It was a very important and exciting day, the first day of my first job in my new career. Changing careers hadn’t been easy; in fact, it was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. Two years earlier, I’d given up everything – my house, my income, the middle class Florida lifestyle where my children were happy and thriving, and moved us all to England so that I could finish my degree and find a new career. Some may say this was selfish of me, and maybe it was; there are worse things in life than not liking your job, after all. And I didn’t even know what this new career was going to look like. But I did know I was desperately unhappy working long hours in a job completely wrong for my personality, and I wasn’t getting any younger. Starting again was scary, yes, but even scarier was the prospect that I might wake up one day and be ten years older and find that nothing had changed.
So I’d moved to England with my children, ages 15, 14, and 2, and started a degree in publishing and English literature, with the idea that I might like to be a journalist. Gradually, and somewhat accidentally, I happened upon English language teaching, and decided to take a course so that I could get a summer job at one of Oxford’s many language schools. By the second week of the course, I knew beyond a doubt that this was what I was always meant to be doing. I had found my career.
Now here I was, in the summer of 1999, about to start my first proper teaching job. The first day of my new professional life, and I couldn't have been happier, or better prepared.
However, when I walked into the shop, there appeared to be an incident in progress. An unhappy group of people was standing at the till (that’s cash register for my American readers), and the cashier, a usually easy-going local girl by the name of Wendy, looked distressed. When she saw me, she was visibly relieved. ‘Oh, I’m so glad you’re here’ she said. ‘You teach EFL, don’t you?’ ‘Um, yes’, I said, guardedly, since technically, I didn’t, at least not yet. Furthermore, I couldn’t imagine any predicament involving a Co-op cash register having the potential to be resolved by a teacher of English as a foreign language.
Wendy apparently thought otherwise. ‘They want to exchange dollars’ she explained. ‘I’m trying to explain that we’re not a bank, we don’t exchange money, this is a shop and we only take pounds.’ I nodded, evaluating the situation and my possible role in it. Then, ‘they don’t understand English,’ she added, satisfied she had successfully clarified the position.
I surveyed the group doubtfully. They appeared to be a family. A man in his mid-30s, about my age, a woman I guessed was his wife, an older woman who may have been the mother of one of them, and a couple of children -- a young teenage boy and a toddler. They were all dirty and disheveled, and the man had a desperate look in his eyes as he continued to proffer the unwanted dollars, waving them around hopefully in all directions. In his other hand was a piece of paper with a London phone number written on it. With that hand he was pointing animatedly to the phone box just outside the door. ‘They want change for the phone’ said Wendy, unnecessarily. ‘They’re refugees’ she added.
We’d been hearing a lot in the news about Kosovan refugees smuggled into the UK in the back of lorries and then either taken to the detention center in North Oxford or dropped off on the A-40 somewhere between London and Oxford. We were in a small village just outside Oxford, right off the A-40. Wendy must be right; these people were refugees from Kosovo. They had nothing except each other and two small plastic carrier bags of clothes. And … a big fat wad of 100-dollar bills.
‘Can you explain it to them?’ asked Wendy again. For her, the problem was straightforward; the solution simple. All she needed was someone to explain to the Kosovans that the Co-op didn’t do currency exchange. But how did she think I could help? Did she believe that teachers of English automatically know all other languages? Or perhaps she imagined I might conduct an impromptu lesson right there in the Co-op, teaching them just enough English in the next ten minutes to enable them to grasp this crucial point?
All I could think of was to try some other languages. So I tried French and German, the only other two I had some ability to communicate in at that time. I addressed myself to the teenager, thinking he might have studied a foreign language at school. But he shook his head solemnly to everything I said. I tried to remember where Kosovo was – wasn’t it somewhere near Italy? Maybe they learned Italian at school. ‘Italiano?’ I asked. As soon as I said it I realized it was pointless; I didn’t speak Italian, so what good would it do to know that he did? Well, I could have phoned my mother for help in that case, I suppose. She spoke fluent Italian. But, the enquiry about Italian met with the same negative response, so I was now all out of languages and ideas.
Wendy and the Kosovans were looking at me eagerly, hopefully, having apparently concluded, despite clear evidence to the contrary, that I was capable of sorting everything out. Even the baby was watching me, expectantly. Their faith in me was genuine and affecting, but it was unsolicited, undeserved, and, if I’m to be completely honest, annoying. What could I do? I had to be somewhere important! It was the first day of my new life! I’d earned this; I deserved it. Everything I’d given up was finally going to be worth it; all my hard work was finally going to pay off. I wanted nothing more than to shrug my shoulders, say ‘sorry, I can’t help you’, and walk out of the Co-op. The door was open and the way out was clear. But that just wasn't going to cut it. Someone had to help them. I didn’t want the job, but I was all they had. It had to be me. The universe had spoken, and you don’t argue with the universe. So I pointed to myself, and said ‘Sarah.’ The man pointed to himself, and said ‘Ditmer.’ We were in business.
