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Bilingual Reflections: A Coming of Word Story

by Rabia Bashir

--Dedicated to all the other students who left their words behind--

Word Wall

Asset-based lens: seeing the glass as half full

Deficit-based lens: seeing the glass as half empty

Bloom’s taxonomy: (taxonomy: different ways of classifying something)

different types of learning that a student can do such as, remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.

Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Pedagogy that respects different cultural bridges

Funds of knowledge: All students bring something to the table

L1: mother tongue, first language

L2: second language

Pedagogy/Ped-aa-goji (like the berry): teaching

Reading the world: Freire’s focus on reading the word in order to read the world.

Zone of Proximal Development: how big a student can grow under the guidance of a capable teacher

Zubaan (Urdu): literally, tongue; language.

Part I: Fail

Words are like people. Big. Small. Good. Bad. Interesting.


If you link up just a few such words you get a sentence.

Doesn’t that look like a bridge? (Go with me please.) I’m telling you…!

A string of words. A bridge from me to you.

From you to me.

And if you connect a few more words, a LOT LOT many, you get a language.

When I think of the English language I think of the biggest, widest, longest, baddest bridge EVER. No real life bridge can come close, but a suspension bridge is a good place to start. Think of a suspension bridge spanning 6 continents. The only reason it doesn’t go to the 7th is because its residents prefer Penguinese. Makes sense.

Where would the building blocks (a.k.a. words) of such a gargantuan structure even come from?

Words come from people. Words have meaning because they carry within them the history, culture, philosophy, ideology, even the personalities and subtle oddities of the people who speak them.

And so, we may think of English as one long winding bridge that can help us speed our way across this one big wide round world, but we all can see and feel the building blocks shift and change as we zoom across different parts of it.

Yes, all English is English, but no, not all English is the same. Some words are better than others. Or so I’ve been told.

If I were to visualize my own personal language bridge, then that is what it would look like.

A footbridge.

I chose it because it reminds me of the beautiful bridges that exist in the north of Pakistan. Sure, it’s not as strong as a suspension bridge. It’s not strong at all. It wobbles and shakes; it’s awkward. And when the wind blows, that is one bridge you don’t want to be on. But it’s me, and it’s still pretty neat. It has Urdu floorboards and English floorboards. And like I said, not all English is English, so in the past decade or so that I have lived in America I have had to fix and tweak and update some of my words.

Those floorboards, I call ‘em composites.

It was fairly easy work. I shouldn’t complain. It could’ve been a lot harder. I see other bridges and I can’t imagine the work it took to build a bridge with two completely different word blocks. How hard it must have been for the people on such bridges to cross over...

Here are the tweaks I have made to my bridge:

  • I made it fast. Not only do Americans like fast food, they also talk fast.

  • I let go of u and me in my colours and programme. Don’t be extra.

  • Pardon becomes sorry. American English is casual.

  • Coriander became cilantro and capsicum became green pepper. As long as it tastes the same, it’s all good.

  • Petrol became gas. As long as I’m going places...and I’m not on a lift because the first floor has suddenly become the ground floor.

  • Football becomes soccer. No logical explanation.

  • Even animals are onto this linguistic shift. Dogs that went bhaoo bhaoo, now bark woof woof.

I also note how the language of politics shifts. Prime Ministers become Presidents. Provinces become states. This much is visible.

But some sounds don’t go through (gh/the French r).

Some shifts I will not make. Paak-iss-(soft)taan becomes Pack-is-tan.

Some things I don’t think I’ll ever learn to do (how does v sound different from w? IDK!!)

But I’ll keep trying.

I have made a lot of tweaks and updates to my linguistic bridge so that I can belong in my new home. America. And yet despite my earnest effort, sometimes, I fail. All. Too. Literally.

To tell you this tale of language lost and language found I will have to take you to the beginning. And if by the end you find that there was controversy in my story, I might just have to correct you.

Na, ah ah. It's called con-TRAW-vessy.

