First published on The Open End (May 13th 2011) //
Now. I teach English as a foreign language. I teach it mostly to people who have jobs, or are looking for jobs. Most of them have jobs. I ask them Why they want to learn English and they don’t much pause to consider it. They give me the same answer: to improve themselves, or to communicate with clients and customers. That seems fine.
It is only when we really get into it that more is revealed. They tell me they need to speak on the telephone and they tell me they want to learn how to Small Talk. Outside of the classroom environment, one so cleverly and manipulatively set-up, this would be an odd request. But, if I understand them correctly, they want to learn a language primarily so they can speak to already-frustrated people about frustrating things that are comforting. It is a part of business, to them. That is also fine. I cannot change this.
They speak at me telling me how important it is. They have to be able to speak English so they can shoot the breeze, to make themselves feel more comfortable in an otherwise uncomfortable or unnatural situation. To be able to say that the weather is bad today but it was better last week and that it might get better tomorrow, or next week. And to express that they hope it improves in the coming hours, days, and so on. Either that or they want to be able to say: the journey was fine. Or that the journey wasn’t fine but if the weather was different, their journey would have been better, or worse, depending on the day. It goes on much like this.
Now that I live in another country, a country different to yours, a country where I do not speak the native language so well, I’m afforded certain comforts otherwise not amenable in a land where I have no other excuse than to speak, merely because I can. So I’m allowed to sit twiddling my thumbs and skip most conversation, to either appear as if I’m listening (which I sometimes am) or to be able to go and do something else in peace, without having to comment on the weather or on the journey (depending on the day). And this choice is mine. Which is fine. Because most conversation rarely gets past the stage of: Yes, the weather is nice. Or no, the weather is terrible. Last time, do you remember that? Yes last time it was better. You remember? So do I. I told you, it goes on much like this.
But of course, ‘Small Talk’ is a universal phenomenon and requires no lengthy, inane diatribe (such as this is turning out) to understand the obvious; that everyone feels as if it is something that needs to be done, at least to benefit as an opener before delving into deeper, grittier things of equal irrelevance. Otherwise you are one of those socially inept pavement-gazers in which everything must be a long, drawn-out debate based on tedious opinion. Using too many adverbs to illustrate them.
So I can sit silently, which suits me, because I have long since realised: I do not have much to say. Particularly when the weather is neither good nor bad, but average. Even uttering the obvious is a stretch, as you have probably already noticed.
But when I talk to the students they are eager to learn about these things. These Small Talk things they are so fascinated with. We discuss what is good conversation for Small Talk and what is bad. Everyone has a slightly different opinion but all mostly conform to the idea that Weather, Sport, the Journey and Plans for the Weekend are fair game. This is good for me because these are all in the manual. So then, Yes, I say to them, that is correct.
They also agree on the boundaries of acceptable Small Talk, all of which ensure real conversation doesn’t happen, can never occur, or at least mean that any breach of these rules will be met with appropriate social discomfort or even suspicion, perhaps even avoidance socially or otherwise. I make sure to explore these avenues in later lessons.
But none of this makes them bad people. Of course not. They have their business and English Small Talk is a facilitator of that, in some way. But I teach them these things and as my principles run away (as they do in every job) I realise that what I do (teaching them Small Talk) is sustaining me, while also (as in every job) killing me. So I go to them, I go to them and teach them module after module of Business English, such as how to behave in a meeting, or how to give a presentation on this year’s projected rate of growth, or how to suggest a place to go and eat after these meetings and presentations, where Sport, Weather, the Journey and the Weekend will be discussed in fine detail, and in perfect English. All as if there was nothing else to say.
And for some reason, even while maintaining this distance, when going to this job I have to keep (to pay for rent and food, you remember), I get an almost uncontrollable panic, heart burn like anxiety, in the preceding hours before the shame recommences. It is a feeling of dread, regret, often felt. But it diminishes each time I go. I have tried to understand it, for a few years anyway, but the reason evades me. Perhaps it’s because every student may think me ridiculous, because I myself feel ridiculous, walking into the new room for the first time not knowing what to say, how to introduce myself, having never become sufficiently adept at saying my own name. It is usually something mumbled. I have thought about writing it on the board, preceded by “Mr.” but I don’t think they would get it.
