TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER
BY DAVE MANGENE
CELEBRITIES AND DIGNITARIES, PART 1
Fame is a strange commodity. Given your particular view of the world, famous people may float your boat, or leave you cold. Whatever your proclivities, there is no doubt that celebrity sells. That said, as a consequence of having taught some very famous Dutch people during my time at the school, I’m about to drop some very famous Dutch names. If you’re Dutch, you may find my stories about your homegrown celebrities a fun thing to read. If you’re not Dutch you’ll have absolutely no idea who I’m talking about. Should that be the case I say this: either skip this section about my life as a professional foreigner teaching famous Dutch people, or read it as an instructional tale about the ways and whims of people privileged enough to be “celebrated”. It’s up to you, dear reader.
However you might feel about fame, this much remains true: what’s big in Japan might not even register in Brazil. Fame has boundaries. Sure, some stars are bright enough to shine across the universe, but it doesn’t happen very often. Trump. Obama. Oprah. Tiger. Messi. Ronaldo. Everybody knows them. But there are countless levels below that brightness which still bestow their owners with influence, power, and prestige.
And so it is in the Holland. The Dutch have an expression, “world famous in Holland”. The point being, one can become a household name in the Netherlands, but travel just a few hours in any direction, towards Belgium or Germany, and that fame melts away like an ice cream cone in the desert. The Dutch use the expression “world famous in Holland” as an attempt to convey to Dutch celebrities that, should they get too big for their britches, reality will slap them back down. The Dutch, reserved though they may be, are not immune to fame but their celebrities understand that anonymity is just a Sunday drive away.
All this being said, our language school attracted the most famous people in Dutch entertainment, business, and politics. Our school didn’t have an explicit strategy for attracting celebrities and dignitaries, but it happened anyway. We got the best and brightest, week in and week out.
After several months of teaching, my boss seemed to think that I’d be a good guy to teach the famous people. I think it was a combination of circumstances: I was the youngest teacher, at 24. I was American. I was into music. I made no secret of my fondness for partying. I had to admit that I liked the idea even though I didn’t know any of the famous people involved. Teaching the celebrities was considered a glamourous assignment at our school so I, and a few other teachers, took it as a compliment that we were given the opportunity.
As fate would have it, being ignorant of a particular famous person’s fame is the best to place to start when preparing to teach them. Because I didn’t know who they were, it most often invited them to let their guard down. I wasn’t pretending not to know them either – I simply hadn’t been in the country long enough to become aware of their talents. And this was pre-internet so I couldn’t just google the famous person and binge watch their work on YouTube. I obviously asked around to find out more but that’s not near as exciting as knowing the person or their work before meeting them.
The first famous Dutch person I taught was a television presentor, creator, and producer named Bart de Graaff. Bart had become a household name in the Netherlands for a combination of reasons. As a young boy he’d been involved in a serious car accident which caused him to suffer from serious renal failure for all of his life. As a result, he developed a growth disorder which basically meant that his body remained the size of a twelve year old, while his emotional maturity continued to evolve. Interestingly, Bart used his unique physical situation to create highly watchable television. Put another way, his boyish appearance allowed him to get away with asking interview subjects fiercely blunt questions. People never saw it coming and, before they knew it, they were answering his loaded questions.
I saw Bart’s special disarming technique the first day that I was scheduled to teach him. Our lesson was planned for 1:30 pm, right after lunch. In the recreation room, where students drank coffee and unwound between lessons, there was a ping-pong table. The table was hugely popular among students and teachers which made it hard to get a turn to play. Everybody, it seemed, wanted to play. I arrived early for work that first day with Bart and headed to the rec room. I walked in to find Bart negotiating his way into a game by using his diminutive size. Two guys were in the middle of a heated battle, but Bart wanted to play too and kept pestering the men to give him a chance. Fearless as ever, Bart blurted out to the bigger of the two men, “hey – how about we do this? If you can beat me at one point, I’ll wait my turn. But if I beat you, I get the table.”
The man took the bait. Given Bart’s celebrity status and his loud mouth, a crowd had started to develop. It seemed that every other student waiting around for class had now taken notice of the little guy at the ping-pong table.
Bart grabbed a paddle and positioned himself at the far end of the table. The big man, who’d been playing, and winning, for a long while, chuckled to himself when he saw that Bart barely seemed tall enough to be able to see the ball coming. Bart was tiny.
The man sliced a backhand serve across the net. Bart timed his return perfectly and smashed a crosscourt forehand back over the net, the ball zipping past the man and slapping into the wall behind the table.
Point for Bart! The man gladly shook his hand and surrendered the table. Bart never looked back. He held court at that table every lunch time for the entire two weeks of his English course. As his teacher, I was honored to play a game with him after every one of our lessons. He was an excellent player. But I held my own and beat him a few times. No matter who won, we drew a crowd every time and the more people came to watch the better Bart played.
A striking thing I noticed about Bart during our lessons was that he never sat down. His body was the perfect size to just stand and reach on the table to write and read his books, similar to the way my son Timo, who is eleven, would do. He wasn’t self-conscious about it either. He just stood there and that was fine with him. Fine with me too.
Once we got into the basics of English grammar and vocabulary, I noticed that Bart possessed a blazing intelligence. The man was smart and he picked up on new concepts very quickly. When he didn’t understand things, he asked immediately and wouldn’t move on until he truly understood the answer. Some students would pretend they understood in the hopes that I would just continue and not challenge them too much. I admit there were times when I did that very thing in order to keep the ball rolling which, as a teacher, is not the best thing to do. But it happens. Bart was having none of that. He would ask and ask and ask until I made it clear enough for him to get it. It was a trait I began to recognize in other celebrities that came to our school.