TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER
BY DAVE MANGENE
THE NUNS IN VUGHT
… As a teacher, my modus operandi was relatively straightforward. When the student first arrived at my little room for the lesson, we’d introduce ourselves, shake hands, sit down, and get to talking. I was teaching lessons in the afternoon so, by the time a student made it to my room, they’d already been told about me. Most likely they’d been told, by one of the British teachers in the morning, that I was American. Usually, the conversation started like this:
“Well it’s nice to meet you Wim” I said.
“Uhm, yes. Nice to meet you too.” Wim answered. “You don’t talk like de other teachers” Wim countered.
“What do you mean Wim?” I asked, knowing full well.
“You are American. They are British” he said, proud he’d spotted the difference.
“Yes. Yes, I am. Have you ever been to America?” I asked.
My first move in the game. It seems an innocuous question, but there is plenty to learn from the response. The most common response to this question?
“Yes” he’d say, “I have been to America. To New York!”
The Big Apple. If I had a nickel for every Dutch person that had been to New York…
The counter-productive response to his answer would be for me to say, “but New York isn’t really America…” Never mind that it might be true. The point is to keep the conversation going and telling a student that New York wasn’t exactly the Blue Ridge Mountains would only discourage them. In short, it would shut them up and that is exactly what I didn’t want.
“New York City, the city that never sleeps” I answered, happy for him.
His trip to NYC meant a few things. First, and perhaps most importantly, he wasn’t anti-American. He was open to the culture. Second, he’d been influenced by popular culture. He’d seen movies, he’d watched television, he’d listened to music and he wanted to see the great New York. Third, his visit to Manhattan didn’t instruct him too thoroughly about American culture because he’d been to the bluest of blue states and felt nothing of the red state narrative. He was in the bubble.
But the bubble didn’t matter much. He’d been to New York and that gave me some mileage. Mileage, among us conversation teachers, was slang for “conversational material”. Knowing that we’d be spending five hours with each student, we needed stuff to talk about so we were always on the lookout for mileage. With enough mileage, those five hours of conversation lessons would cruise by. Easy money. On those desperate occasions where students didn’t provide much mileage, five hours was longer than two lifetimes.
With the “New York” people, I’d go straight to the tourist mileage. Had they been to the Statue of Liberty? Had they been to the Empire State Building? Ground Zero? The whole issue of 9/11, although a politically loaded topic, was guaranteed for at least 15 minutes of mileage. Fifteen minutes might not seem like a lot of time to you, but it was a good chunk of any conversation lesson, and worthy of some genuine mileage. With a particularly curious student, 9/11 could even get an entire lesson’s worth of mileage which was always the best result. To keep my student talking for an entire hour, on one subject – that was the holy grail.
During lessons, I wrote the student’s mistakes down. I did it without interrupting them, simply writing their exact words in quotes, while never losing eye contact. Over time I got very proficient at writing legible words without looking at the paper. Students would even get used to me writing down their mistakes, the act of me picking up my pen being a signal that said “a mistake was just made”. With the best students, me reaching for my pen was all they needed; as soon as I did it, they corrected themselves. Just like that.
At the end of the lesson, I had to write down what we’d done on the student’s “white card”. The card was a mini-folder that we used as a record of the lessons. It was a way for each teacher to report to the other teachers what had been done during the lesson. If I spent an hour talking about New York for example, I’d write: “great conversation about New York, 9/11, terrorism. Student making good progress!” It wasn’t rocket science, and it was perhaps a bit superficial, but it did the trick. My fellow teachers knew what was going on, and the student got a wee bit of encouragement.
If “mileage” was the precious commodity I sought as a conversation teacher, “pulling teeth” or “being a dentist” was the third ring of Dante’s Inferno. Put bluntly, pulling teeth meant a student would not, or could not, talk. The pressure of speaking English, the presence of an “authority” figure, a cramped room – it sometimes added up to a student who froze in fear. First and foremost, I felt for these students. They did not have an easy time of it. They would break out in what comedians eloquently refer to as “flop sweat” – meaning they were failing at the task and it was making them sweat. I never cursed these folks. It was my job as a teacher to encourage them to talk, and I had zero interest in shaming them into talking. That approach wouldn’t have worked anyway. If a guy’s brain shut down due to the pressure, no amount of force would do any good. So, I didn’t think lesser of them.
But it was still tricky situation. A “pulling teeth” situation sounded like this…