THE HARDEST LESSON
Sometimes doing something hurts so much.
But not doing it hurts more.
I was painfully confronted with this fact recently when I was preparing an English lesson that I was absolutely dreading.
A few weeks ago, I started an online English communication program for Ukrainians.
100 people could fit in my Zoom room, and hundreds more shared the recording of the masterclass and the bilingual workbooks that went with it.
The first lesson was great – all about introducing yourself and settling in to a new life here in the Netherlands.
The second lesson was effective – we focused on writing a CV, preparing for a job interview, and all the vocabulary needed to talk about your career, professional history, and your future goals.
Then I asked what the participants wanted to work on next.
It was the war.
The language of the war.
And how they felt about it.
My stomach turned when I heard their requests – not just in the session (where some people were joining in live from Ukraine), but in the dozens of messages I received afterwards.
The language of war.
I usually enjoy preparing my slides and designing my workbooks for my sessions.
Not for this one.
Not at all.
I received very useful input (thank you Jessica, Julia, and Christina!) about phrases that would be helpful, and then I went to work.
I categorized them:
Talking about where you are from: Is it still there? What was damaged? What was left intact? Rubble. Pulling people out of the rubble. Casualties. Injuries. Sirens.
Talking about how you escaped: Checkpoints. Bomb shelters. In hiding. Seeking refuge. Crossing the border.
Talking about the fighting: Bombs. Raids. Airstrikes. Snipers. Military. Navy. Flagships. Warning signals. Strategy. War crimes. Genocide.
Talking about your feelings: Depressed. Nervous. Tired. Numb. Grateful. Afraid. Bitter. Optimistic.
And so much more.
I had to stop while I was preparing because my keyboard got wet as I was typing and I didn’t know why. It was covered in tears. I took this picture to remind myself of this turning point for me. What I do is a joy, a blessing, a miracle in my life. My work is fun. So much fun. For me, and for my clients. My enthusiasm, colorful, funky slides, lessons with an unexpected twist, lame jokes, etc – I have never not loved what I do. It’s one of the greatest passions I have, and I’ve been lucky to do it for well over 30 years.
But all of it hurt while preparing for this lesson, and to be honest, after a sleepless night, I was hoping no one would show up.
But they did.
Most of the people had their cameras off, and I explained right at the start what the lesson was about, that it might be triggering, and that they could leave anytime, as they would get the recording and the workbook afterwards. But they stayed. I went through my slides slowly and carefully, giving as many examples as possible, and pronouncing everything slowly and clearly, repeating when needed. And checking for questions along the way. There were none.
At one point I just couldn’t hold it together anymore. I couldn’t be a teacher anymore, I could only be a human. I started crying and saying how deeply sorry I was that they were all going through this. But then their messages started coming through. That this is what they needed – to be able to share their own stories. To find the right words. To ask for support when and where they needed it most. To be able to talk about their turmoil, and to help others do the same.
Then I tried to end the lesson on an optimistic note.
I asked if anyone had any good news to share.
One woman, not on camera, turned on her mic and said that today was a good day for her.
She was a florist in Ukraine and just recently found a job in Amsterdam as a florist.
She was so happy to be working and to be surrounded by flowers all day.
I cannot tell you the wave of joy that washed over me when I heard it.
So many people felt the same, I think.
I cried for a long time after the lesson, out of relief that it was done, in the hope that it had served others to some small degree. The messages I have received since then have confirmed that.
One of the first English lessons I gave was in 1988, to a group of refugees in NY. I’ll never forget that lesson. I’ll never forget this one either.
I am writing this post more for me than for anyone else.
I want this to pop up in my memories, a year from now, to remind me that my beautiful, fantastic work can serve a higher purpose.
A harder purpose.
A helpful purpose.
A hopeful purpose.
When you feel sick with fear, and dreading something big, don’t forget that there is someone waiting on the other side of that fear who needs what you have to share.