Every Thursday evening, from 6pm until 7pm, I teach a classroom of Timorese students how to exaggerate.
For the last few months, I’ve been tutoring at the English Conversation Class run nightly at the National University of Timor Lorosae. The classes are free for students, who are sorted into four classes, depending on fluency, and facilitated by English-speaking volunteers, who generally show up once a week. I joined the classes after one of my early-days existential freakouts about how I can hope to contribute here in Timor, and continued to come after the clouds had passed because it’s a genuinely fun, fulfilling experience.
I usually take the Intermediate class, which is a group of about 24 students who can speak fast-paced conversational but not-quite fluent English. For me, it’s the best of the other classes in one: there’s the flexibility of high-level Advanced fluency, with the just-give-it-a-go attitude of the two Basic-level classes.
I start each class in the same way. I show up at the campus, greet the waiting students (usually with handshakes; Timorese teens are very well-mannered) and ask where the intermediate classroom is. Without fail, someone volunteers to accompany me there, and no matter how early I arrive I always find my students already waiting.
“Hello, good evening,” I start the class. “How are you today?”
In seven months of greeting Timorese people in English I’ve never had a response other than “I-am-fine-thank-you,” to that question, so when my class tells me they’re fine, I ask if they’re just fine.
“Fantastic,” a grinning boy from the far-east town of Lospalos answers.
“Spectacular,” offers a girl called Maria, who speaks the best English in the class and who once asked me what the word vociferously means.
“Excellent,” replies a sleepy-eyed guy in the front row, who’ll always help me explain exercises when his group doesn’t understand.
“I am also wonderful, thank you for asking,” I counter, and the class breaks into — what is most likely — dutiful laughter.
I then explain the area or topic we’ll talk about, break the students into smaller groups better-suited to conversation, and spend the rest of the hour answering questions, explaining concepts, defining words, clarifying slang, and requesting public performances of activity results to the rest of the class. I always get so into it I forget to check the class’s end time, and usually end up back at the front at 7:04pm shouting above the din of activity THANK YOU FOR COMING SEE YOU NEXT WEEK OK BYE I’LL MISS YOU, to another gaggle of laughter that this time feels genuine, and then I pop out of the sticky nighttime classroom ahead of my crush of students and head down the footpath and into Dili’s cool night air.
I love English Conversation Class. I’m glad for a small opportunity to put some of the few skills I can contribute to decent use here. The students I get to spend my Thursdays with are spectacular, wonderful, amazing, the very best, and I’m so grateful to be able to spend my time with them.
The photo above is a shot I took two weeks ago, when I asked my students to survey each other. They ran around the room trying to find people who gave identical answers to them to a series of questions and I couldn’t even hear myself think over the din.
The cover photo for this post is one of the buildings at UNTL, which I believe was an old Portuguese school.