How to Lose 20 ESL Students in 30 Seconds

I may have mentioned before that field trips at my job are a little, how do you say, insane. Generally, we’ve got a group of about 70 adults (sometimes with kids) that we need to get on a train, off a train, and to the right location. It’s a bit like herding cats, except that the cats speak 10 different languages and ask you to take their picture every 13 seconds.

Today was no different. At 9:00am this morning, about 67 students showed up at our campus bright eyed and bushy tailed, lugging bags of ethnic goodies to eat on our picnic lunch.

Usually, there’s just two native-speakers that go on the trips, me and my boss, but today we had a volunteer join us.

The beginning of the field trips (i.e. getting people to the train station on time) has always been a little hairy. One time I stuffed my boss and an Iraqi man in trunk as we raced to the train station (that sounds like the beginning of a good joke) but today, it was calm…too calm.

My boss, Liz,  and I have been talking about this field trip for a few weeks so we were very casual and uncommunicative this morning. Our group spanned three train cars- I was on the front car, the volunteer had the middle, and Liz took up the end. I was helping the refugees read the train map and count down towards our stop (Union Station). We talked about what the warning signs on the train mean (i.e. Please don’t litter and Please don’t start a fire). I joked with them and said, “No fire!” but they didn’t laugh so they probably just didn’t understand me because it was a really funny joke.

I was deep in discussion with one of them when I heard the students in my car start saying, “No! No!'” I turned around and saw that the middle car was exiting. I jumped up and started to wave them back on. “This isn’t our stop!,” I cried.  When I made it to the door, I saw that the back half, Liz’s half, was standing there waving us out. My brain didn’t have time to think so I rushed off the train and told my students to follow.

The doors had already been open for a bit so they started to close automatically. I held them open like a body builder, but after a few seconds, they were too strong for me. When they slid shut with a click of finality, I looked through the window into the eyes of a 70 year old Bhutanese woman who only knows the words, “rolling pin” and “die”, and thought


Then, the train started to move. You guys, it was like a romance movie, where the jilted lover has gotten on the train and the other one, the one that made the jilted one mad, is chasing them and you can see the jilted lover staring sadly through the window. Just like that, except that my jilted lover was a group of 20 ESL students who had just gotten separated from the fold. I tried to run with the train and make some hand motions but then I realized that they wouldn’t understand anyway and I was making a scene.

We decided that Liz would take the rest of the group to the museum and I would wait at the station and I would try to call some of the lost students. I had to walk our administrative assistant through searching for a person in our database (which is made more difficult when you’re trying to search for names like Abdulmajod and Taufeq and Belanu Habtimariam). Unfortunately, nobody’s phone was working today and so I was getting panicked.

The story is much better if I say, “And then 4 hours later, the police called us and notified us that our students had been wandering around the VA hospital in South Dallas, which is the end of the line.”

But, in the midst of my panic, Liz called. She said, “They just walked in the door of the museum.”

Sometimes I don’t give my ESL babies enough credit. They saw the museum through the window of the train, got off at the next stop, and walked there. They used their brains and paid attention to what I had said earlier and I couldn’t be more proud.  The rest of the trip went off without a hitch, unless you would call juggling and concealing various unidentifiable foods shoved at me during lunch time a hitch.

I would classify our field trips as hours of fun, punctuated by short periods of arm waving and speaking loudly. They’re a chance to step away for a moment from the minutiae of daily life at our school (i.e. “Where is the bathroom?” and “Why are you late every stinking day?”) and sit back and watch our students experience this new life that they’re building here. It’s a chance for us to enjoy seeing a French-speaking African student buddy-up with a Burmese student, neither of which know very much English. It’s a chance for me to step away from “Rule Enforcer” and embody the role of “Tour Guide”.

On the way home, I sat next to an Iraqi student who told me that armed men broke into her house in Iraqi and threatened to kill her son in front of her eyes. Her family spent four years as refugees in Syria, where they could not work, and now they live here and her civil engineer husband works as a cashier at an Italian casual dining restaurant. She could not be more thankful that her family is safe here in Dallas.

I will probably never fully understand the depth of her gratitude, but, for now, I am content to have the opportunity to share in her thanksgiving with her.

Thankful for my job today.

One thought on “How to Lose 20 ESL Students in 30 Seconds

  1. I can’t even imagine what you were feeling when that train pulled away. You and Leah never prepared me for that type of experience. God has a way to protecting His flock. That’s why He provided you. I love you Beth. The best little sheep herder around.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s