On belonging

Green tracts freckled with white sheep surround the roads, the pastures like a patchwork quilt divided by short stone walls, textured with lichen. Down in the south of England, the daffodils have already come and gone, withered to crinkled brown tissue. They remain hearty here in the Midlands, gathered in sprays that line the roads, buttery or white with soft baby yellow and mandarin trumpets.

I am with a carful of friends in the Peak District; for our spring break, we are visiting great houses and putting to good use our National Trust memberships. We’ve had blue skies each day – Carolina blue, mostly, sometimes clotted with clouds that cast shadows and drop the temperature by ten degrees. Claire is driving; many of the roads are single-lane, made myopic with hairpin turns and rock walls that threaten to scrape the car doors. But it is continually pleasant: we wind through grey stone villages laced with purple hyacinth, past parish churches with graveyards full of tilted headstones, through steam emanating from the occasional industrial blight. Mostly, though, it is green pastures and sheep – lambs tottering on new legs, nosing at their mothers. Today we are headed for our premier stop, one I’ve been waiting to see for years.

The vast spread of the manor holdings become apparent even before the sat nav tells us where to turn off the main road: the house is further ahead, but all around us, all of a sudden, the grassland is not mown but certainly manicured – planned, purposeful grass. Knobbled rock walls are replaced with lines of trees. We pass the manor’s farm shop – ‘the best in England,’ the sign claims – and edge of a golf course that abuts the road. Claire takes a left turn onto smooth pavement; a quarter mile and then, there it is.


First we see only a fountain spray, a perpendicular column of water shooting heavenward, then a great house that unfurls before us, honeyed stone made golden in the early afternoon sun. Later, we will go close enough to see the details that glint in the spring light: gilded window frames, Cavendo tutus (‘safe through caution’) in serif capitals along the edge of the roof, all situated within the pleasing harmony of Capability Brown’s un-engineered gardening: Chatsworth House. Our chatter comes to a standstill as we drive past.

This is a massive stately home in Derbyshire, seat of the Earls – and then Dukes – of Devonshire and part of the Cavendish family for nearly 500 years; Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned here, on and off. The first few centuries of the house are marked with immense wealth; today, like many similar manors, it is run by a charitable trust which protects and cares for the buildings and the many works of art and treasures housed within. You can look at this house and shake your head at the opulence: 126 rooms, with only a fifth open to the public, the others occupied (when he’s there) by the 12th Duke of Devonshire and his family.

This house appears in literature – Jane Austen mentions it as one of the Peak District houses visited by Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. This legacy is carried into film – it appeared as Pemberley in the 2005 adaptation, the contested version which shoehorned a three-hundred-page novel into 120 minutes. Kiera Knightly is Elizabeth and Matthew Mcfayden is Darcy; Chatsworth nods at this with a bust of Macfayden’s head in the gift shop marked with a sign that says ‘please do not kiss.’ Beyond this, it takes on whatever form the reader’s imagination requires.


Tour signs guide us from the entrance, a dark, simply adorned space that smells heavily of fire logs, and through to the Painted Hall, where the ceilings sweep up and nearly every inch is gilded or covered in oil paints depicting the life of Julius Cesar. It seems to situate the family, the residents of this house, within a lineage of Western history, within a lineage of culture, power, sophistication, enlightenment. These paintings and statues – classical tradition, sure, but also an argument for inheritance, pointing back at the founding of Rome as if to say, this is where we began.

Perhaps this is why Americans like me drift back towards the place of our ancestors – instead of murals and statues, we throw parades and festivals and special days that celebrate Irish, Scottish, German, Polish, Japanese, Hmong heritage. And then we come back to the motherland, awed by the ancient found in everyday life. But I see it as something similar – looking for connection, looking for belonging within the broader sweep of human history, as our family histories are so often cleaved by the oceans and ancestors with their eyes focused on the future.

For me personally, the history of my family, outside of living memory, is patchy – most of it learned from a late-night climb up the Ancestry.com tree with some occasional stories from parents or grandparents, but only about their immediate relatives. Even then, there’s so much that disappears when the person dies. One of my grandfathers had a child outside of his marriages, someone I’ve never met, meaning I’ve got a mysterious uncle floating around LA somewhere. We often pass on myth and legend; someone back in the lineage somewhere said that we might be related to Thomas Jefferson or Lady Godiva; this comes up when I ask questions. Even if that were true, we are so far removed that it confers no greater understanding of the place of either side of my family in history; it informs me little about myself.

My parents’ sense of belonging is found in their chosen religious tradition, one that eschews the pomp of church history – their sanctuary is purposefully stark white; there is no incense or robes or any of the trappings of ecclesiastical faith. Their purity in the pursuit of Truth has caused a deep rift, one that untethers me from the moorings that parents typically offer.

But this is also very much the story of the United States. America has always presented itself as a stage for reinvention, to create yourself. We go hard into what we do: the pursuit of money, the exercise of religiosity, speculation, fundamentalism – big, bold, brash. The dogma of individualism convinces us that we don’t need others and we certainly don’t need the past – reinvention is far easier when your past doesn’t stare you in the face on a daily basis. It can breed showmanship, posturing, bloated confidence, or, conversely, introspection, self-awareness, caution. Maya Angelou once stated, ‘You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.’


