The first time I met Willow she didn’t leave a large impression on me. In fact, I think that I actually had to meet her several times before her name and face became one in my memory. It wasn’t because she was an unexceptional person, but because she was simply so quiet. She usually came to my English corner classes, which are optional lessons that are designed to fit into a sort of casual conversation format. We teach two English Corners everyday, and at times they can be extremely busy with upwards of 30 students. I can remember seeing Willow’s face often in amongst the crowd, but she rarely spoke. It wasn’t until I began my rather unsuccessful book club that Willow really began to speak in our classes together.
I was incredibly optimistic about the book club in the beginning, as many of my students were initially interested, but my hopes quickly began to wane when the number of students showing up for the Saturday meetings got steadily smaller and smaller. Perhaps it was the first book that I chose,The Little Prince, byAntoine de Saint-Exupery . It is possible that the imaginative story about a young prince from a house-sized planet accidentally stumbling across a French mail-carrying pilot stranded in the Sahara dessert was simply too boring for many of my students. It is also quite possible that being much the same busy adults that the little prince can never comprehend, my students simply didn’t have the time or the energy to devote to reading a rather fanciful tale translated from the original French into English.
Whatever the reason, what began as a book club of about twenty, very quickly became a book club of three: Willow, another female student named Megan, and myself. While at first I took this mass abandonment quite harshly, feeling silly and then depressed about my ‘failed’ club, ultimately I realized that getting to know both Willow and Megan was perhaps one of the luckiest experiences I had in my former position. While I prefer having a discussion with more than just three people (and, obviously, English corners are intended to appeal to the majority of the students and not the minority), our talks about The Little Prince were alwaysengaging .
In such a small group the formerly quiet Willow began to quickly come out of her shell. I was astoundedat first to even hear her voice: it was clear and deep, and she spoke slowly and distinctly. After seeing her for weeks without hearing perhaps a single comment, I was stunned both by the insightful questions she would ask and by her incredibly large vocabulary. She would often ask questions about the use of grammar within the story, and whenever she came across a new word she would always look it up in the dictionary before class and would want to practice using the word in different sentences.
However, her interest in The Little Prince wasn’t limited to simply enhancing her vocabulary or improving her grammar; she was determined to comprehend the story fully, and in order to do so, she asked a plethora of questions: about the author, about the little prince himself, about the time that the story was written and even about why I had chosen this particular book.
It quickly became clear to me that Willow was indeed a lover of literature and an avid reader. Unlike many of my other students at the time, she was sincerely interested in the more emotive qualities involved in communication. Reading The Little Prince with her was a startling and wonderful hiatus from the rather dry business English classes that I taught so often. It was also my pleasure to hear her use of words, especially adjectives and adverbs, which I rarely heard from my fellow English teachers: words like obscure, empathetic, melancholy, symbolic, morose, bewildered, elated and efficacious.
Willow was indeed a unique woman as well as a unique student. Her round, white cheeks were quick to blush whenever she would make even the slightest mistake while speaking, but her deep voice would never waver. At first I believed her to be shy, but she was more sensitive than skittish. This sensitivity of character drove her to pursue her study of English in a much different way from my other students. She approached English like you would a lover; you want to know everything about them: the way they walk, their favorite foods, their most comfortable outfit, and even their largest fear. In learning all of these things about your lover you are attempting to uncover the structure beneath their idiosyncratic formation of thoughts and ideas. Reading books in English, watching English movies and even speaking with her ESL teachers, Willow was always searching for a deeper understanding of the large ideological differences behind our two vastly disparate languages. With her sensitive and astute nature she is well on her way to finding such an understanding.
I'm Julia Maher, and I have been living off and on in China since the late summer of 2001. I have spent my time here both studying Chinese and teaching English, sometimes simultaneously, and others not. Most of my time has been spent living in Jiangsu province, but I have just recently moved to Chengdu hoping to experience life out west.