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Bilingual Reflections: A Coming of Word Story - Part II -

by Rabia Bashir

Read Part I here


Ladies & Gentlemen - Welcome to my Summer of 2020:

“I don’t think you are right for this programme.” Those were the first words spoken.

I also heard the starter pistol. Time to run.

Some words are coded. They say something about the person using them. But because you have little practice playing word games you end up blaming yourself. Yikes! I must’ve done something really bad.

And why shouldn’t I be in this liberal arts school? Are my values not liberal enough?

I didn’t have a schema for someone on my team bringing down my game.

“You don’t look at your students with an asset based lens.” What does that even mean?

Oh no she can see right through me. I see it too. Sometimes I don’t even look at myself with an asset based lens. I see all the ways I am lacking and empty. And I start to doubt myself.

I had to give myself a pep talk to get back up. But I also see the ways I am full. That I try to see the best in people. And so I am going to believe in my teachers, even though I can tell that they don’t believe in me. They’ll come around.

Hi students, I’m going to be your favourite teacher:

My teacher charged me with the following word crimes/Here’s how I heard it:

  1. *Thwack* “You said, ‘...I don’t approach Math through English so I don’t think teaching bilingual students will be MY problem’”/I am going to nitpick your words and use them against you.

I should’ve stopped her right there. I could see right through her too in the beginning.

  1. *Thwack*“...when you looked at your student roster, You said that the names of the students in your class were interesting.”/Your words are bad.

But because others in the room agreed with her, I believed them.

One was upset. Okay so maybe Teach has a point.

One said students in colleges speak a certain way. But this is a teacher we are talking about. She travels the world when she is not teaching.

One told me to stop messing it up for myself. Except I’m not trying to.

I heard it all loud and clear. My words are not in a safe space.

Maybe the meetings were tough for me because some things were not said. I wish I had been given a little heads up. ‘Hey, just so you know, for today’s surprise meeting the agenda is “Your Words”’...I could’ve prepped my lines. I wish I had been told, ‘Just so you know, I’m recording you on camera.’ I could’ve put on some lip gloss. It might have helped me cover up parts that felt suspect and bad.

Maybe the meetings were tough for me not so much for what was said but for all that was left unsaid. The silence spoke louder than any word. Words withdrawn to create a vacuum. An empty space that I ended up filling with my own feelings of inadequacy. (Quiet brilliant I tell ya!)

The first couple of times it happened, I dealt with it. Yeah, it was demoralizing but I was solidly on the ground. I got this. By the third time, I was in the midst of student teaching. Most of us were barely getting by, the mad dash that it was. Going in I had been excited to meet my students. But then, on the first day, I saw my students!

I mean, wait a minute, I didn’t see them. At all.

Who turned off the lights?

It all started to go by like ZooOOom...


Turns out, I hadn’t got this. And there was no one around to help. It was quarantine time.

I felt the four walls of my bedroom.

Then I looked at the screen. My Zone of Proximal Development. “We are here to support you.”

Walls. Screen.

Walls. Screen.

The only way out was through my laptop. So I ran back to my teachers. And the closer I got to them the bigger and bigger they appeared. My what big eyes they had!

I looked in their eyes and saw myself.

I appeared to have gotten smaller and smaller ....

Just when I thought I was getting my footing...

*Twack* “When explaining a graph on racial income inequality you talked about positive and negative reinforcing cycles of opportunity, education and wealth. You hurt your students!” /The words that you thought were your strength are bad.

Now you’ve done it - you’ve done it now. This little bump out of nowhere. It made me fall.

And I feared getting up to run again because I didn’t understand where such bumps might come next. Everyone else in the room got it - not me. It was a very serious, too-cruel, not-funny-at-all version of the ‘no soap, radio’ joke experiment.

What do you mean you don’t know what's ‘no soap, radio’ ?!

(Psst, look it up on Wikipedia.)

Three strikes and I was out. I can’t explain how three small incidents can spiral so out of control. Maybe Americans can explain it better since they are the ones who play this goofy version of cricket where it even makes sense. I, on the other hand, can only explain it as a negatively reinforcing cycle but I’ve been told that that’s no way to speak.