Statue of the veiled vestal virgin, light of Rome in her hands

The house tour weaves through to a landing in a yellow room, brightened by skylights in a dome above. Arranged on the wall, two floors tall, is the family gallery, preserved in oil – portraits of the succession of dukes, sisters painted by John Singer Sargent as Gibson girls in white gowns and striped sashes, men in fluffy wigs, pointed chins, posh eyes.

For these people, to belong is something decided at birth. Social capital and connections are forged through boarding school, small elite college membership, the dense network of interrelated families and influence; to walk into places and feel that you belong, that you are not an interloper or obvious guest. I often wonder how this feels, for family and upbringing and education to decide your place and who you are, to begin your life in the world with the privilege – and the prison – of not having to be your own entrepreneur. This privilege means that other entire communities exist; this group or tribe once enjoyed exclusive access to things of beauty created by artisans working at the behest and sponsorship of such patrons: a carved pianoforte inlayed with pearl, the Rembrandt with its burst of light upon the subject’s face, the vast library of history and poetry and literature, wrapped in leather and stamped in gold.

So we don’t belong to this as we amble through their home; and yet, it is through those books that we can find a toehold, an edge of connection – not to belong to this elite class, but in human lineage. We find ourselves in literature – the continuity of thought, emotion, ideas, what makes us human. We feel related to characters, story arcs, lines of poetry –  it’s been a hard month, and I recite lines from Mary Oliver’s ‘Wild Geese’ as a form of CBT.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

Wild geese, books, maybe a belonging that we engineer. We move on to the next room, the sun streaming into the courtyard outside and the illuminating the painted wallpaper.




The Road South

There aren’t many bus journeys in Rwanda that culminate in ice cream, but this one does. It’s a bright, clear Thursday, and I’m on the bus to Huye. This city in the Southern Province, along with being the home of the national university and the intellectual heart of the country, features the best ice cream [possibly] in East Africa. There’s a new gelato place in Kigali’s slick new mall, Kigali Heights, but I haven’t been there yet and I want to believe that this is still the best place, so I’ll hold onto it for the moment.

But it’s been a slow ride. I scheduled a meeting for mid-afternoon, and planned my journey time specifically around the promise of ice cream. But it’s been a slow journey; an extended police checkpoint stop, an expanse of unpaved road clotted with traffic, and the steady pace of the bus are whittling away my ice cream time. The speed thing is new; I was told by a few Rwandans right after arriving that the government recently introduced speed governors. When I first heard about this, I pictured a new class of police officers, the Speed Governors, out on the roads near the cops with the hairdryer-shaped speed guns. But the Governors would be more resplendently attired, perhaps in capes crisscrossed with traditional back and white beading, like the fantastic designs coming out of local Rwandan ateliers.  But alas, speed governors are simply devices which prevent the bus from traveling over 60km/hour, instituted to curb the reckless driving of national bus companies looking to increase the number of trips and thus their earnings. The result is basically a one-third increase in travel time, but also a more enjoyable journey with fewer panicked reverse-fantasies of buses plunging off winding mountain roads and subsequent death. Now, the buses chug pleasantly along, occasionally gathering enough speed to pass a fume-belching construction truck.


This is what we bus for… well, among other things

To take buses through Rwanda, especially the Southern Province, is to wind through the reality of ordinary people outside of the capital. Rwandan roads are used by all, not just those in cars or buses. You will see men pushing bicycles like beasts of burden, loaded with lumpy white woven bags, probably cassava or carrots or potatoes for market. Occasional motos zip past, especially when we get closer to cities, their drivers wearing blue or red or high vis green pinnies marked with the names of their moto taxi cooperative. There are always police, dressed in navy uniforms with shiny lug-sole boots, and sometimes military (RPF) vehicles, immediately apparent by their particular shade of green. SUVs blaze up and down the roads, some with radio antenna that bob along with the car as it speeds past our slow boat, almost all bearing logos or signage from some NGO or another. We’re overtaken by battered Toyota Carreras, sleek Prados with black-tinted windows, and RPF-green military Corollas. I’ve said it before, but this continent runs on AKs, Blue Band margarine, and Toyota.

We pass one of my favorite buildings: a square, cement mosque just past Muhanga with a misshapen dome, which I appreciate not for its beauty but it’s vibrant robin’s egg, almost Tiffany Blue color. Mosques are easy to identify – there are often no minarets but diminutive crescent moons atop their roofs. Other buildings are similarly identifiable: the road to Huye has at least four significant genocide memorial sites. They are recognizable by their common design: there are often wide cement slab placed over mass graves, and bricked, open-air patios with walls inscribed with victims’ names. Sometimes you will also see gated cemeteries, individual graves built up with platforms of white tile and wide, standing crosses. While the start of the genocide and the week of commemoration come early in April, beginning on the 7th, the months of April, May, and June are part of the memorial period, and nearly every organization, business, and school is slung with a commemoration banner inscribed with the kwibuka flame and the line “remember, unite, renew.” They are everywhere, and especially evident on this road: banners in pale gray with the unmistakable flame.

