While I Stand

By Amy Crofford

Teaching ESL makes you think about much more than the past perfect progressive tense and the order of adjectives. Each lesson taught is a lesson learned. Each person truly met draws the world closer to one’s heart.

The first evening of my advanced-advanced class, students gathered at the American Cultural Center in Benin. They represented the highest levels of society and included government ministers, CEOs of businesses and NGOs, except for one young man. He had a master’s degree in engineering and hoped to go to the US for doctoral studies. The term before, he had been in my middle-middle class. I asked him how he had skipped three levels ahead so quickly. He credited my teaching, but I persisted in asking.

Every morning, he listened to BBC-Africa’s English lesson and news broadcast. He then went to his part-time job at the local French school. He had taken a job there because as a playground monitor he could speak English with my older son every day. In the afternoon, he took odd jobs as he could and often acted as a tour guide for Anglophone foreign visitors. He used his meager funds to buy books and music in English. Before he went to bed and after reviewing his lessons, he listened again to BBC radio programs. He was determined to learn and advance.

I stood amazed.

In that class, three students took turns each night presenting idioms to the others. One evening, the second presenter had chosen: “roll out the red carpet.” He defined all the terms. In the hot and humid climate, carpets were not common. He then gave the global meaning of the idiom and used it in several sentences. Before asking the class to come up with their own sentences, he checked to see if the class had understood.

“Would you roll out the red carpet for your neighbor?”


“Would you roll out the red carpet for the President of the United States?”


“Would you roll out the red carpet for the baker at the Yellow Street bake shop?”


“Would you roll out the red carpet for a murderer of ten thousand people?”

The class sat silently. Seconds ticked by. Students shifted in their seats. They looked at one another, at me, and then at the presenter. Finally, one student raised her hand.

“Is the murderer the president of an African country?”

I stood in distress. 

One night in the middle-advanced class, I was teaching words to use in emergency situations. We discussed calling the police – although they didn’t see the point of that. We talked of calling for an ambulance – although most thought that calling a cab would be quicker. We talked of hospitals and doctors. We practiced a bit of First Aid. As the evening drew to an end, I decided to do an experiment to see how well they had learned the vocabulary.

I did a prat fall.

Students jumped to their feet and rushed to the front of the room. Although most relied on their first languages, some did indeed use the evening’s vocabulary. I was pleased and stood to my feet – smiling, well, and whole.

The students were not amused. They demonstrated complete mastery of the vocabulary of chastisement. We left a little late that evening as they spent the time to teach the teacher that life had enough unpleasantness without tempting fate as I had done. 

I stood apologetically with my head bowed.

As I think about my students, I stand amidst peers. Our backgrounds have varied significantly. Our beliefs often are in contrast. Our burdens and blessings are primarily our own. Yet, they have been determined. They have been practical and philosophical in turn. I stand to teach and while I stand, I learn.