Why don’t students speak up to their teachers and professors? Here’s my laundry list…

My words had been dirtied, and I didn’t want to get in the dirt to pull them out.

Or perhaps when we are hurt, our bodies are physically incapable of speaking. I thought that if I opened my mouth I might scream. But then the adults in the room will chide me for not using my words.

Or perhaps it’s something larger, like the power structure: in grad school, your professor is not just your advocate, she is also the judge, jury and executioner. I was damned if I spoke and damned if I didn’t.

Perhaps, it’s cultural; my south-Asian background emphasizes that I show deference to my elders by staying quiet.

Or perhaps it’s the explicit instructions we were given.

Day 1: “You may disagree, but your teachers know better. The most important thing that we want to see in you is that you can take feedback.” No matter that for me the feedback was that I had to better my language. Except I didn’t understand why it wasn’t better to begin with. And now I’m not sure if my teachers do know better.

Or perhaps it was the rubric I was being measured up against. To be a ‘proficient’ professional I had to get along with my peers. There was no rubric designed around parts of me that were student in student-teacher.

Candidate is safe and shuts down off-hand tasks like bullying.

Or perhaps it was because I was part of a ‘prestigious’ programme, and I wanted to be that word too, so I felt obligated to bear it all.

Or perhaps it was the pandemic. Again that word. I was convinced that my professor was misunderstanding me only because she could not see the full picture that is me - quite literally. Once Fall rolls around, and everything is back to normal, things will iron out.

For now I kept hearing the words, “keep your head down” and it made sense. There was endless work to be done, and I could either do the work or I could pause and have a conversation - in which case I would not be able to do the work. So I chose the work.

But I could not do the work.

The neuroscience behind learning is pretty clear:

What happens when someone takes your words, muddies them up, then hands them back to you? In trusting relationships, you agree, yes I see your point, that does look bad.

In our shock at their new meaning, we forget how we had originally said them. The experience is entirely discombobulating. (Can words bring up visuals? When I think discombobulating it looks like a chicken without a head.)

And what comes first anyway? The chicken or the egg? Our words, or our thoughts? With my words shamed, the words that I had always used and spoken, words that I used to make sense of the world, words that made me stand tall, I began to f a



I fell into shame.

And what sound does shame make anyway?

Shame is like water, the sound one makes when they are in it is . Except

shame is not like water. It is empty.

The pail was ½ empty.

Shame is like water.

It spreads to every part of you till you can’t figure out which parts are

shameful and which are shameless.

See? Only shame can make two entirely different words feel pretty much the same.

Except shame is not water. It is empty.

The pail is ½ empty.

With my words shamed, I shamed my thoughts.

I feel humiliated, but maybe I’m being too sensitive.

This is the hardest thing I have ever done, but maybe I’m not cut out for this.

I don’t know what the right thing to say is anymore…

My words were invalid so my thoughts were invalid, so my feelings were invalid, so I didn’t voice any of get the flow...a classic case of negatively reinforcing cycle.

I know the main guy here. She will chop these harsh words down. She will help me.

Maybe we can help you format your words to make them better.

If there was ever a linguistic jab, here it was. It punched a hole in the walls of my zoom classroom. And the outside world, with all its history and politics came flooding in.

Words said to build me up, tore me down. They told me that my words were not good enough. That I was the one who needed to work on her words. And that I was alone.

So I asked myself. Am I going to give up on my education just because someone was standing in its way? Never mind that someone was a teacher.


So I did what a perfectly rational, reasonable, logical person would have done in the year 2020. I told myself that something was up with the screen between us, because across it my words refracted into negatives. And once I practised this move, I became really good at it.

Alright then, I will format my words, I’m kind of used to that, can someone explain me the rules?


I couldn’t go back to my old words. And there were no new words given to fill the void.

I was lost in this empty space.

The pail was becoming empty.

I pretended that none of this bothered me. I’ll show ‘em all! Then I proceeded to make every mistake in the book - and then some. What was I thinking!?

The Urdu word for language is quite literally tongue. And just as it is clear that one cannot run with a broken limb, it should be quite clear that one cannot succeed with a broken tongue. I was afraid of asking “Why?”. Some of my questions had become too long to say under one breath anyway. Will she think I am a bad person if I ask…(enter question here).

