When new Sattler students arrive on campus, their first assignment for their Expository Writing class is to compose a short essay describing an especially effective educational experience they have had. As we anticipate the arrival of our largest class of freshmen this week, we feature here the reflections of sophomore June Zimmerman on a group of “teachers” whose hospitality greatly enriched her life and motivated her for her college studies.
Far from the frost-tinted leaves of autumn in Pennsylvania, I sweltered on a crowded bus on a crowded street in a crowded city in a crowded country. Each day I rode those buses up and down Mirpur Road, to and from class. I was a student, learning the Bengali language and culture from a kind, jolly lady about the age of my mother. Her name was Paninna. She was a practiced teacher of many years, teaching her language to foreign diplomats and missionaries alike. Her classes were grammar focused, but her love for conversation naturally turned the classes into friendly dialogues. For four years I studied under her tutelage, three months at a time—from October, when early morning classes were sticky with humidity and the fans couldn’t whirl quickly enough, to December, when mornings were chilly and misty and we pulled our shawls more closely about ourselves and cradled cups of steaming, hot tea in our cold hands during class.
I had come to Bangladesh, a bright-eyed, idealistic English teacher at the tender age of 20. My commission was to teach English to recalcitrant high-school students in a rural area not far removed from free roaming tigers. However, I was very quickly distracted by the pain of being voiceless in the midst of a population that did not speak my language. Navigation and daily living were difficult, friendships even harder.
I had landed in the country in December of 2013, just as the whole country came to a screeching halt in honor of national elections. There was no transportation available to take us from the capital city to our destination villages. Hence, we, thirty English teachers-to-be, were trapped in a city that we could not navigate. Our organization’s leaders scrambled for profitable activities and gave all thirty of us a crash course in Bengali. Most of us struggled through the classes, clutching our hair, doodling on worksheets and making excuses about undone homework. But I loved the classes. I learned that I loved language study and I inhaled the lessons, internalizing the basic grammar concepts. After a week, the country resumed normal operations and we left the city and pursued our rightful occupations as teachers. But I continued to learn, memorizing, practicing, making mistakes, and trying again. There was a young girl who lived next door who knew about as much English as I did Bengali, and we became good friends. She taught me Bengali, albeit in a very haphazard style, and I taught her English in a similar fashion. Meanwhile, I taught myself to read the Bengali script, and by the time I left Bangladesh three months later I had regained my voice, though a faltering, limited one. I returned to Bangladesh the next fall and enrolled in official classes. Being bored by the beginner class, I began to participate in the intermediate class as well. I returned three more times to take language classes.
It wasn’t only the classes. I was swallowed up in the masses of Bangladesh, and the language that I was striving to master did something to me. It began to change me. Language is inextricably tied to culture, and as I became bilingual, I became bicultural. I began to listen to the stories of the elderly. I listened to their logic and their values. I listened to the parents teaching their children. I listened to my friends’ spiritual discussions. I observed how the Bengalis practiced community. Their logic infiltrated mine and their values did the same. They mingled with my conservative Mennonite American background and produced a new, amalgamated worldview. My Bengali friends stopped treating me as a foreigner. They began to say things like, “The other foreigners can go home. But you should stay. You’re one of us.” I would point out the error of their words, pointing out the obvious fact that my skin was quite a different color than theirs. They would laugh. “You know that’s not the real difference,” they would say. “You speak Bengali. You’re a Bengali.”
My teachers were many. My curriculum was life in a small village. My quizzes were daily, given by the local community. I learned their language. I became fluent in it. And in the end, I discovered, that I was not a teacher, as my sending organization’s directors back home thought of me. I was a student.
June Zimmerman is a second-year student at Sattler this fall, majoring in computer science. Her home church is Fourth Avenue Mennonite Church in Altoona, Pennsylvania. She worked in Bangladesh from 2014 to 2019 with Financial Literacy International.