I stand there in my minor position, a backpack under the table filled with a notepad (with notes and other marginalia), a teaching manual (which I abhor but abide), a grammar textbook (that sits inside the bag waiting with dubious wisdom and miniature nuggets of unhelpful explanation), and some pens.
I stand there for a moment and look at them. They look at me and I stand there looking back. The moment repeating itself in their heads and mine, all of us waiting for some pre-planned interaction.
I ask them to introduce themselves. It is easier that way. Sometimes they ask about me, but not every time, and I tell them my name and that is all. Maybe that I come from another country, but I don’t really tell them anything that they don’t already know and it can be uncomfortable but they don’t seem to feel it. They are pretty easy-going and good like that. I usually get down to the lesson as quickly as possible because the clock ticks quieter that way. I always wear my glasses because they disguise the bags under my eyes, and save them from the thought I look high or strung out. Both of which, I am not. But people have told me that others have said that about me. The spectacles also protect them from the realisation that I am both too young and therefore probably under-qualified, too much so, to be teaching such important things such as Small Talk. But the lesson goes on and they save their comments for a feedback form.
If it is a small group we talk gently and tentatively about our different jobs and our different families and our different bumble-bee opinions. Opinions which when spoken usually halt the discussion like an imagined full stop. This is because either the students are in agreement, or they are not in the mood to voice opposition because it will require too much vulnerability on their part.
If it is a private one-on-one lesson they tell me about their lives and sometimes go deeper into their problems, all in a language foreign to them and not at all like Small Talk in its content, but it feels the same, and I feel like a new kind of therapist.
Usually if the lesson gets off to a good start I try and make some jokes. They are often quite boorish and are always hit-and-miss. It does not help that I do not laugh after I say them, so they don’t know whether to laugh either. Sometimes they do and I wait. It is a strange kind of torture. It embarrasses both of us. But seeing them laugh makes me like them. And it makes the egg timer placed on all of us easier to ignore. This is when the pre-work panic begins to disappear. And we all feel a little less ridiculous.
We talk our way through the session and sometimes words are written on the board and then erased. Sometimes drawings are put up there. Of goats or of faces and other things that are amusing to see on a board.
Often I teach them things and they learn them, understand them. Other times they only pretend to and so do I. It is easier that way.
Most people in this country seem to read only crime novels or watch crime-related thrillers on television. I assume it is the same most places but each time a different student tells me about a crime novel they have just read I think it peculiar and save it to think about later.
Usually we do not have a break because I do not know what to do during them. Sometimes I go and smoke a cigarette in the fire escape, or sit on the toilet, or bite a sandwich. It is quite uneventful though the panic is still there. In the sandwich, in the toilet bowl, in the smoke. But I realise that things could be worse but it isn’t that which really cheers me, telling myself it isn’t self-pity but something much less grand. And realising that as I sit there, an unfinished game of Sudoku in my hand (I don’t much go for Sudoku), in years to come, this will be just another source of bafflement. I go back to the room with a fresh pitcher of water and think about offering them some coffee, though I know well they know where to find it.
They are still talking to each other and I understand snippets of conversation they speak in their native tongues but I act as if I don’t because we are not allowed to use their language. I wait for them to finish while idly playing with the pages of a book as I appear to read them, waiting for the gap before I look up and say something a teacher might say to get the classroom under control again.
I dislike the feeling of control immensely, as small as that control is, as they wait for my commands or instructions, directions which I am not naturally disposed to giving. I know it shouldn’t be this way but I sit there in my distant chair, marker in hand, waiting to go over some vocabulary concerning different types of rain or snow. I act as if I use these phrases all of the time and tell them these are very common phrases, because they need me to, and I make more stupid jokes that they are in no position of understanding. But like I said, they sometimes laugh anyway and that is the only satisfaction there is. Then we learn the first steps of talking, starting small. Because outside it is raining and tomorrow we will need some way to describe it.