My learners often rush into a conference room to take my call just seconds before their lessons begin. It’s possible that they have been in a meeting or have just ended a stressful phone call so I use the first few minutes as a sort of “warm up”. I ask about the weather, if it is the beginning of the week I ask about their weekend, if it is after Wednesday I ask their plans for the up-coming weekend. They have a chance to wind down and in truth any type of conversation offers learning opportunities.
One day I asked Laure, a 31 year old, systems analyst about her plans for the weekend. She told me that she planned to get a haircut.
“How long is your hair?” I asked.
“To the middle of my back” she answered.
“How will you cut it?”
“To my shoulders”
“Have you ever worn it very short?”
“Yes, I have. I once had no hair because of chimiothérapie “
“Chemotherapy? You are a cancer survivor?“ I asked, a bit taken aback.
“Yes, I am a cancer survivor”, she responded, carefully pronouncing her words.
“Then you are a warrior, you have fought a battle haven’t you?”
“Yes, my cancer was very rare, I was one of only 500 people in France to be treated for this cancer. I had chemotherapy for one year and then I had radiograph therapy.”
“Yes, this is it, Radiation”
“Did you have someone in your life to support you?” I asked.
“Yes, my brother and my mother” she responded.
“It must have been so frightening for them, particularly for your mother”
“Yes” she paused, “Yes, my mother was so afraid. I felt that I had to take care of her. I fought two battles. One battle was with cancer, the other to protect my mother from fear”
The tears begin to sting my eyes and I fight desperately to regain my composure. I make a mental note to myself to spare my children my fear in serious times.
“Yes you are a fighter, you did fight two battles” I manage, “Are you cancer free now?”
“Yes, I have no cancer since 4 years”
I automatically repeat what she has said with a correction, “I have been cancer free for four years”.
“I have been cancer free for four years” She repeated.
“I have three sister in laws and a niece who are warriors of cancer” I say through tears. I don’t mention that one sister in law did not survive. My voice cracks, “Now you are one of my heroes too.”
“I want you to know why this haircut is so important” she says, gently.
“Thank you, I want you to know that when I am an old woman, I may not remember your name or your level of English, but I will remember you and this story. It will become a part of me.”
There is silence but I know that we are both wearing a weary smile.