English for Foreigners

From I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well. Published by Biblioasis in 2017.

The classrooms were above an optician, by a seedy restaurant, overlooking a large, bare cathedral. When I started, at the beginning of May, the season had not begun. I had eight pupils, the intermediates. If anyone could carry on a few sentences in broken English he left the beginners—which was crowded—and stayed in the intermediates until there was room for him in the senior class. Each class consisted of a small room with tables pushed together in the shape of a horseshoe. I sat behind a desk, at the open end of the horseshoe, by a portable blackboard. The windows had to be closed because of the traffic noise. On a warm or a rainy day, the room was stifling.

On the first day I wondered whether my Canadian accent would matter. “Ladies and gentlemen. I’m your new teacher. I’m a Canadian. And the kind of English I speak is not the kind that Englishmen speak. So if you have any trouble understanding what I say—” But I was interrupted by an Italian girl who beamed and said how clear my diction was. And they all said they understood me and complimented me on how clearly I spoke. I was getting to feel quite good. But I found out, on the second day, that the Englishman I replaced had a speech impediment. He left without saying goodbye. That was one of the occupational hazards. One was hired without references and left the same way.

Teaching consisted mainly in giving them new words, correcting their pronunciation, dictating to them small pieces of anything I happened to see while looking out of the window. And reading excerpts from Conrad. Or else we played games. I would borrow one of their watches with a sweep secondhand and say: “Miss Laroque. You are walking in Brighton from the Steine to the West Pier. Tell me, in one minute, all the words beginning with the letter “M” that you would see. Now.”

“Mouse . . . Mutton . . . Murder . . . Mister . . . Missus . . . Miss . . .”

“Sir. That’s not fair.”

“Six, Miss Laroque,” I said. “Twentyfive seconds to go.”

“Mimosa . . . Macaroni . . . Man . . .”

They were mainly young girls. Some were there for business reasons: to be a receptionist in their father’s hotel; another was going to be an air-hostess; another to work in an export office. But the majority were there for a holiday.

I had been there three weeks when Mrs. Siemens came in. The age of the students didn’t vary a great deal; they were in their teens or early twenties. But Mrs. Siemens, a handsome-looking woman, with grey hair combed neatly back in a bun, and very light-blue eyes, was in her seventies. The immediate reaction to her presence was to subdue everyone. And we got a lot more done. She sat halfway up the left of the horseshoe, listening to what I was saying. Sometimes she took out a handkerchief and wiped her eyes. I took it that she had some allergy. When it was her turn to read, she read softly and very slow, and apologized at the end for not doing better.

At eleven we had a ten-minute break. The teachers would go into the office and have coffee. The students would either go to a small cafe nearby or stay in the room, open the windows, lean out, and smoke. One morning I came back early and a new student, a Mexican, offered me a cigarette.

“Sir. You like Turkish?”

I said I did.

Two weeks later, on a Friday, Mrs. Siemens came up to me.

“Thank you very much,” she said graciously. “This morning was my last lesson. I enjoyed myself very much. I have a small present for you.”

We shook hands. And I went down the stairs holding my books and this package carefully wrapped in white paper with a neat red ribbon.

In the office I unwrapped it. It was a large package of Turkish cigarettes. I was deeply touched. None of the others had bothered to say more than “goodbye.” Perhaps, I thought, it’s just old age that feels it has to pay for even the briefest encounter.

I asked the secretary in the office about Mrs. Siemens. She said that Mrs. Siemens was a widow. That she was part of the Siemens, in Germany. They were extremely wealthy. Her son had died and the doctors advised her to get away and do something to take her mind off things.

And as the secretary was talking I remembered that the words I introduced to the class during her stay—the passages I chose to read or dictate— for some reason kept harping on some aspect of death: on cemeteries, gravestones, funerals, coffins.

But this was Friday and there was little food in the house and I knew that I would have to walk back the three miles. If I had breakfast that morning, I didn’t mind the walk. After Preston Circus it was very pleasant. There were the small gardens, each one with the name of an English city and with a single stalk of corn growing incongruously in their middles.

I went into a large tobacconist and told the girl behind the counter that I had bought this package of Turkish cigarettes for a friend as a gift, and I found out that he doesn’t smoke. The girl examined the box closely. Finally gave me fourteen shillings.

I went out and bought half a dozen eggs, a tin of luncheon meat, a loaf of bread, some sugar, tea, cheese, a newspaper, and took the bus back.

But that afternoon—though I watched my wife and children eat—I felt I had betrayed something.

No items found.



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