One recent Tuesday morning, I held up two laminated photos: one of hot dogs, drizzled artfully with mustard and catsup; the other of pepperoni pizza.
“Which do you like better?” I asked C, a new student from Eritrea, who is learning English at a galloping pace. “Hot dogs, or pizza?” We were practicing phrases like, “I prefer hot dogs,” and “I like pizza more than hot dogs.”
C pointed at the hot dog. “What?” he said. “Hot? Dog?” He sounded the words out slowly. Incredulously. And then he started laughing.
I nodded. “Yes. Hot. Dog. It’s a… a sausage. In a bun.”
C laughed even louder. “Hot dog? Dog?” He made a barking noise.
“Yes.” I laughed too. “That is the word. Dog.”
Now C looked horrified, and I realized why.
“But it is not the meat of a dog!” I shook my head vigorously. “Not dog! It is beef, or pork. Cow or pig.” I turned to M, an even newer student from Ukraine. “M, do you have hot dogs in Ukraine?” I asked.
“Yes,” M said. “Hot dogs. In my country. We say—hot dogs.” He smiled, for the first time that morning. It was his second day in class.
C burst out laughing again. He could not get over it. What next, in this nutty country? M and I started laughing too. So did the other students.
A week has passed, and I keep thinking about that moment. All I have to do is say to myself, hot dog, and I smile.
I don’t know C’s story, or M’s. All I know is that they are two young men from distant countries who for some series of unique reasons wound up here, in Seattle, just about as far as either of them could have traveled and still landed in our country, unless they’d gone to Hawaii or Alaska. All I know is that in exchange for helping in this ESL classroom on Tuesday mornings, I get to feel a weekly brush of acquaintance with the world beyond my rain-soaked hometown. And I get to do it in person. Because it’s 2023.
“Five senses,” I like to tell my own students, in my classes on memoir writing. When you write, use your five senses.
Start with sight. What do three-dimensional people look like, in a classroom? Whether they’re learning English, or learning to teach English? They bounce their legs. They sneak peeks at their phones. When they’re called upon to speak, they perspire a little, and sometimes clear their throats.
What do they sound like? In an in-person classroom, you hear much more than the sound of one person at a time, talking in turn. You hear the small sounds everyone makes: a chuckle, a sigh, a quiet groan, a sniffle. You hear pencils scratching and erasers rubbing: the sounds of concentration.
Touch? We touch our papers and pens. We save human touch for the people at home.
Taste? Sometimes, someone brings in treats–chocolates or cookies—and we have the pleasure of tasting together. Smell? If someone brings in coffee, we can all smell it. We might not want to, but we do, and it feels bracingly ordinary. Real. Not virtual.
We are all practicing the many sensory languages of being three-dimensional again. Just as we’re also all practicing our English. We may be starting at different levels, we may have come from different places to get here, but we have so many stories to tell.
It is going to take a while.
For more on returning to in-person life, read my latest piece for 3rd Act Magazine, Memoir Writing in the Time of the Pandemic. And if you’d like to take an in-person class, registration is open for Introduction to Memoir Writing at Seattle Central College: six Wednesday nights, beginning April 20. I’m also teaching an in-person Saturday afternoon seminar at Hugo House, on May 6. It’s called Finding Your Own True Voice.