The year was 2020. (You know this ain’t ending well.)

I started my Master’s in Education at an Ivy League University. It. Was. Amazing!

My colleagues said things like, “Let’s go change the world”.

What? No. You must have me confused. I’m just here to teach math. And yet each time they said, “Let’s go!” I too wanted to say, yes, let’s go! The programme stretched me beyond the four walls of my classroom to think about the cultural forces my students come up against.

Get to know your students.

The programme was also incredibly, incredibly tough. Imagine trying to run a long distance race in half the time it takes in some other places. A two year degree compressed into one. Of course, there was this other thing that happened in 2020…

Thanks to the pandemic my education got complicated.

To begin with, because of the pandemic, I was going to go to home! Bummer. Not my idea of the full immersive experience I was going for, but oh well. The pandemic is going to end by the end of the summer, I assured myself. One semester online shouldn’t take away from anything…

Would it?

Zoom classes were cute to begin with. Two thumbs up instead of a nod. Clapping with emojis.

I could get used to this. But with one too many “you’re still on mute.” and “can you hear me now?” the novelty soon wore off. My Masters programme turned my distance running metaphor into a distance the dark (?) kinda metaphor.

Here’s how: distance learning can be slow. I missed out on all these seemingly trivial but powerful reinforcing processes: one quick glance over the shoulder of the student with the bad dandruff and I know I’m on the same page-all too literally! I missed out on some important conversations too, the ones that happen before or after class, in the hallways, eavesdropping on the cool kids in the cafeteria - just organically built into the surround system. I’ll be honest, sometimes those are the places where I do my best learning. That’s why I wanted to go to university in the first place, to be surrounded by people - new people - not the same as the ones at home.

Zoom collaboration can be a tricky experience too. My group mates working super intently through their work:

Me: a- why are they all staring at me?

b - Do they have something to say to me? Say it already!

(Work-in-PROgress tip: Turn your ‘zoom’ screen away, or dim it down so you’re not constantly getting distracted by everyone getting distracted by you.)

Figuring out a new place can be tricky, but to do it from across a screen? That’s an added layer of difficulty right there. Especially when it comes to people.

People can be hard to read from across a screen. Do I believe that people have energies that we can attune to in ways we can’t online? Yes, yes, I do. They don’t say “the energy in the room” for nothing.

Who are the people that I can ask for help?

When I look back, it wasn’t so much that I was having difficulties - all students go through rough patches, it was that I got to talk to a grand total of 0 people about it.

My colleagues missed out on important details about me too. 10 lbs worth of detail. Had anyone seen me in person they would’ve immediately noticed my dramatic weight loss, “Weight Watchers?”

Me, “Nah, just shame.”

It took me a little getting used to to realize that the virtual space requires extra communication. Wanna hear the best, most sophisticated question to ask online? “Can you repeat that question again?” And yet I found it difficult to advocate for myself. What do you even say to this person you’ve only met online when they tell you that you’re not good enough?

I did not see a connection. And it’s not just me. Studies have noted that as many as half of the women they polled said that they found it difficult to speak up in virtual meetings. Any child psychologist, teacher or parent can explain why. It’s difficult to speak to someone who is above you - literally.

(work-in-PROgress tip: If you have a difficult meeting with your boss, start the meeting yourself. That way, no matter what happens, you always get to come out on top;)!... OR stand up and talk down to your boss(...’s image) ORR (for a really tough boss) do both.

Sure, remote learning hasn’t been all bad, and just like the pandemic, it hasn’t affected all of us equally.

Saving an hour of commute time? Definitely a plus.

Saving on time changing pjs? Make that an hour and one minute.

Now do the math: Time slaved - time saved = 0 sleep

Between learning online and teaching online, I have never worked harder.

It didn’t start that way. During the first month of university we went over the theory of pedagogy, and I did great - if I can say so myself. But then the actual teaching part started...and everything, well, just fell apart. After just one semester, I was *drumroll please* DISMISSED!!!!

