I should never be a speech pathologist.

I am very inconsistently going to what I would call my secondary placement here. I go in the evenings to a slum and hang out with the guys there who are all about my age. My relationship to these guys started when I came in 2007. One day, early that summer, I asked a friend to teach me carom, and suddenly a swarm of young guys wanted to play as well. The swarm later dwindled to just a few guys who consistently taught me the various striker flicking techniques, the practical rules of Carom, and how to count to 29 in Hindi.
I have now returned to the slum years later which is an apparent novelty, and so the guys now allow to me gather with them in the evenings for Carom, chai, and the occasional language lesson. They are always trying to get me to speak Hindi which usually ends up with me sloppily repeating a phrase which I know will leave me as soon as I say it.
I have been asked to teach some English lessons. This to me feels futile as I will be leaving relatively soon, but to please them I gather around with them in the tiny slum school building under a dim lightbulb and teach whatever comes to my head.
The first thing was to review the sounds of consonants. It went fairly well. I avoided vowels because really, I don’t even know how to touch “‘I’ before ‘E’ except after ‘C’” and the like. Overall I felt like this might be too silly a task; however, the consonant review led us to a phonetic discovery: the boys can’t say ‘p’ or ‘z’. This unfortunately came to late in the lesson: while trying to come up with a word to practice ‘z’, I asked them to repeat “zipper” which for all their determination came out “jiffah”. Unfortunate.
I then quizzed my placement partner. He also stumbled out a “jiffah”.
So there we were, in that little room, sitting Indian style (ooh… isn’t that full of lexical swirl), with me chanting, “Zipper. Zipper. Zipper!” And hearing, “Jiffah. Jiffah. Jiffah!”
“Pah. Pah. Pah.”
“Fah. Fah. Fah.”
You get the idea. When practicing the “z” I would aurally scan the room like I was searching out a cicada, and when I heard it I would shout, “ACHA!” and point like I’d struck gold. The ‘p’ was at least easier because I could point to my lips, get them to touch theirs before trying to make the ‘p’. It still baffled me though: when I would show them the requisite lip-to-lip contact required for the ‘p’, they would mimic the contact and even put their fingers to their mouths to check. But when they vocalized it, they still flicked their bottom lip across their top front teeth.
I could never be a speech pathologist. I would kill someone.
After leaving that night, I was standing on Doi Platforme waiting for my train and came up with the perfect tongue twister: Purple puppies follow people forward.
So, next lesson, back in the slum, I began to teach this ridiculous sentence. The guys followed me despite having the sentence translated and realizing it will never have practical daily use. A sample of the resulting dialogue would be something like this:

Me: “Purple puppies followed people forward.”
Someone mutters.
Me: “Ok. First word: Purple. Pur. Pul.”
Class: “Furfur.”
Me: “No no. Pur. Pul.”
A few: “Fur. FUR.”
Me: “Ok. One at a time. Pur. Pul.”
Student: “Fur. Fur.”
Me: (grabbing my lips and forcing them together) “ Pur. Pul.”
Student: “ Pur. Pur.”
Me: (satisfied with his ‘p’ and wanting to solidify the ability) “Ok… Now Puh. Peez.”
Student: “Puppies.”

Somehow they have no trouble with ‘puppies’ when the word stands alone. I went on through the phrase with each student hearing mostly, “Furfur fuh-ffies forrow furfur fahwah.” My mind spun, and as I went around the room practically shouting “Pur-Pul! Pur-Pul! PUR-PUL!”, my cinematic mind found its way to a comforting quote: “Your aura is PURPLE!”.
Thinking of Almost Famous sitting in that little school, I made a wish. I wished that I and the guys weren’t in that little school. I wished that we were at my house sitting around on the sofas and on the floor. I wished to walk in the room with cold cans of soda and pass them out to my friends. I wished to take a count of who wanted popcorn, to note that Rajis and Soni only wanted a little and could share a bowl. I wished to see my little sister run in the room with my Indian family’s two little brothers, searching for something in the kitchen and upon finding it taking off back to their game. I wished to be watching that movie, eating popcorn and drinking soda, laughing at a stoned rocker on top of a house announcing, “I am a Golden God.”

That is the one consistent thing about all of these trips I take: I make a lot of these kinds of wishes. Then I consider how I need to keep seeking God because I want heaven to be like this so badly.

Yesterday I went back to the slum, and one of my guys actually said “Purple puppies follow people forward” with fine phonetic accuracy. Ah… I have left my mark, changed a life.


  1. Stephen Fleischer

    Man, that’s incredible. I’ll edit any book you decide to write about this stuff. You’re writing is beautiful.

  2. christine

    Amazing. Haha, also, I can just imagine your exasperation with these tricky letter sounds.

  3. If they can’t say Z, how do they sleep at night?(Get it? Zzzzzz!)

  4. My little note for you today is that I love and miss you. You are the same always and I respect you very much Brent, but do come home for Christmas and I'll see you then. Love Nanette

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