Suzanne Walker

“And do you…do you make any sports?” my student asked.

“Do I do any sports?” I repeated, encouraging him to mimic the correction before I answered. “I enjoy running, climbing and riding motorcycles. And you?”

“I play football―I mean, soccer―and I am swimming often,” he replied.

I nodded, and glanced around the small meeting room where our English lesson was being held. Each of my students had spoken; we were ready to move on. Before we could begin, though, Miroslav spoke up again.

Normally, this shy student did not ask independent questions; instead he sat quietly, waiting to receive a specific prompt to speak. Now he leaned forward, not even looking at the other students (in front of whom he was usually so shy) and asked “Where are you riding motorcycles?”

“Well, I―I haven’t ridden for almost a year now that I have been living in Prague,” I answered, a little surprised. “But I used to ride in Utah. In the desert.”

My other three students edged closer to the table as well. It seemed that the topic of desert dirt-biking held more appeal than our planned review of the usage of present perfect versus the past simple. I glanced at my watch, and conceded that another few minutes of discussion wouldn’t hurt.

I ought to have thanked Miroslav for making my planning easier. Our short talk about dirt-biking in the desert became the next lesson’s topic. I asked my students to describe their favorite place―be it somewhere they had visited only once, or every weekend.

One student described the family chata, or cabin, in the Czech countryside: the weekend gatherings, meat grilled over a fire, mounds of potatoes, and glasses of homemade plum liquor. Another told of a vacation to Croatia.

“The first time I see ocean,” he explained, holding up a photo of his sunburnt self in swim trunks. “I’m amaze! Amazing!”

At last it was my turn.

“We talked about my favorite place last week,” I said.

“The desert, in Utah, yes?” Pavla asked.

She pronounced ‘Utah’ as I had heard most Czechs do, the ‘h’ becoming a breathy ‘ch.’

I smiled, and nodded. “Have any of you ever visited Utah, or a desert like it?”

My students shook their heads. A trip to the Adriatic coast was much more popular and more feasible for someone from central Europe.

“Well, we are going to plan a trip,” I said as I passed around trail maps, visitor center pamphlets and newspaper ads for restaurants and activities.

On my computer screen, I played a slideshow of my photos of the Moab area.

“Now! We have five days in Moab. Where are we going? What are we doing?”

On paper, my lesson plan fulfilled the requirements for an intermediate English-language lesson: students were provided with the task of planning a trip. To do so, they needed to use modal verbs such as “We should go to Arches,” and conditional statements like “If it’s hot tomorrow, we’ll go to Mill Creek to swim”.

Yet I must admit that the lesson was not planned only for my students to practice grammar. After months in the Czech Republic, amidst gentle gardens and thick, leafy trees, I desperately missed the desert. I missed it’s severity, and intensity; I missed the sharp sky and dry air. In Prague, sunshine seemed to seep down to the dirt―completely unlike the blunt heat in Moab.

When the opportunity arose to talk with others about what I missed, I pounced. I did feel a little silly assuaging my own homesickness in class, but the students were still learning, right? Of course, I told myself, all practice is good practice.

Then after the lesson, I received an e-mail from one of my students.

He asked me to send him information about Moab. He was going to a conference in Colorado, and was very eager to travel to the desert, too.

I leaned back in my chair and sat smiling at my computer screen. My student―a middle-aged engineer from the Czech Republic―was now curious about Moab. He now wanted to see it for himself!

I had thought my ‘Moab lesson’ was for myself, but now I saw that I had just been returning a favor: my friends and students in the Czech Republic had introduced me to entirely new places and experiences. Now, in my own small way, I had done the same.

“I’d be happy to send you more information,” I wrote. “But you must promise to send me a postcard!”