But most of the time, it’s a road ping-pong between rural areas and short stretches of strip-mall-like shops, some raw concrete gray, others painted bright blue, yellow, red, green. The colors are shorthand for the sponsoring company: they provide the paint, slap on a large logo, and your shop gets an upgrade. You learn quickly to recognize the color and the sponsoring company: MTN mobile’s unmistakable, Africa-wide sunshine mustard yellow, bright cobalt for Primus, a regional beer company, red for Airtel, another airtime and internet provider. There’s not much variation in the shops that pass the window, and while English might be the language of academic instruction, shop signage remains consistently French: paperterie for all of your paper needs, salons and coiffeur decorated with painted pictures of hair braiding and trim and fade services, a multitude of Chezs – Chez Jean, Chez Dieu – usually small cafes and buffets or guesthouses.

Sometimes the bus will stop, often to pick up more passengers or let a few off. It’s slow going outside of Muhanga, where over and over again a passenger will knock on a window or tap a coin against the chassis of the bus, alerting the driver to let them off. When we make “official” stops, sometimes just on the side of the road near an outlet for the bus company, young men and woman come to the bus, pulling open the windows, and showing off their wares: clear plastic buckets filled with small bags of groundnuts, milk in liter jugs shaped like jerry cans, loaves of bread wrapped in white wax paper, water, Fanta, glutenous biscuits. But nothing can compare to the thought of ice cream and I attempt to send impatient vibes to the driver: come on, mate, let’s get this show on the road.

But there’s no changing it: the speed governor means you can’t go any faster, and as usual, I am often the only one in a hurry. So maybe there’s the lesson: chill out, Leanne, relax, enjoy the scenery. We pull back onto the main road and quickly find ourselves behind a dump truck slowing to a crawl as we reach the section of road under construction. The pavement turns quickly to red dirt and clouds of dust mean that the passengers pull the windows closed. Outside, a brave cyclist, clad in the sponsored spandex that indicates his place as a Team Rwanda rider, maneuvers the bumps of the dirt road.

Almost there, I tell myself. Ice cream awaits.

Into the Field (Part 2)

Honey-colored brick buildings surround a bright, manicured quadrangle, edged with shrubs and featuring Our Lady encased in glass. In the classrooms, wooden desks in tight rows are carved with years – decades? – of teenage musings. Our glow-in-the-dark Lord and Savior hangs on crucifixes above the blackboards. The full picture is reminiscent of my own parochial childhood – with a few substitutions beyond the plastic Jesus: the wood carvings are 21st century-centric (Kylie, Kendrick Lamar, F*ck Taliban?), not to mention that the location is probably six thousand miles from my idyllic Northern California hometown.

I’m at a boarding school in the Southern Province of Rwanda, not quite awake for the 7:40 start time. The school specializes in science concentrations at A-level (Senior 4-6, equivalent of senior high school in the U.S.), but the student body also includes O-levels (Senior 1-3, junior high). All of the students are gathered in the quad, grouped around the headmistress on the basketball court. After they sang the school song and the national anthem, they scatter to their classrooms and she comes to shake my hand. Like any ex-Catholic school girl, I smiled and tried not to remember my own strict, similarly short and square headmistress (well, principal) wringing a cheating confession out of 2nd-grade me.


It’s the first day of proper data collection: my research is with a teacher association, and one aspect of the many methods I have engineered for the project involves observation and interviews with individual member teachers. Thus, I am wearing a dress and functioning as the center of school gossip on a cool morning: the thing about quadrangles is you can’t hide, and the thing about being white in Rwanda is you really can’t hide. Students in royal blue sweaters and white shirts and ties embroidered with the school crest rush past me; one kind, brave Senior 5 soul greets me and takes me to the Teacher’s Room where I find the “Maurice,” the association teacher that I will shadow today.

Back in my teaching days, I would always get a little nervous when being observed, regardless of whether it was my boss, some visiting delegation, or even a colleague. But today, the roles are reversed: Maurice seems cool, collected, and unbothered by my presence, and I’m the one who’s sweating and shaking a bit and constantly dropping her pen. As a PhD student, starting your data collection is declaring your allegiance to one philosophical orientation and beginning the process of knowledge construction. Knowledge begins with data, and especially important for qualitative researchers, extensive thought and care should be put into how you collect that data. I have put in that thought and care, but this is where it becomes something real.

Until this point, it’s all been theoretical. Who I am as a researcher is passionate but theoretical, recorded in proposal documents and argued in an upgrade panel, but it is a construction, an ideal. Data collection is when you morph into that person, or a totally different one, where you start to work and communicate and face decisions and problems and become mired in messiness. It’s where things can get personally uncomfortable. Not just sitting in the back of the class, balanced on a stool, trying to remember what I am supposed to be looking for and recording for this observation, what will set me up for our later series of prompted interviews.

