They are sitting opposite me on the train. He has a soft Scots accent; hers is European, though I can’t tell where it is from. They’re reading a copy of Metro. He points to the article about the man who was beaten senseless before he was ejected from a plane. I can’t stop myself. “Have you seen the video?” They hadn’t; nor can they understand how it could happen.
So we start talking. First, about America and its paradoxical love of ‘freedom’ and ferocious observance of rules. I quickly drift into talking about Angie Thomas and the book I’m reading, The Hate U Give, about staying with my mum and dad in Washington DC and seeing, first hand, the day-to-day segregation that still exists. I mention that we – I – cannot conceive of being put into the situation of a young African American, scared of every encounter with a police officer, scared that they might die.
“Yes, we are lucky that we don’t have to put up with that,” the woman replies. I summon the courage to ask, “Where are you from?” “It’s complicated,” she says, “I’m very international.” I’ve already told her that I’m a diplomat’s brat, so I press on. She’s from Ukraine, though her family were Austrian Jews who’d fled from Poland. She’s lived in Zambia and, for many years, in Portugal. Before she retired, she worked with small groups of recently arrived immigrant children, helping to settle them into English schools.
We talk about children. I describe the little Romanian boy, seven years old, who stood speechless and staring at the floor of his North London classroom while his Hungarian teacher screamed, “Why are you late?” at him time and again. How he’d been silent, without language, in September but had tugged on my sleeve in December to say, “I can speak English now” and to invite me to his house for Christmas. I tell her about the three Polish girls in my Year 6 class: one fluent in English, one with a smattering of the language and the third, a tall, angry girl, subject to routine sexist and racist insults but unable to respond except with her strong fists.
She tells me about David, an Eastern European child of a similar age, who had appeared to ignore his teacher’s instructions and had been sent to the Head for his disobedience. “His name was Davv-eed,” she told me, “not Day-vid. The teacher couldn’t be bothered to learn how to say his name, so when she shouted out to him in a line, he didn’t recognise the word she used. I had to take him back into his classroom and teach his teacher how to say his name. The trouble is that they have no idea what it is like to have no language.” She describes how she staged a conversation with two Polish children in a class of English-speaking pupils. The three of them spoke only Polish: she asked them questions and they answered. Turning to the bemused English speakers, she said, “This is what it is like to come into a class with no English.” Though I can barely remember it, I recall being without Urdu in my Lahore classroom.
Her name is Barbara. I find this out because she describes how Russians call her Var-va-ra. They are going to the Russian revolution exhibition at the Royal Academy. We talk about the upheavals of the twentieth century, how children today need to know how different it was. He is old enough to remember learning about the six and three minute warnings before nuclear attacks, finding out about the death of George VI at school. She mentions that her mother remembers when Stalin died. “A man was carrying a newspaper announcing his death, but he had it wrapped inside another magazine, in case anyone got the wrong idea about him.” She describes how she taught children about grammes and kilogrammes by showing them how little a bread, sugar or butter ration might have been. He mentions that he remembers rations as a child; Barbara laughs and adds that her mother, a survivor of Auschwitz, would kiss the bread before she ate it. That casual aside silences me.
We have an opportunity to learn from each other. We have a duty to speak to and listen to each other. If we don’t, young people will continue to be shot before they have a chance to explain themselves; children will grow up angry and speechless; and another generation of the elderly will raise their bread to silent lips.