This is English Club

The words were scrawled onto the blackboard, probably not meaning to reference Fight Club and Tyler Durden or that film I saw a few years back, This Is England, which followed a story of thuggish neo-Nazi during the Falklands War and Thacherite years. “Welcome!” exclaimed Israel, one of the student organizers, his face overtaken by a wide, infectious grin.  I have met Israel about a dozen times now, and I’m certain that’s a perma-grin; it never fails to improve my mood. INES English Club was a few minutes from starting: the borrowed classroom was full of Rwandan students and not a skinhead in sight.

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Although, as I looked around the classroom the particular day, I noticed that English Club was indeed full- but of male students. Even Nadia, one of the three organizers, was not there. “Fellas,” I said to Israel and Stevenson, the Haitian exchange student who could oscillate between fluent English and even more fluent French in the same sentence, “Where are the ladies?” They shrugged. For no reason, it was Dude Day in English Club.

I was happily roped into English Club a few weeks ago when Nadia, Israel, and Stevenson showed up at my office hours, Israel grinning (of course) and Nadia with a head full of tiny red braids. They had so many ideas for activities in the club, wanting to create a comfortable and fun space for their classmates to practice their English. We brainstormed for an hour and made a schedule. I was happy to begin to build long-term relationships with students, a challenging task with my current one-week intensive classes.

For this particular day, the second meeting, Stevenson was in charge, and he chose to show a video with a simple conversation about using politeness cues when talking. As the clip began, five very pretty girls walked in, causing the group of eleven gentlemen present to perk up almost in unison, pretending to very seriously focused on the video, all while sneaking glances at the girls who slipped into seats in the back of the room. Stevenson didn’t miss a beat; at the end of the video, he the club launched into a discussion about why it was important to be polite. I’m pretty certain a mandate for politeness is written into the Rwandan constitution, so the discussion went well. I watched the boys, chuckling to myself inside, reminded ever so slightly of high school. One of them, a very tall, broad-shouldered young man whose physical adjustment to the girls’ appearance was the most obvious, stood up and took on the air of a politician as he expressed his opinion. I forced myself to look out the window and think serious thoughts to keep from laughing as he offered boisterous, deep-voiced thanks to Stevenson and all who were participating in the discussion, all while staring at the girls. The five newcomers all looked back at him a little saucily, heads leaned to the side and exchanging pointed looks between themselves.

As the discussion *cough* pontifications *cough* closed, Stevenson asked me if I would add anything, being the great authority that I am on politeness (his words). I told them a little about hedging: using phrases like “would you mind if I sat here” to make a request more polite and give the receiver an easy way to say no, if desired. I asked the club to practice. Immediately our politician jumped to his feet, ready to try. He walked across the room and dropped coolly into one of the seats next to a girl with an elaborate asymmetrical weave of braids and twists. “Hi.” I imagined Joey from the TV show Friends, half hoping that his next words would be “how you doing?” But, instead, he intoned, his chin cocked up a little as he spoke: “Would you mind if I kissed you?”

Without hesitation, she scoffed and replied, “would you mind if I slapped you?”

This is English Club.

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