Maurice has so many class periods, I lose count: maybe seven? Some are short, only 30 minutes; others are more than an hour. All of the classes are A-level and divided for the concentration: MCB (Mathematics, Chemistry and Biology), MCE (Mathematics, Computing, and Economics), and MPC (Mathematics, Physics, and Computing) – but I probably got at least one of those wrong. It all seems like my own high school subject nightmare. So. Much. Math. Some of the rooms are expansive concrete boxes like my old Musanze classrooms, loud and echoing with every movement across the uneven floor, lit by daylight, with peeling, crumbling blackboards painted on the walls. Some are bricked, hung with ubiquitous net curtains and featuring detailed images drawn on the boards: one classroom for MCE has an elaborate drawing of an Excel spreadsheet. The teacher-artist has used multiple colors of chalk and indicated screen details down to the battery percentage on the bottom toolbar. That’s one way to deal with limited technology.


Behold, He glows: a literal interpretation of John 8:12

For each classroom, I introduce myself. By the seventh class, it’s rushed and to the point. Leanne. Research. American. UK for Phd (yes, I know it’s strange). PhD (don’t do a PhD, you’ll go crazy). They ask me many of the same questions. Married? No. How old? Guess (they are either very polite or very poor at estimation). Some of the classes ask detailed questions – how do I improve my public speaking ability? Others are less interesting – what’s your favorite drink? I wasn’t going to say “gin and tonic” out loud at a Catholic school, so apparently it’s a mocktail of mango juice and Vittolo, the local sparkling water option. After the introductions, I take a position in the back of the room.

Qualitative researchers are (rightly) neurotic over this idea of position and positionality – beyond my wooden stool. Kant famously argued that we cannot possibly experience “things-in-themselves” but can only experience them as they appear to us, encapsulated here by writer Anais Nin: “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Whatever the world is, we process it through our selves. It doesn’t mean that research is some therapeutic self-exploration (unlike, say… blogs…) but it means that we are aware that we exist as a filter for that data and subsequently constructed knowledge.

Without getting too far down the research philosophy rabbit hole, I hold a critical constructivist research philosophy which argues that the social world is constructed. If you think the world is one giant canvas and if we design the right camera, the right experiment, the right path, we can see it correctly and document it and pass this Knowledge onto the future generations, that’s the opposing viewpoint: positivism (well, that’s the quick and dirty and reductionist version; I’m sure I’ll get some emails for that). But constructivists think the world is more messily put together, and knowledge reflects this: critical constructivist capo Joe Kincheloe (2005) argues that from this perspective, it is “misleading to merely study random outcomes… isolated ‘facts’ and ‘truths'” (p. 2). Knowledge rather always involves a knower who is permanently linked to a historical and social context : “how the knower constructs the known constitutes what we think of as reality” (p. 2). Thus, for researchers, especially, our position in this place is important. We can’t just fade into the background, become the nameless automaton behind the experiment. As researchers, we play an exaggerated role in constructing knowledge and deciding what “counts” as knowledge. That’s quick and dirty as well, but ultimately, this perspective requires humility, caution, and social awareness in the practice of research.

As such, critical constructivism requires being aware of who you are, what you’re doing, how you’re behaving, how you are reflecting on your work, how dynamics of power and postcolonialism enter the equation. It means examining your biases and what goes into the questions you ask, how your hear the answer. Obviously, you can’t remove yourself from the work – and to believe that is possible is itself naïveté. Instead, we have to recognize who we are in the situation. To quote from my progression document, the solution is an anti-solution: observe, listen, ask questions and be ready to receive responses that cut at the base of who I think I am, recognize the privilege I have and be able to talk about it with honesty and openness. Gadamer (1989) suggests laying bare your affiliations or “horizons” and consider their impact on your interpretation, what he labels a “fusion of horizons” (p. 370). When this is done fully and intentionally, it is meant to be deeply painful in separating what I actually believe and value from what I express as beliefs and values. It I am asking this of my participants in examining their own practice as teachers, I should be doing the same thing. There’s the discomfort.

I tell myself that this classroom, this moment of mentally pressing record is where it all begins, but that’s not exactly true: PhDs require you to define and package your philosophy, epistemology, ontology, and axiology, but really, none of this is linear – just like travel, research requires that you keep going back over yourself, learning more about who you are and what you think and how all of that changes when you are confronted with things that are different and unknown. So I settle in and watch as Maurice divides the blackboard into sections for the class to review last week’s material: “What I know” and “What I want to know.” Fitting. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a girl nudge a folded note towards a broad-shouldered boy while her deskmate furiously copies Maurice’s board composition. I start making margin notes in pink pen. Honey-colored bricks, a bright quadrangle, glow-in-the-dark Jesus. 



Gadamer, H.-G. (1989). Truth and method (2nd, revis ed.). London: Continuum.

Kincheloe, J. (2005). Critical constructivism primer. New York: Peter Lang.


