half jokingly, let me be hit by a car and than I'll never have to face them.

Despite ten weeks of intensive preparation in Senegal and a master's degree with a year's preparation in the States before that, I knew that I was not ready.

Finally I reached my destination, unharmed by any vehicle. The destination was College de la Petite Cote, a Catholic secondary school in the coastal fishing town of Joal. They were not enemies, monsters, or ogres, but my students; for it was the first day of school.

The bell rang and my heart sank. There was no putting it off any longer. Why did I ever think I wanted to do this? I wondered. The students lined up and marched into the classroom.

There were forty of them, half boys and half girls. They sat quietly and expectantly, waiting to see what their American teacher would be like.

"Good morning class."

"Good morning , Miss."

"How are you?"

"Fine. Thank you. And you?"

"Fine, thank you."

Well, I thought, this is going very well. Maybe this won't be so bad after all. Their sixieme teacher (first year of English) had trained them very well.

I plunged into what I had meticulously been preparing for several days.

"Now, I want everyone (gesture, just the way I was taught - the whole class) to have a notebook and a pen (just as I was trained, waving a notebook and a pen around the room) and bring them to class everyday."

Blank stares.

Patiently: "Class, a pen (waving around my blue Bic) and a notebook (waving around my notebook); you bring them every day!" Blank stares. A few students begin to squirm uncomfortably.

"What's the matter?"

One brave student venture, "Miss, we don't understand. You don't speak English."

Don't speak English? I wasn't ready for that one. I had steeled myself for lots of noise, giggles, unruly kids, and spitballs - but being told, five minutes into the school year, that I didn't speak English, that was unexpected.

"I don't speak English?"

"Non," responded forty kids, brightly and politely.

"What do I speak then?"

"On ne sait pas, Miss, mais ce n'est pas de l'anglais," offered one bold soul, rather apologetically.

Switching into French, which I promised myself I would never, never use, I asked, "What do you mean I don't speak English? I'm from America.

"Yes, Miss, but you don't speak good English like Mr. Benoit. He spoke good English. We could understand him. Your accent is bad."

"Who is Mr. Benoit?"

"Our English teacher last year."

"Oh, I see. And what nationality is he?"

"He's Senegalese, Miss."

"And what's his native language?"

"Serrere, Miss."

"And where did he learn English."

"In school."

"And what nationality am I?"

"American."

"And where did I learn English."

"At home."

"So if someone's accent is 'bad,' whose do you think it is?"

Silence, in the face of this irrefutable logic.

"But," I said, brightly, not wanted to put down Mr. Benoit in front of his students, "perhaps neither accent is bad. Perhaps they're just different."

Relief flooded the students' faces. "Yes, Miss," they say, "because Mr. Benoit was a good teacher. A very, very, very good teacher. The best. We hope you'll do things just like him."

I'll have to check this out I thought. Who is this Benoit character anyhow?

The rest of the hour proceeded uneventfully. A review of the present tense. Personal pronouns. Question words. I was amazed. They're actually accepting me as a teacher! They think it's normal that I stand on them and correct them. The other teachers think it's normal that I'm a teacher. The director thinks it's normal. I guess it doesn't show that I don't know what I'm doing. I wonder if this feeling will ever go away…?

Susan Rosenfeld (Senegal)

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