She looks at me, a rabbit caught in headlights, and shakes her head.
“Sorry, my English-”
“That’s ok. Can you understand – my name is Ruth, what is your name?” I smile, trying not to look as terrifying as she obviously finds me.
“Anna. My name is Anna.”
After this barrier has been crossed, Anna smiles at nowhere in particular and then does an awkward charade of interest in the classroom windows to escape from any more conversation. Standing on her tiptoes each time, she moves along the wall, probably seeing nothing. When she runs out of windows, she finds a wooden bench, sits down, and spends the next five minutes tying and re-tying her shoelaces. All this time, I am feeling equally as foolish, and step back to hide my failed attempt at friendliness.
Since that day, I have been as afraid as Anna to try to speak again – and months later, all we can muster is “Hello”. Nobody else seems to even acknowledge her, and as time passes, the walls she is building around herself are getting more and more impossible to break through.
I was Anna once. Different country, different playground, but the same terror of being approached, or approaching anyone. At the time, I blamed the unfriendliness of the other people there, and their lack of effort to speak to me. At the beginning, I tried to stand close to the other teachers, and smile, in the hope that I would look like their equal. It did not take long, however, for me to feign interest in nothing, using that to block any scrutiny, or conversation. The more time went on, the more frightened I was of someone approaching me, and the further away I stood from everyone else. One person did befriend me in the end, and although the conversations felt like stepping out into the unknown, I was glad of them.
I must never forget how I felt back then, and how Anna must feel now. Remembering isolation should foster inclusion, even if it causes humilation on both sides.