In so much as questions are the bridge we build to our understanding, I was not going anywhere. I too wanted to ask that one question that is on every single student-teacher’s mind, “WHAT IN THE NAME OF ALL THINGS HOLY AND PURE IS UP WITH THIS 14 PAGE NEVER-ENDING ALL-CONSUMING BEHEMOTH OF A LESSON PLAN?-Please and thank you.”

I was afraid to ask for clarification. Should I email her?

I should. I should not.

What if she tells me I shouldn’t be here because I don’t even know how to do this? Everytime I opened my mouth, I first made calculations, to speak or not to speak?

I stopped being myself.

You are not taking risks.

I used to be able to do that. I remember a time I started graduate school with a baby in tow. But in here there is no room for making mistakes.

Didn’t you say you were a creative person? I used to be. Or maybe I lied to make myself look good.

I couldn’t even do the math.

What is 4 times 8? What is 4 times 8?

It’s either 36 or 32...Hurry, she’s waiting!

Pick a number!

Any number!

It’s 36.


You have not gotten to know all of your students. I may be forgetting myself.

You are not reflecting

on the mistakes you are making. No thank you.

I’m scared my written words will be used as evidence against me.

We are here to support you.

Shame is like water.

When your world falls into it, it is reflected back upside down.

Except shame is not water. It is empty.

The pail was being emptied.

We may tell ourselves that it’s no big deal, but our bodies cannot lie. My body shook. It would tremble even as I slept. Constant shivering that our bodies do when they are left out in the cold.

I eat when I’m anxious. So why am I not eating?

I should eat. I have a baby. So I subsisted on fistfuls of dry granola. No wonder I was choking up.

I stopped drinking tea. I’m going to let those words steep in for a little while.

The plus side? I lost 10 pounds in 10 days! Yippee Yay. My own personalized Master plan! It was expensive though. I wouldn’t recommend it.

Shame is like water.

When we only pay attention to the surface, it’s easy to miss what’s happening underneath.

Except shame is not water. It is empty.

The pail was becoming empty.

“We are here to support you.”

“Can you help me figure this out?”

“You need to learn to do this by yourself.”

You didn’t do your work.

This is going to make me look dumb,

but I stared at the words on the screen for an hour

I couldn’t make sense of them.

I think it might have something to do with the racket my racing heart keeps making.

You are plagiarising your team mate’s lesson plan. Funny story,

but I didn’t check the name on my assignment,

I needed to conserve energy, you see.

If I move my gaze

from one corner of the screen to the other

my world pixelates

into these giant minecraft-like blocks.

Only my kids are amused.

Maybe I’m going blind

because I can’t see my students,

or maybe I’m going blind because I can’t see why my teachers refuse to see the person in me.

When I couldn’t take it anymore I spoke up for myself.

But it didn’t matter.

Written words were noted on my report card no matter what I said. I felt unheard.

Do my words even matter?

Do this Do this Do this Do this Do this Do this Do this

Do this ⬚ Empty!

You didn’t finish your work - again. Weird thing,

everytime I press click on the mouse

it feels like

I am using





e n e r g y

l e f t

i n

m y

a r m s

t o

d r a g

m y

b o d y








Drip. Drip. Drip.

Shame can be exhausting.

The pail was empty.

To summarize: It was not good. Not good at all. Much worse than the experience of giving birth to other people, people!

I knew that what I was going through was all wrong, but that was a word I would have used before. In this new place where my words were invalid, I invalidated the language my body spoke. Tsk, so weak. Can’t even handle getting an education.

You want to hear something completely wonky though? If you think that I thought those thoughts while my teachers said those things, you’d be wrong. In this effort to forget my words, I forgot my thoughts. When my teachers said, you didn’t do your work all I could say to myself was

yeah dummy, why didn’t you do your work?!

She tried to help me though.

I mustered up the courage to say, “I feel lost and confused.”

Read chapter 4, it will clear things up.

My chest did what a balloon does when we

let it


Even the trolls get me:

Shame is like water dirtied. It can be hard to see through.

Except shame is not water. It is empty.

The pail was empty.

