Sunday, November 1, 2009

In '91, I learned a Ukrainian dirty word. I was teaching in the Everett School District and was forced to divide my time between the high school, teaching English, and the middle school in a poor section of town teaching English as a Second Language. I had no training, no materials, no help and a principal who thought I should write Individual Educational Plans for each of my students, one of whom was VietNamese, one of whom was Romanian, 2 of whom were ethnic Russians, and the rest of whom were Ukrainian refugees from the former USSR, most of whom shared the last name of Babak; they were all cousins, apparently.

After attending a conference, I learned that immersion is the best way to learn a language. It takes about three years, but so does any other method, so I divided class time into two parts, some direct instruction in English, and watching English language movies. This seemed to work pretty well. Soon, they learned enough English to express preferences, one of which no surprise, was cartoons. The other was religious movies, chiefly, Ben Hur, "Judahbengur, judahbengur," I would hear every day. "Teacher, teacher! Judahbengur!" I guess the chariot scene crosses culture barriers. Actually, these were the children of Christian refugees. They left the USSR because to stay meant daily humiliation and oppression from ethnic Russians who had been sent to Ukraine to be teachers and other authorities. The children refused to wear the red scarves that signified Communism, so they were fair targets for any bullies, including teacher bullies. They did not love Russians. The two Russian boys in the class, the Rubashkas, were ok, because they were members of the same fundamentalist Christian faith as the Ukrainian children.

Sasha Rubashka was one of the most memorable of those kids. He would speak to me frequently, quite urgently, in Russian. Every time my answer was the same, "Sasha, I don't speak Russian." He would grimace in frustration, but repeat the performance some times several times the same day. One day, as I was asking him something in English as part of my unscientific immersion style teaching, he answered in his thick accent, "I don't speak English," and then laughed uproariously. The others joined in, and so did I. It was brilliant.

Oh yeah, the dirty word. One day, as I prepared that day's video extravaganza, they gathered around me shouting "Cartoon cartoon!" but I assured them there was no cartoon that day. One of the Babak's was walking by the VCR flopping his head back and forth and repeatedly muttering, "Cartoon, pardoon, cartoon pardoon..." I asked Natalia, whose English was very good, what pardoon meant. She blushed a bit and said quietly, "um, it mean, bottom poo."

I'm remembering all of these kids because of the recent flap over R-71, the referendum to the people that endorses the legislation already passed by the state legislature that gives domestic partners, same sex or heterosexual seniors, "everything but marriage," insurance coverage, inheritance, visitation in the hospital, things like that.

By purely anecdotal evidence, the largest contingent of anti 71 demonstrators in Tacoma all attend a local slavic church. It's likely that this is the same type of fundamentalist group that fled the Soviet Union to escape persecution. Like most religious groups offended by gays, they do not make the connection between their own persecution at the hands of a government that refused to allow them their beliefs and persecution of homosexuals. The irony is that in the USSR, they could not speak freely ANY of their beliefs, and yet here in their adopted country, they are free to believe whatever conservative faith they'd like and to protest the granting of rights to another persecuted minority. Although I disagree with them, knowing as I do that being gay is no one's choice and therefore not possibly a sin, I am happy they are here in the US and free to announce their opinion and thus their bigotry. Only they don't know yet that it is bigotry. They need to be educated, to learn that whatever they fear is not really anything to fear. Gays are not going to destroy their marriage or devour their children. They will learn it, but it will take time. Immersion is the best method, though, and eventually they will immerse themselves in American life.

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