Found in Translation
He sat in the front, waiting for the teacher. Behind him, under the faded, dog-eared skeleton diagrams now endowed with bizarre genitalia and scribbled over with graffiti, other students were talking, laughing, throwing things around. He heard some boys discussing a fight that happened, how someone got stabbed. He felt uncomfortable. Many of these boys were so quick to anger, or talk about weapons, who owned a gun. He had seen too much killing, too much hurt, to be interested in those sorts of conversations.
At least now they didn’t laugh at his accent anymore, or call him rude names. A few students even greeted him. Some of the teachers still treated him as a fool when he didn’t understand their instructions. Mr Nicols always spoke extra loudly to him as if that would help him understand better.
He got out his books. He knew he was lucky to be here, to be out of the fear, the shooting, the walking. But sometimes when he looked at his homework in the tiny flat he shared with eight other refugees, the books and assignments seemed to be from some foreign planet. He certainly was treated like an alien. Him and Port Jackson – unwelcome blots on the landscape.
His thoughts were interrupted by Mr Rogers walking into the classroom, followed by a slim, pretty woman in a sleek black dress. ‘Hey, I like it,” shouted one boy, and the others wolf-whistled loudly. Sammy saw the woman blush and put his head down in embarrassment. “Quiet!” Mr Rogers shouted loudly, and the class subsided into interested murmurs. “This is Miss Dupoint. She has come to tell you about French classes.”
She can teach me anything!” shouted the same heckler. Mr Rogers glared at him. “Detention. Friday.” The boy slouched back, sullen. Miss Dupoint gave an apologetic laugh. Then she cleared her throat and the class quietened. “Who of you can speak French?” she asked. Sammy put his hand up. The class erupted in disbelief – “hey, Sammy, you can’t even speak English properly!”
“Bonjour, Monsieur.” Their calls subsided as Miss Dupoint greeted him politely in French, asked him where he came from. And when he answered, he almost heard the shocked silence. Did his classmates not realise he had a language that belonged to him? Miss Dupoint chatted to him a little, shyly. The others heard an exclusive conversation and the wolf-whistles started up again, quelled quickly by Mr Rogers. Miss Dupoint launched into her presentation in broken English, handed out some brochures and then left, smiling a goodbye to Sammy.
Later Nodumo came up to him. “Hey, you can score with that one,” he teased. ‘It sounds so cool when you speak French, it’s really romantic,’ said Chantal. Other kids also smiled at him, made a comment as they went out to break. It feels as if I’m suddenly visible, Sammy thought, as if Miss Dupoint waved a wand and they saw me for the first time.
Later it was English. “I need some oral marks” said Miss Brown. “Each of you is to stand up and introduce yourself to the class, and tell us something we don’t know about you, anything – anything LEGAL that is,” she said, in response to the giggles and shrieks amongst a group of students at the back.
Normally Sammy would have shrunk back in his chair, awkward with accent. He wouldn’t have known what to say, and would have had Miss Brown’s impatient prompting for his slow fumblings. But today was different. His back straightened as he put his hand up to go first. ‘Sammy,” said Miss Brown, surprised. “Well, miracles do happen. Okay, go for it.”
Sam stood up. “Not many of you know where I come from,” he said, “or why I’m here.” Everyone was looking at him, even those students who spent most of the lessons sprawled across their desks sleeping. He took a deep breath. “This is my story…”