I beckoned them out to the phone box and took the piece of paper with the phone number, feeling in my pockets for change. I didn’t have any. So I rang the operator. I’d heard that operators would allow you to make a free phone call in cases of emergency. ‘Hello there’ I said, in what I hoped was an authoritative voice. ‘I’m here at a phone box with a family of Kosovan refugees who just got dumped off the back of a lorry on the A-40. They need to make an emergency phone call to London. Can you help us, please?’ The universe must have spoken to her as well because she put the call through. A man answered. I handed the phone to Ditmer. There was enthusiastic, emotional conversation in a language I didn’t recognize, but which I now know was Albanian. Ditmer handed the phone back to me. The man on the other end spoke English. ‘Please help my people’ he pleaded. ‘They need go London. Victoria station. I meet there them.’ ‘But what can I do?’ I started to protest. “I’m on my way to work...’ This feeble attempt to extricate myself was completely ignored. ‘Please, help my people’ he repeated. ‘OK’, I said, ‘OK’, and put down the phone. Ditmer and his family were looking at me trustingly, waiting to see what was going to happen next.
‘Right then’, I said. ‘Come on.’ A plan was forming in my mind. I needed to get them to the bus stop for the Oxford Tube – a bus that ran from Oxford to London every 10-12 minutes and went all the way through to Victoria Station. But it didn’t go through the village, so I’d have to drive them to the park and ride. Plus, they needed money for bus fare. I only had 10 pounds on me, which wasn't going to be enough to buy five tickets to London. I went back into the Co-op. ‘We need some pounds’, I told Wendy. ‘If I buy a bottle of water with my bank card’ (I’d forgotten about the Wispas) ‘how much cash back can I get?’ ‘50 pounds’, she said. ‘That’s so nice of you’ she added, gratefully. I took the 50, added my 10, and showed it to Ditmer. ‘Bus’, I said. He eagerly offered his wad of dollars to me. ‘No, no’, I said, ‘just give me one 100 dollar bill. That’s a fair exchange. Keep the rest’. I took one of the bills and gestured at him to put the rest away. ‘Now, come on’, I said. ‘Come with me’. I turned around and headed for home, in the opposite direction from the language school, but I tried not to think about that.
My car was parked in the driveway and I knew that to fit five passengers inside, I’d need to take out the car seat. When I took the car seat into the kitchen, they all followed me. They must be starving, I thought, frantically looking around the kitchen to see what I might have. A half empty box of biscuits, a loaf of sliced bread, and a jar of peanut butter were all I could come up with, but they devoured these humble offerings gratefully.
But enough was enough! I needed to get them out of the house! My new life was being sabotaged! And their friend was waiting for them at Victoria station. How to get them all into the car was the next dilemma. There weren’t enough seat belts for everyone, there were people on laps, a baby without a car seat – who knows how many laws we were breaking, but what could I do? It wasn’t far, and surely if we were stopped by the police, the officer would be sympathetic if I explained the situation? But we weren’t stopped. We made it safely to the bus stop. The bus arrived. I gestured them to go in, paid their fares out of the 60 pounds, gave them their change, and then, because the driver looked kind, took him into my confidence. ‘They’re refugees’ I told him. ‘Please make sure they stay on until Victoria station; they’re being met.’ ‘Don’t worry, love’, he replied. ‘I’ll take care of them. Everything will be all right.’ Sometimes in life, you run across people who, when they tell you everything is going to be all right, you know you can believe them. The universe had sent one of those people to drive the bus that took the Kosovans away to their new life.
In 1999, only a few people had mobile phones, and I wasn’t one of them. So I had no way to contact the language school to let them know I was going to be late, and in any case, what could I have said? I ran into some Kosovans at the Co-op? In the end, I arrived twenty minutes late, having surrendered my fate to the wisdom of the universe. The director looked at me. ‘Oh good’, he said. ‘There you are. We just finished the placement tests. They went on a bit longer than expected. We’re getting ready to start the classes now. Yours are the upper intermediates, room 5-A, upstairs and turn right.
I went upstairs, turned right, and walked into the room marked 5-A. A room full of smiling, trusting faces were looking expectantly at me. I took a deep breath. ‘Hello everyone’, I said. ‘My name is Sarah, and I’m your teacher.’