Into the Field (Part 1)

Day 1. Back in Rwanda after a two-year hiatus. Not jet-lagged, since it’s only one hour ahead of the UK, but definitely sleep-deprived. As an old hand at Kigali city buses, I rock up to the bus shelter outside of Chez Lando and call at the man hanging out of the window of a wide white bus to ask if he’s headed for Town (Kigali speak for the downtown district, rather than the line that goes to the coach station, Nyambugogo). He gives a noncommittal yes and I attempt to board with three 100 franc coins clutched in my hand. But the man is a passenger, not the cash collector who would normally sit in the window seat and beckon at potential riders; this colorful character has been transformed into a small plastic yellow circle, bolted to the handrail. Passengers push past me and press keycards to the circle: it’s a card reader like those used at my university for building access. It chirps and the driver nods them on. And here am I, the sweaty muzungu troglodyte, trying to give someone my coins to get a ride to the downtown district.

It’s kind of a cliché among foreigners in Rwanda – leave for a month, they say, and there will be a new skyscraper when you return. It’s not so far from the truth. My first trip to Rwanda was in 2014; since then, Kigali has added a convention center, multiple upscale hotels with rooftop cocktail hours far out of my price range, and a bevy of high-rise glass monstrosities favored by Chinese construction companies. As a result, the government has rerouted roads and converted areas to pedestrian-only to accommodate it all. And, apparently, upgraded to a 21st century bus ticketing system.

Since I’m blocking the door and holding up the flow of capital city traffic, a kind woman loans me her card and I pass her the coins; I take a seat in the back and three more people shoehorn in next to me. The bus takes a route that is mostly familiar, but brighter, somehow. A shopping center seemingly modeled after Soviet design sensibilities is behind fences that advertise the construction company and preview the coming remodel: the flat, rain-puddle roof has been replaced with a wide, sweeping parabola recalls a cruise ship lido deck, bare concrete walls are now plated with shining, slick tile like a three-story Mac store. As we round the curve that starts the climb toward Town, I spy the new high rise that protrudes from the top of the hill like a glass needle and we pass a new hotel, half white, half brick, punctuated with the geometrical lines of imigongo, the traditional Rwandan art form that uses cow dung and clay and colors that mimic the mustard and ochre of the countryside. In a sea of soulless glass edifices and cruise-ship chic, this particular building could only be found in Rwanda. It’s beautiful. It’s a statement of identity. The whole city seems different to me – perhaps just when taken in contrast to my sunny, sepia nostalgia, my memories of clear blue skies and pink bougainvillea by the Embassy pool and the aqua curtains of my Parliament classroom.


Not exactly high rises; man with beer bike on a dirt road 

Kigali has changed; I have changed. Who I am and what I’m doing here is completely different, and I can’t tell if the city actually looks that different or if I am projecting myself upon it. In 2014, I first arrived here as a teacher – I was totally unprepared for the next two years of my life, but eventually I fell into a rhythm with Rwanda, a sort of peace with how to get by and how to operate and who I was in that space. And now, I’m back, for a much shorter period and with a completely different brief. Researcher, not teacher.

The road to get here with this new title was far rockier; without a contract from the U.S. Department of State, the Embassy was not available to jump through all of the bureaucratic hoops for visas and permissions. My colleagues at Bristol have lovingly suffered through months of my nail-biting and anxious outbursts over the multi-stage research permit and visa process; from just trying to figure out what to do to flipping my lid when hearing that the reason no one is responding is because the government shifted research permitting to an entirely different department. They probably did this to spite me, I cried in exasperation and resisted the urge to hurl university property out of the doc room window.

But here I am: through Immigration, permit promised for pickup this week. And it has all become very real, that deep, gnawing realization that all of the preparation, two years in essence, has led to this point, to this change of positionality: researcher.

[to be continued]


Refugee trauma and the ESL classroom

I originally wrote this three years ago when I was in Northern California, working with a refugee resettlement organization. I spent 3.5 years volunteering there, and during that time, I met more than 200 refugees who were resettled in the Sacramento area. They came from all over the world, but primarily Iraq, Afghanistan (many of whom worked as translators with the U.S. military), Burundi, Bhutan, Nepal, Kenya… the list goes on.

This past Friday, Donald Trump suspended the refugee resettlement program by executive order. Just a few facts, none of which are “alternative” – refugees are defined as people who must flee their home country to escape war, persecution, and violence. Number of refugees that the U.S. pledged to resettle in 2017 following a multiyear vetting process: 110,000. Number of refugees resettled in the U.S. who have committed known acts of terrorism, EVER: 0.

I don’t write well when shaking with emotional rage, but I want to say something, to defend the 200+ people that I knew well. This article was originally published with TESOL International Association’s Refugee Concerns newsletter and it speaks mainly to educators about strategies for dealing with students (such as refugees) who have experienced severe trauma (like many, many refugees).

One final note before the article: the organization I worked with, the International Rescue Committee, was founded at the suggestion of Albert Einstein, a refugee who fled to the U.S. to escape the Third Reich.


