We sat with our desks in a circle, practicing the vocabulary from the reading assignment, which included the phrase “afraid of.” My students were experiencing “of” in this context for the first time, and it puzzled them. In its simplest construct, “of” denotes belonging or possession. This “afraid of”—where “of” functions as an application of a verb or noun—is weird and complicated. But they all know the word “fear.”

So we talk about our fears. “I fear snakes,” I say. “They have fangs, they are strong, they move quickly, some are poisonous, and others are very big.” To drive the point home, I add, “I am afraid of snakes.” Then I open the discussion. “José, what are some things that you fear? What are you afraid of?”

José* earnestly declares he is afraid of the dark, and later I wonder what has happened in his life to resurrect a phobia most often associated with childhood or very extreme trauma. He is the hundredth student I’ve wanted to ask, “How did you get here?” Not necessarily here to this class or this country. Really, I just want to stop and ask for his whole story.

Karina* is afraid of dogs, and also mice. Her husband Ivan*, a big Russian man, grins slyly at me, and says, “When I live in Bolivia, I own anaconda.”

“You mean like the movie? Or a snake?”

“The snake. He was small.”

“How big is a small anaconda?”

Ivan spreads his hands like a fisherman telling a one-that-got-away story. “Not too big,” he says. “Maybe 5 meters.”

“Five FEET? Or five METERS?”

Ivan insists his snake was 15 feet long, and I play up my actual horror as we launch into an impromptu lesson on comparatives. Humor can be hard to come by in ESL class. It can be a cultural thing, or sometimes (especially at the lower levels) students are working so hard just to understand, that a play on words is lost. So they relish the moment to laugh at this silly classroom aid who is afraid of snakes.

We move on, and I ask Binh*, a very slight Vietnamese man in his sixties, about his fears. Binh doesn’t like to speak in class. His accent his difficult to understand, with clipped-short syllables, and muddled consonants. But his handwriting is impeccable, and as the two elder-statesmen of the class, he and José have struck up a friendship. But Ivan isn’t done being funny. As Binh hesitates over his answer, Ivan pokes him and says, “Probably big women, eh?”

Binh looks sour. The rest of us explode with laughter.


*Names changed to protect privacy.