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    How I learned English Fast - an Alumni Poem!

    Biljana D. Obradović (November 24, 2001, New Orleans)

    How I Learned English Fast


    “till distance grows in my head

    like an antique armada

    dangled motionless from the horizon”

    --from Amiri Baraka’s “Ostriches & Grandmothers”


    One of the first words I learned

    was “armada” in Mrs. Gregoriadis’

    class at Pinewood, the American school

    on Panorama, the hill above

    Thessaloniki. You know the city which

    St. Paul visited in Macedonia (see

    Thessalonians in the Bible). I had to use it in a

    sentence which would explain its meaning,

    but since it’s used so rarely it wasn’t

    even in my standard 10,000 words

    English—Serbo-Croatian Dictionary. I don’t know

    how I completed the assignment,

    but I know I didn’t do too well.

    And I cried in front of the whole

    fifth grade class, in front of all

    Those American and Greek-American

    kids who figured out my initials

    could stand for body odour

    or backwards OB tampons—when

    we were yet too young to even know

    what those were used for, or

    when they called me “daddy

    long legs” as I was the tallest in

    the class. In the same class

    one day we were asked the usual

    question, “What do you want to become

    when you grow up?” and the only

    word I knew was the same in

    English as in my language, “Doctor,”

    so I stood up when called upon

    and replied as I cried again, “Doctor!” but

    couldn’t explain that I hate seeing blood,

    that my arm becomes all blue and

    bruised when I have my blood

    drawn out, and that I almost faint—

    becoming a doctor was the last

    thing on my mind. Maybe a ballerina or an architect?


    Today, thirty years later I

    realize that I’m still a little

    traumatized by how fast I had

    to learn English to speak my mind.

    I am a Doctor, not the blood

    kind, but a Doctor of Philosophy

    in English. I know what

    OB tampons are used for and use them once

    a month, and every day I use fragrant

    deodorants lest someone think

    of calling me BO again.

    Unfortunately, I’ve also learned that

    “armada” isn’t a word that just refers

    to the historic Spanish Armada, but

    that it was used against the Iraqis,

    then against the Serbs to dismember my country,

    to bomb it into submission—not from

    ships, but with planes from ships, or from land

    bases. Not one American or NATO soldier

    died, and  the NATO armada won.

    We lost our Kosovo, a whole province,

    I—a mother and father, a home to go back to.


    Why did I learn these words

    of hatred, these English words that pain me?

    I’m tired of defending myself—

    I’m tired of being multinational,

    international, multicultural...

    and please don’t be polite, and tell me

    how pretty my name is,

    when you’ve never heard it before,

    and if I could learn this language

    try to, at least pronounce it correctly.

    Your assignment for tomorrow

    is to find the meaning of five Serbian words

    then use them in sentences explaining

    their meanings. You will be called on.

    The words are: mržnja (hatred), ljubav (love),

    prijateljstvo (friendship) , rat (war),

    and izgubljeno detinjstvo (lost childhood).

    Remember that “my own

    dead souls, my so called

    people, [Serbia]

    is a foreign place. [I am]

    as any other sad [woman] here

    american (Baraka, “Notes for a Speech”).