October 2013

His distress was palpable, evidenced in knotted eyebrows and a subtle tremor that shook throughout his rail-thin body. He grabbed my hand impulsively and put it against his heart so I could share in (or at least understand) his terror. His words were impeded by his lack of language, and whatever English he did have was impeded by his extreme stress. “The men…the room…” he managed to get out with labored breaths.

Only because of an earlier conversation with his caseworker did I know what the problem was: He was a new refugee client, and he had identified himself, at least to the caseworker and the hosting organization, as gay. On his first night in English class, only a few days after he arrived in the United States, he was still terrified to be in a small room with other speakers of his language group, large men who may have appeared similar to his overseas tormentors. I’ve volunteered with this organization for 3 years and learned that if I get a hunch that past trauma is trickling into a situation, I am probably right.

His situation was a unique one, to say the least: refugee, gay, from a conservative country, spoke almost no English, most likely suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or similar. To be dealt a few of those cards would certainly be a challenge, but all of them? I’m no psychologist, and like the majority of English teachers, even those like myself who have a master’s degree in teaching the subject, I’m ill-equipped to deal with this challenge. My program didn’t require or even offer a course in ESL and PTSD, just as they offered very little training outside of teaching for well-equipped classrooms full of literate, economically steady, enthusiastic English learners. Like many other instructors in my situation, I had to gauge my reaction to similar situations with a mix of experience and self- research.

This incident, despite involving a very unique individual, can be compared to many similar ones experienced by ESL instructors who work with refugees or asylum seekers. Stressful outbursts, as in the example given, demonstrate one of the greatest challenges of working with posttrauma populations. Refugees, asylum seekers, and some immigrant groups have a “substantially higher risk than the general population for a variety of specific psychiatric disorders—related to their exposure to war, violence, torture, forced migration and exile and to the uncertainty of their status in the countries where they seek asylum” (Kirmayer et al., 2011, p. E961). Unfortunately, when a refugee or asylum seeker resettles in a new country, past traumas are often exacerbated by the serious psychological stress caused by poor adjustment to the culture of the resettlement country (Schweitzer, Melville, Steel, & Lacherez, 2006). Because ESL teachers often have longer periods of contact with their refugee students than other social service providers (such as resettlement agency case workers), stressful outbursts or other classroom issues, such as interpersonal conflicts, can commonly occur. Classrooms often function as safe zones, “where the students can have the opportunity not only to learn English…but also to learn about and discuss many of the cultural adjustment issues and other facets of their new lives” (Adkins, Birman, Sample, Brod, & Silver, 1999, p. 17). This safe place not only provides a platform for students to learn the language that will assist in their acculturation processes, but it also provides a form of self-expression that “engenders stronger mental health” (Adkins et al.,1999, p. 17)

Many refugees, whether they are clinically diagnosed with suffering from PTSD or other disorders, experience a variety of symptoms caused by the stress and trauma resulting from their past and even ongoing experiences. These factors may be manifested in symptoms such as physical ailments (headaches, backaches, and stomachaches), somatic issues (sleeping in class or complaining of a lack of sleep at night), attention issues, lack of participation in or withdrawal from social interaction, frequent absences, and/or emotional or behavioral issues (Adkins et al., 1999, p. 19). Extensive medical and psychological research has demonstrated that these mental problems are prevalent within the refugee community, but, for a teacher working on a day-to-day basis with these students, the research might not be so important as solutions to the issue.

In the 1999 publication through the Spring Institute, Adkins, Birman, Sample, Brod, and Silver provide an excellent manual that instructs ESL teachers in methods for adapting their classroom pedagogy, methods, and activities to facilitate positive acculturation in response to these mental health issues. But when teachers are faced with outbursts similar to the example presented, they need to be prepared to spontaneously address the problem and help the student to reach a state of calm. To help deal with the effects of PTSD and other stress, emotion, or deeper psychological issues or trauma-related outbursts that manifest themselves in the classroom, teachers have to be proactive about educating and preparing themselves for these incidents, but also in sharing effective techniques and strategies for coping with these issues within the community of practice. In this situation, I followed a protocol that I have used in a variety of similar contexts:

1. Use nonverbal cues to demonstrate compassion and understanding.As refugee English teachers, this is often our default mode. But these situations require an extra measure of compassion: demonstrating empathy with obvious facial expressions (especially for low-level speakers) and a calm, low tone of voice. Horsman (1997) suggests “words and looks of encouragement” (p. 22) over physical contact, as physical boundaries are important to respect and even more difficult to infer in stressful moments.

2. Allow them to be separate from the class. In this situation, I was fortunate that another person could step in and cover the class for a few minutes, which might not be possible in every situation. It is important to help preserve the refugee’s sense of dignity (i.e., not allow others to see his or her distress) and allow them the space to calm down, so it is essential to step outside and away from the trigger. Horsman (1997) noted that refugees dealing with trauma need physical “places to go outside the program when the feelings are ‘too much’ for themselves or for others to deal with in the class or group” (p. 30). Following the incident, I sought to demonstrate to students that they were not “bound” to the classroom and were free to step out if they felt the need.

