“Do you know the expression out of the blue?” Peggy Blitz replied to the echo of questions, which were colored with foreign accents.
The ESL Conversation Group, held at the Boston Public Library four times per week, was cancelled on January 25th. Its hopeful participants lingered outside the closed glass doors of what used to be their classroom. Locals and tourists flooded the multi-level building where florescent lights stretched across the ceiling, illuminated the endless shelves of books. Library users huddling over words at surrounding tables began to look up one-by-one, only to look back down as outsiders.
“I’ve been fired. How can they fire a volunteer? I’ve worked here for 13 years and have had 11,000 students,” uttered Dan Blitz in shock. Michael Murray, director of the library’s Literacy Services program, had received an anonymous message after the previous session. In turn, Dan and Peggy Blitz, two married seniors from Boston who volunteer as facilitators, picked up an abrupt and stern phone call that day. “They said we discriminated against Turkey and Muslims,” Dan explained to his students, failing to believe his own words.
A regular attendee during his four years in Boston, Vinicius from Rio de Janeiro, interrupted the murmurs to share his suspicions. In his mid twenties, with a guitar strapped to his back, he was on his way to practice with friends but had stopped to say hello. His flawless grammar and vocabulary flowed to the lilt of Portuguese, as he dismissed the charge – calling it a “scapegoat.” To him, it seemed unlikely that in an environment where chances of mistranslation are undeniably larger, that such a remark was intentionally made or even reported. Vinicius put his words on a blank sheet of paper that circled through the crowd, collecting the signatures of those in agreement.
Ksenija Stipčić marked the accents of the Serbian alphabet on her name as she signed the petition. A mother of two and a licensed tour guide in the twenty counties of Croatia, she has been in Boston for four months to learn English. With thoughtful words, yet frustrated hand gestures, she expressed similar concerns to the older Moroccan lady standing next to her. In a space where she comes to practice with enthusiasm, and to appreciate “different countries, cultures and customs,” the only thing she considers foreign is discrimination.
The conversation group runs for three hours; normally, it would have been time for a mid-session break. A few students left, but many more poured in. Yuri, an older Russian man, stood solemnly with his hands behind his arched back – quiet, yet engaged. His eyes remained fixed on the petition letter behind his thick glasses. Upon signing it, he exited with disappointment.
Eighteen-year-old Noon from Sudan arrived late, to find her fellow classmates still grouped around Dan and Peggy, offering comfort in a time of disappointment. She signed the petition and expanded on why she likes the meetings for specifically “two reasons.” As an ESL student, the meetings offer a place for her to speak freely in English. As a teenager in a new country, who finds little enjoyment in high school biology, it was much more.
Noon made her way through the crowd to find her closest friend in the group. A stylish woman with a kind face, Cindy left Shanghai for Boston last August. The harsh florescent light revealed the tears in her eyes; “I was going to start bringing my son,” she muffled into a tissue. As the three hours came to an end, the remaining students approached Dan and Peggy to say goodbye.
“Insha’Allah,” Noon said, meaning “God willing” in Arabic. Dan repeated with a stumble followed by a smile.
Originally from New York where he met his wife Peggy, ninety-three years of life experience have taken Dan to over ninety countries. His studies at MIT in electrical engineering brought him to Boston many years ago, which he has called home since. In 1955, Dan went on a Harvard expedition to the Kalahari Desert in Botswana as a photographer. “We met Bushmen in their first outside contact experience. For six months I lived out in the open, and hunted my own food – lots of firsts.” Facing accusation of racial, ethnic or religious discrimination was also a first. Similarly, once the first female president of a brokerage firm in New York, Peggy holds professionalism in high regard.
Although their numerous students found the accusation illegitimate, its veracity remains unsettled. The program will likely continue, however with different volunteer facilitators. The fifteen to forty people that attend each Conversation Group, from various corners of the world, come with different stories and communicate at different levels. They come to improve their conversational skills in English, but leave with more than a grammar lesson or new vocabulary words.
It’s possible that during the last session something was indeed misinterpreted. However, certainly not everything was lost in translation.