Teenagers are thoughtless, and when they’re better at something than an adult they can be mercenary. They’ve been studying English for years and most of them can barely manage “Hello,” yet they fail to appreciate my labored and hastily acquired Bulgarian. They stare, they laugh. Some of them correct my mistakes or pretend they don’t understand me.
Nataliya teaches English alongside me and she assures me my Bulgarian is excellent. She says the students are only cruel because they never respect young teachers and they sense fear. This is hardly comforting, since I can always study Bulgarian but there’s nothing I can do about being young and scared. But the truth is my Bulgarian is not that good. It could be much better, and it really should be considering how much I use it. On Tuesday Nataliya tried to tell me that Bulgarian was one of the hardest languages to learn and I snapped at her. No, it isn’t. I know because I’ve studied Russian, for one. Bulgarian is like Intro to Slavic Languages and that morning I was mangling it.
I was sitting in the English classroom between third and fourth period, when Sukriye walked in. I met her the week before in the hallway, where she took my arm as if we were intimate friends in a Jane Austen novel.
“Where are you from? Are you going to be my teacher?” She asked breathlessly, without introducing herself. She wore the ubiquitous acid-washed jeans and black hoody. She was tall and voluptuous and her hair hung thick and blue-black to her waist.
“Are you taking the Professional English class?” I asked. Sukriye was crestfallen for a moment, but her black-rimmed eyes lit up afresh when I told her I would help out in Nataliya’s classes, and that we would see each other there.
On Tuesday morning, there I was, and she was just as happy to see me again.
“Госпожа! Hello! Do you speak Turkish?”
Her question was a bitter reminder that not only was my Bulgarian failing me, but that there are hundreds of languages on this planet that I do not, and likely will never speak, and that Turkish is still one of them.
“No. I have enough problems with Bulgarian,” I didn’t look up.
“Добре!” Her hand made a happy little flourish, “I will teach you Turkish!” Her big bright eyes were blind to my dejection, and sparkled with insufferable enthusiasm for teaching me Turkish. I use a similar tactic with my uncooperative English students. I smiled and looked up.
“Добре. Как е ‘здравейте’ на турски?”
“Merhaba,” She pronounced the word for me a few times. Behind her, a few other students had filed in. They were talking and playing with their cell phones.
I repeated Sukriye, loud enough for the other students to hear, “Merhaba.” Sukriye’s smile broke wide open, and the students all looked at me with wonder. The new American English teacher had just said “hello” in Turkish. I said it again to be sure of myself and the whole class erupted in cheers.