3. Shift their focus away from what is affecting them. It sounds like something a therapist might caution against, but most teachers, like me, aren’t trained as counselors, and to take on that role could possibly do more harm than good. Revert to what you know you are skilled at: teaching English. In this situation, I took out a copy of the English diagnostic that we used and started to go through it orally with him, effectively shifting his focus away from the situation. This isn’t to say that their experience isn’t valuable or that the teacher is attempting to invalidate the importance of their past. Instead, the teacher is saving those conversations or topics for a more appropriate, less charged environment where students can operate at their own comfort level.

4. Instill confidence. As we went through the very basic material at the start of the test, I made sure to praise him and offer positive reinforcement for everything that he did right, and provide very tempered, occasional correction for his issues. This not only helped his stress subside, but focused him back on the ultimate purpose of the class: to improve his English.

In this particular situation, the pattern that I followed allowed the student to rejoin the class after 20 minutes outside of the room. By the end of class, he was raising his hand to ask questions and even interacting with the men whose presence had caused his panic earlier in the class. With continuing sensitivity to his needs, his teachers can help him and others like him better reach their potential, and move further away from trauma-based outbursts to focus on the positive possibilities that lie ahead. The experience showed me, very clearly, that, as an instructor, I am continually responsible for not only my refugee students’ academic experience but their emotional well-being.

These strategies were gleaned from personal experience and informed by research, but should not be taken as a scientific technique or as one developed by a specialist in trauma. Instead, they are one solution for dealing with stressful outbursts in the moment, keeping the student’s needs first, and helping to maintain their personal dignity and sense of self.


Adkins, M. A., Birman, D., Sample, E., Brod, S., & Silver, M. (1999). Cultural adjustment, mental health, and ESL: The refugee experience, the role of the teacher, and ESL activities. Denver, CO: Spring Institute for International Studies.

Horsman, J. (1997). “But I’m not a therapist”: Furthering discussion about literacy work with survivors of trauma. The Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women. Retrieved from http://en.copian.ca/library/research/therapist/1.htm.

Kirmeyer, L., Narasiah, L., Munoz, M., Rashid, M., Ryder, A., Guzder, J., … & Pottie, K. (2011). Common mental health problems in immigrants and refugees: General approach in primary care. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 183(12), 959–967. DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.090292

Schweitzer, R., Melville, F., Steel, Z., & Lacherez, P. (2006). Trauma, post-migration living difficulties, and social support as predictors of psychological adjustment in resettled Sudanese refugees. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 40, 179–187.

Neogothic and Neon Paint: Arriving in Bristol

When I see him, I’m mid-way up Park Street, the road that connects the lush, grassy triangle of College  Green to the neo gothic Wills Tower, the edge of the university campus. Brazen, bearded, clad in a tee shirt and tattoo sleeves, slamming down the hill on a longboard, slaloming around the road’s divider line. I stop and watch as he blazes downhill at maybe twenty miles per hour, taking me back to late nights at my undergraduate university looking for my car in the multi-story parking garage with gleeful skaters screaming past, barely avoiding the cement pylons.


Yarn-bombing and an artistic response to soot-blackened buildings 

Tattoos, longboards, and skinny jeans: my friend Steve described Bristol as “England’s Portland,” and since, more than one non-Bristolian has told me that the “rest of England” views it as green, hipster, “bio” (organic), all phrases similarly co-opted when outsiders describe the Pacific Northwest and California’s Bay Area. My past home, Sacramento, prides (maybe that’s the wrong word) itself in projecting a similar ethos: in a recent study looking to define and identify the most “hipster” cities in the U.S., Sacramento came in fourth, behind Seattle, Portland, and Denver. The researchers came up with a list of businesses which “target” hipster culture, and checked the ratios of these businesses per 10,000 city residents. The businesses? “Microbreweries (manufacturers), records/tapes/CD (retail), music dealers, coffee shops (non-chains only), beer & ale (retail), thrift shops, bicycle dealers, tattoo parlors, and music and live entertainment.”


On the university campus; a little more mod than postmodern

Even just this road with its steep, rapid upward pitch, Park Street, illustrates that past sentence. On the ten minute walk from my building to the university, I pass three music stores (instruments and records), two vintage clothing stores, two charity (read: thrift) shops, a piercing parlor, two non-chain coffee/tea shops, and two art supply stores. It’s s seductive walk: I buy gingerbread rooibos tea in nylon sachets from a shop with a silhouetted swallow on the logo (always put a bird on it) and mint-green plates from a charity shop. I often find myself in a sea of fashion ripped from 90s closets – short denim skirts with buttons down the front, high-wasted jeans with pockets high on the butt, those ubiquitous circa-1999 polyester Delia’s sweaters, cropped above the belly button.


