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For Beginners


I went to London to spend the summer teaching-assisting at a summer program for students from around the world. I chose to believe the program was in the city of London long after it became obvious, in mailed materials, that I would be in a small village. Just how small became clear only on my ride from the airport – the town has only a bar and a combination post office/newsstand. I would sometimes wake up early to buy the Guardian at the newsstand, or go in the middle of the day to get an ice cream bar. It closed in the evening, and then I had to go to the bar.       

I always wanted to join the Scrabble games in the faculty room, but no matter how early I arrived, I was always ten minutes after the start. When I finally arrived at a Scrabble game on time, I found that a hierarchy had been established: certain players were not actually playing but floated around, giving advice on optimal moves, and others sat on the sidelines heckling. I thought I was pretty okay at word games but this felt more like psychological warfare, and I resolved to stay out of the faculty room altogether.       

I only grew more sure of this resolution later, once a co-worker, wife of the chief Scrabble heckler, told me to stop typing so loudly, then said, “Now you’re just typing quietly to piss me off! Go back to normal!” This laserlike focus on other people’s behavior was what united the faculty: stuck in a small village in a strange land, we only had one another’s quirks keeping us tethered to reality.       

I certainly had enough to keep me occupied, having been placed in the classroom of an English-as-a-second-language teacher for whom English was a particularly difficult second language. I tried to parse out for the students assignments that even to me seemed mind-bending and Kaufmanesque, requiring in most instances a keen grasp of the absurd. Once the students had to imagine themselves as babies and think of questions about nature – why one needed to be a baby to ask questions about nature was left unstated. On faster-paced days, whimsy was abandoned in favor of the ability to write one requested set of data with the left hand and another with the right.       

My head teacher told me, in a discussion that fell just short of an argument, that she didn’t think the students in our class were teachable. "They are all naughty!" she declared, with the conviction, and the thick accent, of a woman whose nation’s 20th century had seen plenty of congenital naughtiness. "They cannot be taught." Maybe she was right, in a way; the class was boisterous and clearly didn’t want to be learning English during their summer off from school. They all seemed too young, munching Maltesers in too-big Lacoste their mom (or maid) was still needed to iron; or they seemed too old, rolling their eyes when I asked if they understood the assignment, if they understood generic distinction. Did you hear what the teacher said? Dynasty is a soap opera. That’s a genre.  

This was ESL for beginners. I sat by a ten-year-old Scandinavian with grim Bergmanesque eyes until, after a few days of continuous attention (he was by far the youngest student at the entire program, and actually quite good at English, and I felt an unfamiliar paternalism that I guess teachers are supposed to feel often) he brightened, and out of nowhere told me a Swedish word. I was pleasantly surprised, when I looked it up, that he hadn’t tricked me into repeating a foreign obscenity: “ananas” really means “pineapple.”     

Eventually, in the way such things happen when one is a TA, I was switched into a new and far less eventful classroom. My post-Communist teacher surreptitiously looked over my shoulder as I checked e-mail and discovered that I had been, per routine, asked to submit an evaluation of the class to the academic offices; she called me a spy, told me I’d violated her contract, and asked if I was even qualified to judge her. "I am a certified economist, translator, and teacher. Who are you?" I saw her around a bit on campus after I’d been moved out of her class – she cut a line of students at Stonehenge to get an audio guide – but I didn’t talk to her. The Scandinavian boy asked me to play soccer with him during sports time, but I was wearing Birkenstocks, and had brought a book, and so I sat on the side supervising.

I find I tend to remember the egregious and absurd and thus there was little to report from my next class, in which I sat and watched and participated and learned a lot, I thought, about teaching. A colleague lent me a text called Learning Teaching but I was never quite in the mood to learn by the book once I got back to my dorm room, so it languished on the shelf next to a Spanish textbook I had brought but never opened. (I managed to break out some high school Spanish with the Venezuelan students, though – “Eres de Caracas?” was my opener, and closer.)

The dormitory was so inconducive to reading, or writing, or anything other than watching reruns on Megavideo, perhaps because it too was a workplace. I could not bring myself to devote attention to anything there. I was always on guard – it was my workplace. When not required to be there, I tried to get out and spend time with the younger faculty members – this was what I was supposed to be doing! I went to a nearby town with a few fellow TAs, and we sat by the river on a sunny day, had some drinks, and watched the white swans float by. A swan suddenly sliced open, a red line gashing across its feathers. I looked on in confusion until I heard my co-worker, a twenty-year-old graduate of the school, giggling. She was pouring her bottle of red wine onto the swan. Other sunbathers told her that the swans were the property of the Queen, or just glared at her, but she shrugged it off. “Wine washes off!” she laughed, as the swan, who knew something was wrong, tried to dip its stained backside deeper into the water. I finished my drinks quickly, and spent most of my subsequent free time alone. 

Students got the most excited about weekend field trips, which the faculty seemed to view as an imposition. ("I wish Stonehenge had moved me," said the co-worker who’d lent me Learning Teaching, who spent the trip asking if any of the souvenir shops sold "Stonehenge commemorative cigarettes.") The students could do as they liked, and they were far more worldly than I was at 15, at debate camp in Washington, when I couldn’t make it too deep into Georgetown without freaking out and asking a local for directions, then deciding to go back to my room and study old Supreme Court cases.      

They were maybe more worldly than I was now: on a trip to the town of Windsor, I tried to find Eton College and ended up walking twenty minutes through empty, flat green fields, the pastoral equivalent of the Sahara. I asked a young guy walking back towards Windsor where I was, and I’d been going twenty minutes the wrong way. We walked back together, talking about what I was doing in England and what he was doing in Windsor – he was a very personable young guy, about to go to school for business – and then he sent me off on something called “The Great Walk,” five miles of pasture ending in a bronze sculpture of a horse. “It’ll be totally worth your time.” I made it five minutes, then sat down and read an Adrian Mole novel I'd borrowed from the students' library.       

The greenery of the “Great Walk” – not an American park with overdeveloped flora, just a long green field with some trees in there – was a nice palate-cleanser from both the stresses of teaching and the world of the city. There was no shopping here – the students, when I ran into them, seemed ill-at-ease. I didn’t bother trying to sympathize.       

On an earlier trip into London, I’d gone into Harrods with a coworker my age, who said he just wanted to buy a Swatch watch. During his education in the new Gilded Age’s afterglow, I looked at coffee mugs in the Harrods gift shop. I’d been drinking a lot of tea, and this china cup with red buses – or this one, with black taxis! – would be adorable in my apartment, when I got home, when reality began again. I decided not, though. It’d just break in my suitcase, and I hadn't seen enough red buses or black taxis to feel legitimate sipping coffee – and soon it would be coffee again – from this mug. Mainly, though, it was the price. At thirteen pounds for a mug, I simply wasn’t being paid enough, when you divided it out hourly, to justify the expense.

Daniel D'Addario is a contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in White Plains. This is his first appearance in these pages. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find more of his work here.

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Reader Comments (4)

I hope you enjoyed your trip to Brighton. xxoo

August 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSam

I worked in a school in Kent for a year. I discovered there was a pear orchard at the bottom of the hill the school stood on and I used to go down to steal unripe pears which would rot in my room then get thrown out. Then I realised the orchard was right next to a motorway and the fruit was probably poisoned.

This reminded me of that year. In a good way.

August 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterZoe

Really enjoyed this post, hope you write more!

August 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

I remember driving through this area of England with my family. Particularly loved the snow flurries in April and the hot and savory rabbit pie at a local pub. Loved the piece!

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

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