Eight, going on thirty

15th December 2000 at 00:00
Eight-year-old Taulant, my next door neighbour, came to England from Albania a year ago. He'd never been to school at home as all the buildings had been destroyed in the war. But he's an old hand now and he takes his little sister too.

As a teacher of English as a second language, I start by teaching new students the words most relevant to their situations.

At school, Taulant no doubt learns the language of little boys - of sums, science, football andPokemon. At home, because he's learned English at school, he is the conduit between his family and the outside world. He has had to learn the language of grown-ups.

He translates when I explain official letters. He's had to learn the language of medical histories, diagnoses and medication, of documents needed by the benefits office and Home Office appointments.

He often struggles to translate letters on subjects he is too young to understand. He goes everywhere with his mother, straining between adult English and a child's Albanian. He's become more familiar than an eight-year-old should be with the details of his parents' illnesses.

One Thursday night recently Taulant rang my doorbell. It was 8.30pm and he was near hysterical. Could I please come, his mother was very ill. Next door, his father paced worriedly. His mother lay groaning and thrashing about on the couch. His little sister sat sucking her thumb.

I called an ambulance and when it came the men in uniform said they needed Taulant to go with them because he was the only one in his family who poke any English.

Sitting beside me, Taulant looked even younger than his eight years, rubbing his fists into his eyes. I had to reassure him his mother was in good hands, that his sister would be safe with me, that his father would stay with him. Then I urged him to go and do a job no eight-year-old should ever have to do, let alone at night in a strange country.

Taulant returned home at 3am on Friday. At 7.30am he collected his sister from me. By 8.30am he had her, and himself, ready for school. His father had gone off to deal with yet another of the bureaucratic tasks that dominate the lives of refugees. Small children must be escorted to school, so Taulant's sick mother had to lean on him while his sister held his other hand.

He looked shattered. When I offered to pay for a taxi, his pride glared back: "No. No money." He won't borrow what he can't return.

I hoped Taulant's teacher would understand what he'd been through these past three years, these past months, last night even.

He never cries when local kids tease him or adult neighbours shout at him. He only cries at the thought of being separated from his mother, because, in his experience, people who go away in ambulances don't come back. And he cries with his father at more news of the deaths of relatives at home.

Taulant the experienced communicator, the boy doing a man's job, would be lost for words if a teacher scolded him. But he would take his punishment "like a man". It is something he knows all about.

Shereen Pandit


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