Banksy’s statue left over from Banksy vs. Bristol Museum exhibition 

Hip – or hipster – this city has it boatloads (appropriate given its past as a shipping city and its scenic locale on the River Avon). One of it’s most famous sons is Banksy, the anonymous street artist famous for [illicitly] stencilling cleverly subversive and political images on the sides of buildings and walls (for more see Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film for Street Art 101). I walk daily past one of his most famous pieces, a naked man hanging off the “window” of a sexual health clinic. It’s been vandalised with blue paint, but remains – more than one person joins me in photographing it from the sidewalk.


Street art is all over this city, illicit and clearly non-illicit. I visited Bristol for three days in April when trying to decide it and another school, and happened to look up while stumbling down one street – and saw a mural from one of my favorite artists, El Mac. It seemed like an invitation, a blessing – that somehow this was the right place to be.


El Mac, “Clothed with the Sun” 2011


Something else by someone else, painted on the side of St. John’s Church

There’s something that I love about street art, the way it adds color to a city – not just tagging but artistic interest. But the city isn’t all neon paint and suspended naked men, it’s flashes of modernity in a historical mishmash. And the historical still dominates – it’s the hardest layer, the most permanent in this city, buildings that reflect Regency, Tudor, Georgian – a city that has gone through an adolescence and adulthood, reinventing itself in each era.


Brunel’s suspension bridge over the Avon Gorge


The university seems to have found the balance between neo Gothic and neon – outside of the Great Hall in Wills Tower for induction week 

Up the hill, past the art and the art stores, towards a university with equal parts historical buildings and steel, brick, and glass. A few days in and I’m already certain – I’m going to like this place.


Hang a left for the university: an uncertain world.

A Trip Takes Us

“I know I like to dream a lot, and think of other worlds that are not.”

Lou Reed, “Who Am I (Tripitena’s Song)”


Twelve years ago, almost to the day, I boarded a similar flight at San Francisco International Airport, clutching a passport that was empty save for a pre-issued visa for the United Kingdom, heart hammering with anticipation and anxiety at the thought of the first international flight of my life. I can imagine how I must have looked to other passengers: a small person trying to make herself smaller, watching carefully to understand how others behaved, how they opened their passports and handed over their boarding passes. Not wanting to seem green or stick out, to seem awkward or ignorant in the procedures of international air travel – learning, ultimately, to fly, metaphorically and practically. I took a similar position, as a cautious observer, for the next few months living in London: my first stint of life as a foreigner and outsider.

Very soon, I will be back to the same airport, bound yet again for the United Kingdom. My passport is hardly empty, but contains similar clearance for study in the UK, this time for four years of the British PhD and not a few months of study abroad. Now, I have equal parts swagger and languidness in passing through security and navigating the terminal; it’s the fruit of those twelve years, four continents, more than thirty countries – those statistics stamped into my passport, emblematic of experiences that have grown me and directed the course of my life, up to this very moment.

But the anticipation and anxiety still hammer in my chest, coupled with “hot palms and the lurch of stomach high up under the rib cage,” as Steinbeck once wrote in describing the preparation stages of travel at the start of Travels with Charley“A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has a personality, a temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safe-guards, policing and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” 


James Town, Accra, Ghana

A trip takes us – there is some comfort in leaning into that lack of control. We can plan, we can state our purpose from the beginning. But ultimately, we have to give over control. The start of each adventure is the start of a new chapter of life: knowing that you will change not only your personal geography, but how you see the world and how you see yourself. Today, though, this journey feels less like the start of something and more like the close, the end of an era, turning the page not on a chapter but an entire section of a book: returning to the first country I visited beyond my own, British bookends sealing in one section of my life.

In the past twelve years, I’ve traveled for many reasons: work, school, research, service, love. Did I ever really know what each of those journeys would bring, outside of those clear, guiding goals? I look back at that girl, 19 and terrified (though she would never admit it), and I wonder who she would be without London, Windhoek, Ferrara, Kielce, Port-au-Prince, Taipei, Musanze, Kigali. Travel is powerful for so many reasons. For me, one is that it creates those memorable blocs – instead of a inky, run-together year, it has a clear start and finish – clear in that you get on a plane and go, and get on a plane and return. Those are dividers in my head, like chapters. But what you learned often comes later, how you grew becomes evident in later chapters of life. 


Facing east to the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar, Tanzania

I can look back at my experiences in the past twelve years and see the bigger picture, the parts of me that have changed with each trip. I can see how I’ve developed confidence, maturity, intelligence, empathy. Responsibility toward others and not only my nation and my social group. Possessions have become less valuable and people have become more. How authenticity – relationships built on honesty and care – is vital.  How travel brings out the best and worst of you, quickly moving you towards those moments of honesty. How I’ve grown to deal with loss and heartbreak and pain; how I can better weather life’s challenges.

I know my stated goal in traveling today, in this new section of life a few days from my 32nd birthday. I’m more purposeful with this start of an intensive degree program; I’m more knowledgeable and less apprehensive. I know what piece of paper I want to hold in four years – but what flights, what experiences, what growth will happen between now and then – that’s for the trip to decide.

Steinbeck, J. (1961). Travels with Charley. New York: Penguin.