My husband, Stewart and I went to Germany. Since I didn’t want to be a rude foreigner expecting everyone to speak MY native language, I learned enough German phrases to order in a restaurant, navigate the train systems, and translate local weather reports. Overall, the German people were warm, inviting, and friendly whether or not we spoke their language.
We travelled by train to Hamburg and schlepped our luggage from the station to our hotel. I was dreaming of soaking in a hot bath, drinking bottled water that wasn’t carbonated. Many European restaurants serve carbonated water as the beverage of choice.
We offloaded our luggage and walked to a neighborhood supermarket. As we readied for checkout, I pulled out my credit card to pay. Stewart grimaced. Germany had already switched from the magnetic swipe system I used at home to the chip system. He had seen me struggle navigating the card reader directions written in German. I explained I wanted to save my Euros for our final cab ride to the airport. I studied the person in front of me using the chip reader, trying to memorize the steps in the process.
I spoke the usual greeting, “Guten tag” to the clerk at the checkout stand. The harried 20-something woman didn’t smile back as the check-out line began to lengthen during this busy part of the day.
As she scanned my items, I inserted my card in the chip reader. I couldn’t read the German directions telling me when to remove the card or submit my PIN. My panicked brain would not retrieve the practiced German phrases. I pulled my card from the machine and handed the clerk cash. She yanked the card from my hand and barked something in German. I don’t know what she said, but it wasn’t, “Welcome to our beautiful country. May I help you?” She pushed the card back into the machine and pounded codes into the keypad.
The kind-looking man behind me gave a sympathetic half-smile. The clerk continued, louder this time. She paused. I assumed she was awaiting my response. Flustered, I could only say, “Sprechen sie English?” (Do you speak English?)
She rolled her eyes. There are some gestures that are international. Feeling the stares of those waiting in line behind me, I kept my eyes on the transation.
Stewart’s footsteps said, I told you so, as he walked toward the exit. I considered leaving my items behind and following him, but the promise of non-fizzy water and a hot bath with epsom salt changed my mind. I muttered an apology to a kind-looking man behind me, picked up the water, salt, and German chocolates, and headed for the peace and comfort of our hotel room. The week of trying to navigate a foreign culture and language was taking a toll. There was a LOT of noise going on in my head.
During the quiet of my evening salt-bath soak, I thought about the hundreds of public school students I taught who were learning a new language and culture as immigrants. I hope I was always patient and kind. But I’m sure there are times I wasn’t was overwhelmed, tired, and impatient. Like the clerk, I expected newcomers to adhere to my rigid classroom expectations. Some of my students might have taken a risk like I did to learn something new in a short time period and frustrated their classmates who huffed their impatience under their breath or rolled their eyes. I thought of the thousands of students in the schools I coach. Some of the schools educate students with as many as 50 different dialects. Considering everyone’s needs, learning styles, abilities, and language acquisition is a daunting task!
Just like my experience of learning to use a credit card chip system in another language, students learning new skills, such as mathematics, computer coding, cooking, playing an instrument, or welding while practicing a new language is over-the-top difficult. Fortunate students have teachers who understand mastery takes extra time, extra practice for students and extra patience for teachers. Less fortunate students sometimes experience public shaming.
I wonder what might have happened if someone who spoke fluent German called out the clerk for her behavior? What if someone who knew both languages stepped up to help me navigate the card reader? What if someone quietly said a few softspoken, kind words to the stressed clerk? Would a small act of courage and kindness help?
The experience reminded me to be an encourager by speaking a gentle reminder when someone rolls her eyes or sneers at the teen who doesn’t fit in. I can practice courage when someone tells a racial or ethnic joke. I can model compassion to speak up for the those outside the mainstream culture; the LGBTQ student or friend struggling to fit in; the shy obese girl; the child with special needs; or the immigrant.
Have someone ever shamed you because you were an outsider?
How did your experience help you practice compassion?