When I got to the finish line, panting with exhaustion, dripping in emptiness:

You didn’t run fast enough.

I had to agree. I had been up to something else instead. But back then I did not have the words to describe where I had been.

So this summer I sat down to write down some of those words. Words that at first appeared to be all over the place. But as I moved them around...umm, some would use the word formatting erm, make them better...that they started to add up like an equation. An equation with three variables: power, shame and isolation.

All set to t = 2020.

Part 1: take someone who is vulnerable and unsuspecting.

Part 2: Pair her with a charismatic leader who wields her power in ways that makes others feel powerless.

Part 3: throw in a global pandemic.

That’s our word of the year, class. Pandemic.

It made my work harder. I had to rely even more on my teachers.

It isolated me. I was not able to build the kind of relationships with my peers where I felt safe in confiding what I may or may not be feeling - idk! Besides if the coolest, nicest teacher didn’t get me, why would they?

And finally, the pandemic confused me. It had caused my world to turn on its head. My students no longer looked like people, they looked like black boxes. Maybe, it was the same for my teachers. Maybe it was the pandemic that had turned them into black holes...I projected my own confusion onto them and in doing so, gave them masks.

They don’t know…

they don’t understand…

this screen between us...

I made a mask out of my computer screen so that I could stay healthy. I would’ve gotten sick if I saw it all for what it was.

Not that the masks helped. .

Three steps and a system that said run fast. We will throw you off if you fail to keep up with those who keep bringing you down. And so I got thrown out.

And the old safety nets in place didn’t catch me because they weren’t built to catch a person like me...

A year later though I don’t want to be ashamed anymore.

So let’s try this again.

This time let’s take a look at things with an asset based lens, or as I like to call it:

The pail is 1/2 full.

Take 2:

Professor: “You don’t look at your students with an asset-based lens.” You mean kind of like what you’re doing right now…? *And the crowd goes wildd* Professor: Suspect, I mean, student, did you or did you not say, and I quote, “I don’t approach math through English, so I don’t think teaching bilingual students will be MY problem.Sounds like I mixed my “a”s with my “my”s. So let's swap and try that again: “Teaching Mathematics to bilingual students won’t be A problem”? My! What a difference a word makes. I’m embarrassed. I can’t believe I said that. I can see now that language helps us make sense of everything, including numbers. Thank you for teaching me to pay attention to my words. It’s just that, I wish my teachers would pay attention to ALL of my words and the context in which they were said. Context: I am a bilingual student. Glass is 1/2 Empty: Suspect, did you or did you not say that the names of the students in your class were, and I quote, “interesting”? That caused a physical reaction in your peers. : Tomato, tomato. I affirmed a word you used: diverse. I saw how everyone else said it: heterogeneous. Why is your word better than mine? I said it with such enthusiasm, too. If communication is 90% non-verbal, you missed out on a whole part of me. Truth be told, I do find names interesting. Names are the most interesting words of all. When the credits roll at the end of a movie I go pfft! Who even pays attention at this point? Turns out, I do. Recently I have been noticing how they seem to be from all over the world. It’s pretty neat too that women no longer work in front of cameras but also behind them. I also have a superstition that our names affect our personalities. My name means Spring, and that is weirdly comforting. Yes, I am well aware that my name could equally conjure up images of motel rooms and uncomfortable sofa beds; but let’s just ignore that for now. Here’s what I find really interesting though... I find it interesting that you called that group diverse when you had never met or seen them either - they were all black boxes remember? Is it possible that you pay attention to names too? Glass is Half Empty: When explaining a graph on racial income inequality you talked about positive and negative reinforcing cycles of opportunity, education and wealth. That made your students feel a certain way.... You hurt your students. Didn’t you?! Didn’t you!?! Huh? Here I was doing these fancy word moves. Bam! Positively reinforcing cycles - take that MicroEcon I! Kapow! Negatively reinforcing cycles - take that MacroEcon II! 4 years of studying Economics as an undergraduate student and you’re telling me that’s no way to talk? I’m stumped. You’re not reflecting How am I doing now, Teach?

Ah! If only in life we could do what we so easily do on paper:

press backspace and rewrite all the wrongs.

Read Part III



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