(I can add 31 more exclamation marks here if you promise not to call me dramatic).

Arghh!!!!! (More invisible exclamation marks.)

Why hadn’t I just dropped out on the second day when the baby was crying and I was crying because the baby wouldn’t stop crying?! At least an “Ivy League dropout” implies a side hustle and the promise of big money!

Major embarrassment.

I couldn’t even do college from the comfort of my home! I never got to place one physical foot inside the university campus and yet somehow, I had managed to get myself booted out. I don’t even know what the actual classroom spaces look like. I never met any of my peers. Did it even happen if it only happened online?

My professor failed me.

That sounds too harsh. I’m going to rephrase that: to pass, I needed a ‘proficient in professionalism’; she told me, “You’re basic.” And basic sounds better than the F word.

In hindsight, my professor was telling me what I already knew. A makeshift office space constructed in my bedroom and the soothing background music that is typical of young children do not make for the best work conditions. Hmm, maybe I shouldn't’ve put my mic on mute during classes after all…

I should have had a long serious talk with my professor. I should have done my whole analogy, you know the one around long-distance running and the dark - hence: accidents. And had this been an actual accident (though believe me it sure felt like one) I would have spoken up,

Whoa, whoa, whoa, lady, I know we’re all quarantining, but look around you. We’re working through the roughest times we’ve ever seen! I had a million things to say, but I didn’t say one word.

Why would a student not be able to say to their teacher, hey can I have a word?

Why would a grad student think that what they have to say is invalid?

And why would I not even try to prevent something so valuable to me from being taken away?

I’ll get to all of that in a little bit...first I needed to exhale...

...But by then it was time to end the zoom call.

The year 2020 was not good.


The year 2020 taught me a whole vocabulary around tears. Hot tears? Snot tears? You know it. It might have had something to do with hormones (doesn’t it always?). I had a tiny baby and every time I sat down with him, the tears would flow too. Why is this so hard?

It occurred to me at some point that I wasn’t crying

over failure,

or for being side tracked,

or having my fellowship revoked,

or over student debt,

or the loss of an education,

or even the loss of something imagined for the future - although those are all entirely valid reasons to cry.

I was crying because I felt banished. I had come to care deeply for the students in my cohort. Now I was out.

The root word for fall comes from a Latin word that means to ‘trick’

Fall. Fail.

It’s like I used an eraser to get from one word to the other. From a little distance, they can even look the same. And sometimes that’s all you need. A little critical distance.

(Side question: do fail and fall have the same root words?)

Sometimes failure feels like an accident. Like you’re falling and there is nothing you can do to stop yourself. Especially when such words are spoken you shouldn’t be here - they have the tendency to become self-fulfilling.

But since in accidents everything is happening all at once, it can be hard to wrap your head around such words.

Sometimes words can hurt more than a fall. And so you shut them out and look elsewhere to explain why you fell.

The kids made me do it! That’s what I always say. There was this one major - nay, 3 tiny things that were unalterably different about me as I started grad school: my three kiddos. One of them, a 2 month old baby!

Yes, you can say it: what were you even thinking?!

I know.

I know.

Believe me, now I know.

I should’ve gone to school before it was my children’s turn to go. But you would probably do the same. You see, some people want to travel the world, or open a cake shop...Me? I pine for education. #Nerd. But when I first moved to America, I wasn’t holding out my hands for a rolled up diploma. First I would have to wait on something much smaller. A green card piece. And then wait a few more years for a tiny blue booklet. But no problem, I couldn’t do it before, I’m going to do it now. I am determined and optimistic.

And also terrified. Sheesh - college is EXPENSIVE.

So shh - just don’t tell my mom but I made a mental note to sell the jewellery she passed onto me when I got married. No desi mom will understand throwing away something so precious for something as frivolous as an education.

The worst part about having kids is also, as it turned out, the best part. Amidst dirty dishes, dirty laundry and dirty diapers, there was little time for dirty snotty tears. I also somehow managed to enrol myself at another college to continue my Master’s degree. (Don’t ask me how - I don’t know). And in the hustle and bustle of being a mother and a student, I let it go.

