I’m sure you’ve all heard the news of the shooting at the American Civic Association, N.Y. A lone gunman Jiverly Voong, an immigrant, slaughtering 13 people, many fellow English language learners.
I taught new immigrants for a number of years, for the Canadian government. Some of the best memories of my life are from our classes, our international potluck lunches, the hopes/fears/smiles of my students fresh off the plane (some would come to class the very same day!). What I remember most is that very special responsibility of almost being like a father figure – their first Canadian friend/figure, a guide and person to go to for advice and help. It is so important for new immigrants to land on their feet well and meet others who can help anchor them and give them a window of hope for all the trials and tribulations they will face. Learning English as an immigrant isn’t easy! The pressures, the culture shock, the change is enormous and pain nips at everyone’s heart.
So when I heard of the shooting, my own memories flooded back. I asked myself not to think of this guy as a madman (I don’t believe in that gross categorization of a “human being”). I asked myself to reflect on how important teachers and community is to new immigrants and how sometimes, teaching English can be a matter of life and death. Truly, can be.
There are many issues surrounding the story of the shooting and Mr. Voong. Primarily access to guns but also unemployment/discrimination. However, I’d also like to ask us to consider how things might have been different if Mr. Voong had the support and “language” needed to feel part of a community/society? How important was his low level of English language? How did that add into the big picture?
I’ve read a lot about him and I still haven’t concluded if he did get the support needed but for many reasons, it didn’t work. What I do know though, is he wasn’t a monster. Just a terrified human being who reacted in an inhuman way – to the inhuman situation he found himself in. I can’t help but wonder how much his frustrations with the English language contributed to him feeling “inhuman” and estranged from humanity [and he was, anyone who would kill so, must be in a world of the inhuman].
I know first hand how traumatized immigrants or even just any English language learner can become. My first year teaching immigrants I had a wonderfully loving and hard working pair of Vietnamese students – brother and sister. They’d spent 4 years in a squalid, disgusting prison of a refugee center in Hong Kong prior to weeks on the sea on a raft. If that weren’t enough to create trauma – it was the immigration officials who interviewed them that really “popped the cork”. Upon arrival in Canada, without much English, they were berated and bewildered. The older brother ended up very traumatized by the whole 3 day interview process, being kept at the airport in a small room by immigration officials while they verified their paperwork. He ended up with a very profound stutter when speaking English, all from the stress and trauma of that “interview”.
I relate all this in an effort to make us teachers and students more aware of the “life and death” which might come with language learning. We never think of this but language is so fundamental to success, to happiness — and we both learners and teachers are on the front lines. Everything we do counts….
PS. It is very interesting to read the public comments on the N.Y. Daily News site. Take a read if you have the time…. or just scroll through the stories there.