I ran into an old friend today . . . on Facebook, of course. I don’t even remember how we first met–probably the ESOL classes at my church in East London–but I do remember going to visit her quite a bit. She was a refugee with some pretty traumatic refugee experiences, and I wanted–and she wanted me to–write her story into a book, but then I left London and we never saw each other again–until today on Facebook. We hadn’t really known each other for more than five months when I flew away, so I didn’t expect her to remember me, but she said, “I have been searching the fb like mad for u but I couldn’t find u coz I couldn’t remember ur last name, I’m glad u found me.” Me, too!
Usually when I think of momentous years, I think of 2008. But actually, on 3 January 2002, I had an inexplicable freak-out about returning to London (where I had theretofore assumed I was going to settle for the rest of my life) and so even though I did return, the wheels were set in motion from that point onward for me to leave. I used to say that God told me to, and I still reckon He might have, but whether He did or didn’t, I don’t expect my choice surprised Him very much and things seem to be working out–at the moment, anyway.
Anyway, this made 2002 a pretty momentous year, too, because before I left London for good in May that year, I jumped into a bunch of new experiences kind of at the last minute, just in case. One of the things I did was find out that even though I didn’t have a work permit to work in the UK, I could volunteer as a teacher’s assistant at one of the local schools.
I ended up helping out in about three different classrooms and it may have been the most fun thing I did the entire time I was in London, so it’s kind of surprising that alone didn’t make me stay. On the first day, I read stories to a group of cuties in Reception (Kindergarten). Javed wanted me to read Where the Wild Things Are. So I started reading it. We paused carefully at each page to look at the pictures.
“That one looks like you, Miss,” said Javed.
The school was not a religious school, but it was a very religious school, all the same, because most of the kids were from religious families. Far and away the highest percentage of the kids were Muslim, but there was also a sizeable Sikh and Hindu population, and just a smattering of Christians. One thing I loved about British schools was that there were actually Religious Education (RE) classes, so the kids were learning about different faiths, and none of the teachers had to be afraid to talk about them. Sometimes the classes were a little tricky, though, when a given teacher was trying to teach about a faith that wasn’t his or her own. Like, you should’ve seen the day that one teacher placed another book on top of the Qu’ran when he was teaching about Islam . . .
But there was also the Year 4 teacher who was trying to teach the kids about Easter. It was Easter time, so I guess they were trying to be seasonal with their lesson plans. My guess is that this teacher might have fallen into the “spiritual but not religious” category, and so when of the children asked a question about some Easter specifics, she didn’t know how to answer. I was sitting in the corner trying to work on some remedial reading with an individual child, when Manvir, whose family I had been friends with for years, piped up. “Ask Jenn!” he said. (Everybody else called me “Miss.”) “She knows all about this stuff.” So, in a community school full of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and a very few Christians, I talked about Jesus being God and coming to die for our sins and coming back to life again and the whole time I kept waiting for someone to get offended or for the teacher to tell me I had crossed a line, but nobody did, because it was RE, and in RE we talked about beliefs.
At the end of the year, one of the teachers had his class sing me a farewell song since I was leaving England, and all the children gave me hugs. I guess I didn’t know when I signed up to volunteer in school, that saying goodbye to a bunch of children–most of whom I hadn’t known before January–would be so difficult. It took me three years at least to get over London. I’m glad I’m where I am now, but I’m glad I was there, too. I’m glad that I kept making friends until I left. And I’m glad I had those five months at that school.