It was on the last day of the spring session that I decided to quit teaching. The morning started out like any other. I went to teach my ESL class as usual. This group had been particularly challenging because many couldn’t read or write at all in their first language. It was a class of women, mostly middle-aged housewives from China, Iran, and India. They’d often bring me lunch – sushi or Indian curry, rice and nan bread carefully arranged on a china plate. It was always delicious. Soon after class began that morning I decided to review some basics.

“What’s your name?” I asked Mei Peng, a young Vietnamese woman, sitting in the front row.

“Your name is Judy,” she replied.

“My name is Judy,” I said, pointing to myself. “What’s your name?” I asked, pointing to her.

“Your name is Judy,” she answered.

“You say My name is Mei Peng or I’m Mei Peng,” I said.

They’d all been making the same mistake. It wasn’t only Mei Peng. “Really class,” I said, “How far are you going to get in life if you go around saying, ‘Your name is Judy’?” I looked down at my watch. 9:05 am. It was hot and stuffy in the room, and I felt sick, as though I might faint.

The last thing I taught them that day was the meaning of “want” versus “need”. I had them make a grocery list and they dutifully wrote what they “needed” (chicken and rice) and what they “wanted” (pizza and potato chips). After, I asked them to make up a sentence with “want”.

“I want to go back to Iran,” Gelouria said. She started to cry.

“I want to go back to China,” Young Soon added, and started crying as well.

I started weeping, too. Sixteen years of teaching. I’m tired of it, I thought to myself. I want to be home in my pajamas and slippers drinking tea. I want to go home.

“I want a banana,” Mei Peng said.

I took the streetcar home that afternoon and I couldn’t remember ever feeling as depleted. It didn’t help that I was carrying an awkward and heavy framed print of three Canadian geese in flight. This gift from my students would go in the guest room beside the statue of the CN Tower that they had given me for Christmas and the electric picture of water going over Niagara Falls as well as other Canadian paraphernalia that I had received over the years.

“I want to quit,” I told my husband, Cesar, later that evening over dinner.

I waited, fork in hand, for a response.

“If you want to stop teaching, then stop,” he answered, and continued eating. He said it in a can-do tone. It reminded me of a Nike commercial.

I informed the school that I would not be renewing my teaching contract.

That first morning at home I said goodbye to Cesar and watched him walk down the hall to the elevator carrying the really big lunch and thermos of coffee I’d made for him. Around noon, I walked down toward St. Lawrence Market. The Hot House café had a chicken-and-sage cannelloni special written on their blackboard outside that sounded good and I decided to go in.

“For one,” I said to the hostess.

I felt removed from everyday life around me as I said it. She brought me to a table by the window looking onto Front Street. Everybody outside was walking by deliberately, on their way somewhere important. The restaurant was filled with groups of co-workers. Many still had their work badges clipped on. I felt a pang of guilt, as though there should be a sign outside, beside the pasta special that said, “For contributing members of society only.” But then the waiter suggested a glass of Jackson-Triggs to go with the pasta special. It was the first time I had a glass of wine alone in a restaurant. Ever.

I felt French. I felt free. I felt alive.

I was happier and more energized than I’d been in a long time. As I sat in the restaurant, I reflected on my last lesson on “wanting” and “needing”. I realized that, unlike what I had taught my students, sometimes there is absolutely no difference between what you want and what you need.

I saw Mei Peng a few months after that leisurely afternoon. She was working at Harvey’s, putting the garnish on hamburgers. She was happy to see me. She called her co-workers out from the kitchen. The manager shook my hand and said that my combo was free as a way to say thank you for teaching Mei Peng English. It was nice to be acknowledged for the effect that I had had on Mei Peng’s life. It was also great to see her working and improving her English.

Perhaps seeing Mei Peng move forward and grow had inspired me to do the same; not long after, I started reading, writing, and taking courses.

A year later, I finally went back to teaching, while at the same time pursuing my literary interests. And every so often, in the middle of the afternoon, I indulge in a leisurely glass of wine at a table for one and watch the world go by.

For these are all the things I need and want to do.

Published by The Globe and Mail
May 16, 2006