Today I got angry at one of my refugees for the first time.
Here’s how it happened: Nirmal, the youngest, was practicing the English alphabet with me. We have seen over the semester that Nirmal has the weakest grasp on the English language out of Gopal’s three children. There’s a lot of good explanations for it – primarily, it’s because Nirmal is only seven, so he doesn’t like to work and would rather play with me and his nephew Ujwal during our visits. However, Nirmal’s grades came in over the Thanksgiving break, and now Gopal sees that Nirmal isn’t putting the same time and effort into his studies that his brothers Suk and Harka have. Gopal asked me to review the alphabet with Nirmal until he showed some degree of progress.
I already knew that this was easier said than done, because I suspect that Nirmal is dyslexic, as mentioned in previous entries. I had the faint feeling that this was going to wind up being a rather Sisyphean task. (For those who don’t know, Sisyphus is a figure from Greek mythology who was punished by the gods for imprisoning death, so no one else would have to die. His punishment? At dawn, he had to roll a boulder up the top of a mountain, and when he reached the top, he would be released. The twist? Whenever Sisyphus neared the top, the boulder would invariably slip from his fingers, and roll back to the bottom; Sisyphus would descend the mountain over night and resume his task in the morning. The Greek gods were not known for the sense of mercy.)
So we went through the alphabet: A, B, C, D… after two or three runthroughs, Nirmal could recite the whole thing as soon as I prompted him with the letter A. Good work. After another recitation, however, I notice something a little odd; Nirmal isn’t looking at the letters when I prompt the, he’s just staring at the window lazily reciting the alphabet at a rate faster than I can point.
I decide to test something. I point to the letter K and ask Nirmal what it is. Nirmal stares for a moment and says, A.
Wrong. I grimace and ask him to try again. After some deliberation, Nirmal admits that he just doesn’t know. Oh, great, I thought.
I run through the alphabet with Nirmal again; once again he recites every letter from memory. Then I point to the letter E, then U, and for both letters he says he just doesn’t know. My suspicion, then, was confirmed: Nirmal had only memorized the phonetic sounds of the alphabet, but he couldn’t distinguish between letters.
Harka, who was studying near us, must have realized this as well from afar, because as I tried to teach each letter to Nirmal (his attempts to duplicate the letters I drew for him also met with failure), whenever his little brother faltered, Harka shouted the correct answer in Nirmal in annoyance. (As mentioned before, Harka is deaf in one ear, so as a consequence he tends to raise his voice when he communicates with us.) I appreciated his help, but I wished Harka hadn’t done it; I knew Nirmal would never learn at that rate, and it was only distracting him further. Nirmal, like any mischievous little boy, only laughed at Harka’s attempts to help him.
While at first it seemed that Nirmal’s dyslexia was interfering with his ability to learn the alphabet, another theory struck me. I had seen behavior like this before in working with elementary school kids back home in Connecticut, kids who didn’t think it was “cool” to learn so they acted like they didn’t know or didn’t care about the material in order to seem funny, or even just cool. Indeed, this seemed to be the case; after a while Nirmal said he didn’t know to just about any letter other than A, B, C, or W (why he could distinguish W over the other letters was never explored by me). By doing this, he was getting attention from me, from Harka, from Ujwal, and from Gopal – which seemed like something Nirmal would do, the more I thought about it.
This really rubbed me the wrong way because Gopal had asked me so graciously to teach his son English, and I really like Gopal, so I didn’t want to let him down. Eventually I became so fed up with Nirmal’s behavior that I dismissed him from his lesson. It’s what he wanted, and he had pushed me to the limits of my patience.
This incident reminded me of how a long-term relationship with refugees is often an awful lot like Sisyphus’ labor. Sometimes you feel like you’re making a lot of progress, but then something will happen that make all your hard work slip through your fingers. I wish I hadn’t experienced something like this so late in the semester; it just made me feel frustrated with myself and with Nirmal, neither of which are attitudes I should have going into my visits with the family. But what else can I do? I’m only human, and so are they.