Speak Slowly. But Ask Me.
We finished level 3 and had extra time to chat during my final Hebrew class before my trip to visit my family in Israel. My teacher repeated her advice many times. “You can do it. You have the vocabulary. Just ask them to speak slowly.”
“Of course,” I nodded. Last time I went to Israel I hadn’t yet finished level 2. I had convinced myself that level 3 with the past tense would be the key. Still. . . disappointment from that April trip lingered. Doubt cracked across my chest, despite the words I recognized over the airplane’s PA. The barrier to breathe was not my lips, but my stomach.
The first few days in Israel, I stayed ‘in class’. I was able to focus on instructions. I only repeated the words I knew I could say, was sure I wanted to say, to myself. I watched my niece and nephew in Judo class. These phrases were short. The words repeated. I played netball with my sister-in-law. The vocabulary was limited with immediate application. I was active and yet I remained too quiet.
But, I couldn’t remain invisible. It was her friend, the stranger, the opportunity with nothing to lose that broke the ice.
My niece’s friend approached me, “Can I ask you a question?”
I smiled, “Ken. Yes. Speak slowly.”
I paused her, exhaling my desire to laugh. “You can speak more quickly than that.” Ask me.
“Do you like to live in the United States?”
The first to see us, if we let them, are always children. Their curiosity, their willingness to forget all unnecessary details adults categorize as obstacles. If she thought I could do more than I thought, I could think that too.
I inhaled. I didn’t want to be a bystander. I couldn’t remain on the outside. Still, I could only have that conversation when someone wanted to speak to me. The glass had thinned, perhaps. My image reflected there but sight was not sound. I needed to be heard. I attempted to will interaction, engagement, patience into existence. I repeated the phrase.
Speak slowly but ask me.
My brother attempted to create the conversation for me. He seated me next to my niece to check her science work on flammable objects. She resisted, citing my lack of language. I wanted her to be wrong and I shared her doubts. My brother insisted, citing my previous school success. I clutched my dictionary and inched word by word through the instructions. At least ¾ of the words were unnecessary and by the time I reached the key words, I was fatigued. Fatigue easily became defeat.
My breath quickened. I slid to one side of the chair to its edge, ready to exit the interaction. I recalled my own lack of engagement in this reality of so many students I had taught. I yearned for the steady heartbeat of conversation, the middle ground, the rhythm between the highs and lows. Anxiety and acceptance. I needed to choose the conversation.
My niece and I and the dictionary passed a morning on the couch. I chose Hebrew over English. I stumbled over what the dictionary offered. She read the words to bridge the distance. Yet, so many of the words the dictionary suggested seemed unnecessary to her. Instead, words I recognized answered more questions than I had anticipated.
More words were not the answer, but use of the words I had. Again, my teacher’s message. This time not just for me, but for my niece as well. Perhaps I wasn’t only looking for a conversation, but acceptance of where I was at. With my nephew, the exchanges were different, because he was four or because he wasn’t something else, he chose to understand. I chose to be understood. I reran the words in my head. I confirmed their meanings. I had a conversation with myself aloud, in his presence. No matter what, the conversation repeated itself or moved forward. He didn’t expect one or the other.
“You know the words,” my teacher’s voice returned. I inhaled and faced my niece. She was not looking at me.
“I have the Hebrew in my head, but when I want to speak, it’s hard,” I offered.
She nods. “That’s me speaking English.”
I know. I knew. My heart broke and swelled at the same time.
Speak slowly. But, ask. (Me)
A few added punctuations and I am both the speaker and recipient of the phrase.
My teacher’s advice returned, “You can. Have a conversation.”