While I know classrooms from my time as a professor, I forgot life as a student. Familiarity and nostalgia return with excitement as I enter my new class.
Studying languages comes naturally, but I didn’t do so in a classroom for years. This time I am venturing far from Europe, even the Middle East, ending up in the provinces of Ethiopia. When I saw the East African language, Oromo, in the class catalog, when I had to google the language when I saw it, I was taken. Reigniting my language curiosity with the pilot of obscurity, Oromo sets me on fire.
When I show up, the teacher looks like he is expecting me.
The look surprises me. I introduce myself.
“Ah, Richard,” he confirms. Confirms? I taught hundreds of students but never “confirmed” a student when he arrived to class the first day.
I sit down. As a former professor, I know how to model a conscientious student, so I arrived 10 minutes early, in spite of the snow. The roster of students lies on the table next to me.
Other students arrive: East Africans. They address the teacher in another language. I don’t recognize the language, let alone understand it. Amharic? Ethiopians hoping to learn the most widely-spoken native language in their country? One by one, they enter and sit down. I glance at the roster. I’m not sure how to pronounce any of the names. More dark people sit around me.
Class begins and the situation becomes clear. There are no other “Richards” in class. There are no other white people in class. There are only Oromo in this class.
I am in Minneapolis in a class where the subject matter and the class carry on in a language I do not understand. The language creates a bubble that all of “them” communicate and interact in. I can only observe. They speak, laugh, ask and answer questions, take notes, while I watch and listen. Our interactions do not cross.
We take a break and they take pity on me. Every day they move around the world of English, working in shops, as drivers, as entrepreneurs, while at church, with their families, on the internet, they stay close to Oromiya. Now they move outside the bubble to talk to me. They show me their lifeline—an Oromo-English dictionary app for my phone—what connects me to class connects them to the world that I live and work in.
Back to class and I begin to understand. Long and short consonants, long and short vowels appear on the Power Point. The alphabet comes up, and I amaze my class and teacher with my pronunciation, even though the explosive consonants leave me literally breathless. My education taught me to fit in even when I don’t. I don’t know what I’m saying, but I sound like I do. I don’t look like I should.
After class the students and teacher accommodate me with English. They all speak English well. They came to class to learn to read and write their native language. They never learned how before.
I came to a class for native speakers who had never learned to read and write. I can read a language that I can’t speak.
The class does not intimidate me; it excites me. The bar rises impossibly high: native speech. The class will teach to their level, not mine. I am way over my head and my heart swells. Even though my legs tire, I love the water so much that treading water brings me joy.
Language drew me, but I find people. At the airport I may have ignored them, but here they fill my senses of sight, sound, and touch. I came to the Technical College, and I found Little Oromoia—or at least the doorway to it; I now know what it sounds like.
Fate did not bring me. Travel and language love had moved from habit to instinct. You can move a pigeon and he will still find his way home. So my own nature brought me to the different, the exotic, outside myself. But my home was always elsewhere, beyond my comprehension, the challenge of making myself understood to those who understood each other (just fine, thank you very much). I was looking for a home away from my land, and I found Oromo. The next eight weeks introduced me to a language I loved, and people who encouraged me to do so.