The year went on, and as they say: time heals all wounds.

Well, maybe not this time. Something strange was up.

My education in Education kept pulling me back into my own educational experience. I started to question if I got that ideal classroom environment that I kept reading about. I also started noticing some parallels. Apparently what happens in kindergarten doesn’t just stay in kindergarten. It extends all the way into elite colleges. The very universities that critically examine practices in public education end up making the very same mistakes.

How is it that we can point at faults in others, but barely register them in ourselves?

Hmm, maybe I hadn’t just failed.

Maybe my teachers had failed me...and is there a difference?

In the summer of 2020, I felt alone. When the pandemic hit I stopped listening to the news. It’s easy to forget just how scary those early days were. The world was falling apart. And I was not going to fall apart with it.

Big mistake. I wasn’t paying attention to how the things that were happening to me were also happening to others around me.

No, I wasn’t the only student who found remote learning constricting.

No, I wasn’t the only teacher who said, hey student, you think remote learning is difficult? Try remote teaching! I was entirely lacking in tech skills that were so critical last year. But as it turned out, there were plenty of veteran teachers who were figuring out the technology around creating breakout rooms and plenty more who felt disoriented and demotivated by the experience of teaching square boxes.

No, I wasn’t the only mother who thought her home environment could not possibly be a proper work environment. Millions of mothers were leaving the workforce.

All these seemingly disparate thoughts and parts of me were being voiced and validated by others. The pandemic had made me weak, but not in the ways doctors had warned.

Alright then. The scene for my story is set. The backdrop was not even real.

Next up: the characters.

But before we start, here are a few questions that I want you to keep in mind:

Are we the same people online as we are in person?

Do we say the same words online as we do when we are in person?

And if not, then how big is the difference? Is it like the virtual thumbs up instead of a nod? Or are we somebody online that we are not in real life?

To ponder over such questions, like I have this past year, I may have to dig down,



down a can of words…let’s go!

For a long time I eyed my university from afar.

I didn’t have the money. Will she have me?

I wrote her a letter. She wrote back. Yes, I accept.

Time to sing the happy song.

“What did your parents say?”

My dad says I’m too good for you, and my mom says I can do better. But I forced them to give me their blessings. Time to sing the happy song.

“What about the kids?” She asked.

Stop music.

The kids!

I know the perfect babysitter. He said he’ll step up his game.

My strategy for going to college was solid and well planned out. Not.

It rested squarely on the word kismet. If I get in, I’m going. Things always work out for the best, don’t they?...It was time to test my beliefs.

But like all true love stories, mine too involved drama.

I wish I could tell you that there were monsters and trolls in my story, but there really weren’t any. There was a Prince Charming though: my professor. And she lived right under my bridge.

What should we name her? Professor? Teach? Hera? I like how the Greeks understood that even their gods can be deeply flawed. The same goes for my professor. Let’s just say, she was complicated. She was kind and brilliant and endearing - she had come a long way from the nervous, shy student giving her first presentation - what’s not to love about that?! But she was also proud and sure of her ways. So much so that she squashed every other way of thinking.

I silently willed her to please just like me! But from across the laptop screen my magic was not working.

For the first month of the semester she taught me the theory of teaching and learning. Then the time came to actually get into it and teach.

I was excited. I rolled my shoulders....Stretched my neck...Shook my legs. Got the jitters out.

Let’s go.

As we started lining up at the start, my teacher, my guide turned around to look at me. You shouldn’t be here.

Wait, what?

Confused, I blamed the glass window between us. No way, I thought, would a person fail to see me as a person if we were in-person.

A year on, I’m not so sure.

Here’s what I think, that maybe the glass shield between us was a mask. No, not the masks we have all been wearing this year, but a proverbial kind of mask. The kind of mask some characters wear in children’s story books.

-Part II and Part III coming soon


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