The most beautiful aspect of Mauritius is not the clear blue ocean devoid of roughness; it is not the majestic mountains that caress the soft clouds; it is not the dreary rain that reminds you that you are on a tropical island. Rather it is that group of boys walking beside the “Manchester Untd.” graffitied wall with that spark in their eyes that indicates the impending mischievous havoc. Their language is littered with swear words, crude hand gestures, crude jokes and euphemisms – had a bystander glanced at them and made a quick judgment they would be dismissed as ruffians or “street kids”. What this bystander overlooks though in this judgment is the most crucial language, the language that bonds these wild and chaotic twelve-year-olds together – love and friendship.
It is unfortunate that often these kids’ best educator is the cruel street life that they lead. With little parental supervision and complete exposure to the more unsavory aspects of young adulthood, these kids had an early introduction to perverse language and crude gestures. What is touching though is that they have deconstructed this language’s malice and made it a language that reflects social acceptance and social status. When Yusef says the f-word to Isfaaq, his bright white mischievous grin strips the word of harshness and elicits a laugh from the group. Usually a flurry of other offensive words follows, met with equal elation. I chided the kids that there would be no swearing in my class, to which they responded with more swear words – this time directed at me. Although at this point I was not aware of the social rite I had to pass, I read the soft and gleeful look on Shameer’s face and new that it was not said in rudeness. I soon came to realize that regardless of how much I preached against the use of profanity, there were still 23 hours of the day that reiterated profanity’s acceptability to these kids.
I think that there was a correlation between my initial struggle to earn the class’ respect and my refusal to acknowledge their use of profanity as a social indicator.
The shift came last week when we met Isfaaq and Ismaail for the first time. We were walking up the mountain and these two students ran up to my group. Trying to hide my irritation at the additional students (usually the students who show up just for one day detract from productivity), I politely asked them their names. Nawfal told me they were called lalo. I asked him what that meant. The group let out a shrill array of giggles. I once again asked him what that meant. Then Isfaaq pressed his hands against his chest and professed, “I am lalo”. Kabir, through his laughter then told me that it meant a fat man.
That day the kids and I refused to refer to each other by our names, but instead deferred to “lalo” as the universal name. During one particularly disruptive time I yelled at the kids, “Alright all of you lalos sit down now!” to which they responded with not only laughter but also orderly class conduct. Although that class was filled with more laughter than usual, I felt that I reached the kids on that day. They listened well. They obeyed. They volunteered to speak. They became leaders in the classroom.
On the way down the hill Ismaail whispered to me that lalo was our special word. That it was a secret between the class and I. Nodding, I slid my hand across his and then we fist bumped – their handshake – and told him I’d keep it a secret. I was in.
When I got into the van with Siven, the sweet man that has been kind enough to drive us this summer, I asked him what lalo meant. With his eyelids sullen he turned away from me and said, “that is a very, very, bad word”.
Despite the perversity behind this word, the class experienced an unprecedented synergy and productivity after inducting me into their exclusive cursing club. The class, which prior to my induction, struggled to focus long enough to write a stanza of poetry, has now written love letters, stories based from Brittany’s class, and has also competed in a class jeopardy day that tested the knowledge learned in these eight weeks. The class operates as one unit; for example, in jeopardy the teams would actually help each other answer the questions. It almost is no longer a class but a friendship that meets three times a week for an hour to learn creative writing. As my time teaching in Mauritius comes to a close, I will miss the f-words, the profane gestures, this revolutionized language that connects peers in mutual laughter and love. We definitely had our rough days, and days when I dismissed class early due to the ruckus, but when I board my plane next Wednesday night, I’ll remember the mountains, the beaches, ELI Africa; but most of all, I’ll remember a class full of a bunch of crazy lalos that taught me about friendship and love. Au revoir et bonne journée Naw-N-Shaw.