English and Life

by Lilita Tannis

 “Notice”, the teacher says, “that these words share the same sound: Love. Blood.” 

Ah! I find myself thinking. Doesn’t blood define whether we live or die? And love? Well, isn’t that more about how we live or die?

The teacher says, “This is something you say when you wish something could happen but you doubt it will. Does anybody know the expression?” Someone from the back of the class exclaims, I hope so! 

Yes, hope is a verb. Hope is something you are able to do, we are taught, in the (simple) present and (simple) future. You can also hope for things that may or may not have already happened. For example: I hope they didn’t really believe that John Lennon wrote Imagine because he was high on LSD in the early 70s. A woman beside me is checking her texts. She wants to know the news from her town where bombing is happening as we sit together in Toronto still hoping for imaginary things. A retired Chinese business woman says, “I hope my vacation in “L.A.” will be sunny.” Her grammar is near perfect. She uses the abbreviation purposefully to practice and showcase her knowledge of how normal English Canadians speak.  The oldest student has thought of something too. “I hope you were happy before you knew better.” He is a former doctor. The teacher grins and repeats the answer. “Yes. I hope you were happy before you knew better.”

Now the woman beside me is asked to use hope in a sentence about the future. She says, I hope that 2024 will not be more terrible than last year. She says this in a flat voice with a smirk on her pale face. She is from Ukraine.

I am in this class to observe how to teach English as a Second Language. I’m a long ago Canadian English graduate still lazy about grammar. I focus on the students, the meaning behind the words they use or don’t, more than the grammar. I’ve been thinking about the woman beside me during the difference between hope and wish grammar practice. In the practice story there’s a boy who hopes that Santa will bring him all the presents on his list. I know that the woman beside me has a son. What does her teenage son recently escaped from the war hope for I wonder? Sex probably. War is not immune. But would it happen in broken English, perfect Ukrainian or in universally soft, guttural sounds? 

I am a Latvian-Canadian English graduate. My parents escaped Soviet Occupation 

as teenagers and met a few years later in Toronto. And so, I exist here. In Canada. 

In class, my obligatory face mask becomes damp under my eyes thinking about our inane Christmas wish list and my distraught colleague from Ukraine.  I hope that no one sees my hopeless tears. Is it love or blood or my Spidey Indo-European roots that cause me to wake every night for months thinking about the re-occupation of Ukraine or Latvia? 

K uses a fake English name. (That’s probably because we English speakers can neither pronounce or decipher gender from her original name). When K was a little girl she would eat a bowl of noodles while walking to school. I like to imagine her that way. A carefree little kid slurping a bowl of noodles. She’s a provocative modern beauty now with long, two-toned lightened brown hair. She’s got her Master’s Degree in Education. At lunch, she tells me that in China if a woman dates a man more than once, then on the second date she’ll want to meet his parents. “If she doesn’t like his parents, she smiles,” there’s no point in continuing. Because in China, you marry the family.” She tells me that in China children are expected to listen to their parents, follow their parents’ wishes. But youth, she tells me, are beginning to think of speaking up, speaking their minds. She says, “Even though my parents are modern and they want me to make up my own mind about my future, they want me to come home after my studies. They miss me.” 

So. She can stay if she wants to. The word can, we are taught, is a modal. In this case, the modal expresses permission to stay. With consequences.

M is a full-time student. On both weekend nights she has a job that lasts until midnight. During weekend days she cooks several meals for the week, she says,

“so that my mother and my son have something to eat.” 

M says she used to have paper photographs of her childhood. In English used to describes a situation that once existed but no longer exists. “There was war,” she says. “We grabbed our purses and ran. No more pictures.” Today she is teaching a simulation class using the phrase used to. In a story that represents her childhood we discover that the baby photo she has used in her presentation of her real family is not of herself, but it’s her son when he was a baby. She says, “It’s the only family photo I have.” She tells us that the family photos she is showing us are not of her family. They are photos of Afghani-like families that look something like hers, pulled from magazines. The class is shaken. Or maybe I should speak for myself.

M is shaken. “It’s not just a war that was. But a war that still exists in my country. Memories that I can’t erase!There’s that modal again, can’t, this time in the negative, meaning permission denied. That’s: no erasure. 

M smiles again. She will smile every single day.  She says, “I push aside my memories to make a good life.”  In grammatical terms, M. is still surviving even though she has escaped long ago. Here is a graph to explain the imperfect timeline she is living in.

           Putin is dreaming of the Baltic Sea, too