My blog is falling by the wayside because I have become obsessed with teaching. If I am not doing it I’m planning it or thinking about it. I am clearly not very talented or I wouldn’t need to spend so much time on it all, but I am fascinated by trying to find the tricks and magic formulas which make things go well in the classroom. I have never had a job that absorbed me like this- it’s simultaneously exhausting and exciting.
Part of the excitement is just the onset of the school year after a long, slow summer. Part of it is that I did the extension to CELTA for teaching kids at the beginning of September, and now I have my own classes of 10-year olds to contend with, with their ever-shifting social alliances and wild enthusiasm for giving answers and their very involved parents. It’s a different universe to the classrooms I have inhabited until now, with their jaded accountants and teenagers who will do anything to fly under the radar.
For the first time I have to impose a system of rewards- initially I thought, with my almost 40 year old system of priorities, that nobody would do anything to get a star next to their name, but it turns out I was wrong. I try to remember being 10 myself and suddenly recall my desperate contortions at Friday aerobics, trying to get the free drink from the school canteen that was given to hard triers. It’s a trip back in time for me, and a foreshadowing of what is to come with my own children. The time is fast approaching when I will stop worrying about their eating and sleeping and start to worry about their social life and education, a far more complex set of problems.
I have been slacking on the blog front. For the whole of July I have been teaching 5 hours a day, and I am stretched in so many ways that I can hardly believe I am still standing at the end of the week. I spend all day (beginning at around 4:30 in the morning) in a ferment of lesson planning and teaching, and come home to the whirl of dinner-bathtime-bedtime. After which I fall into bed myself and the whole cycle begins again.
I’m happy and relieved to find the teaching exciting instead of terrifying. I have a class of 11 young Belarusians who amaze me and amuse me (“Rose, your tights remind me of a rabbit”) every day. Their neurons are also firing madly, so we are in it together. They do not realise the extent to which I am experimenting on them-I feel like I need to try out any new trick I can think of while I have such an energetic and responsive audience.
So much of this is new. For the first time I am developing warm and constructive relationships with my colleagues. For the first time I am farming out my children all week long, so that I hardly see them. Sometimes I hear their sleepy early morning jabbering building as I exit the flat in the morning- more often, everyone is still sleeping when I leave. I know that my parents (who have the kids 3 days a week and often do overtime on weekends) are stretched as well, and I barely see them either. I call in the afternoon to remind them I’ll be late and hear the sounds of their secret life together-we’re just in the kitchen having our nana, says my father, and then, he’s escaping too! We’ve got two Trobriand Islanders, and they’re not wearing their leg ropes!
I don’t plan to live like this on a permanent basis, though I know that many people do and somehow manage. But I don’t feel guilty either. For this month, I can wallow in work and see how it feels.
If I have made any resolution this year, this is it. It is made partly in the spirit of resignation-there are certain things I have no choice about- but it is also recognition of the fact that the things I have to do bring a measure of enjoyment which isn’t marred by the sense of obligation. It doesn’t prevent me from facing some days with the feeling that I am trudging off to my own execution, as I wonder where I will find the energy and enthusiasm to make it to nightfall.
There are two things which I consider to be my work. One is taking care of the kids, and the other is teaching. I have to confess that I am more inclined to find the childcare draining and the teaching energising. Maybe it’s a matter of the sheer number of hours I spend at each task, or maybe I am an attention junkie who needs to perform for others, and I don’t treat Maja and Janek seriously as an audience. Maybe it’s just exhausting to perform repetitive tasks all day- in particular, I am not a fan of cleaning high chairs.
Anyway, the point is that, though I often wake up with an internal groan, I generally feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. I don’t mean a I-am-clearly-raising–two-children-who-will-cure-cancer-and-teaching-all-the-Poles-perfect-English kind of way. More like an I’m- not- dead- and- haven’t– killed- anybody,- now let’s- sit- down- and -watch- Game- of- Thrones kind of way. It makes me realise that there is something to be said for compulsion- doing things which I don’t necessarily feel like doing makes me paradoxically content.
My classes with one of my students resemble weekly therapy. My heart sank when I heard the familiar refrain of conversation, no grammar; generally people who specify this have no idea what hard work it is to keep up a conversation for an hour with somebody who doesn’t know that the subject should precede the verb. I don’t like the pressure to think of something to tak about, and the nagging feeling that I should be teaching, and not just talking.
But it has worked out for us. We like each other. She makes me a coffee and we talk. She is an entrepreneurial soul who likes to travel, who has a rich social life, who is not afraid to take responsibility for keeping the conversational ball rolling.
She has teenage children, one of whom is a 17-year old boy who worries her immensely. He has no friends, she says, no plans. All he wants to do is sit in front of the computer. He has no passion, no talents. But mainly, she worries about the friends. She thinks that these years will set the social tenor of the rest of his life; that if he doesn’t learn now how to be with people, he never will. I feel the anxiety emanating from her in great waves. She is not an especially emotional type- a long, angular beauty with an unrepentant taste for cigarettes, she is wry rather than melodramatic. But this son of hers bothers her. We come back to him again and again, as she tries to come up with a solution: therapy? bribery? boot camp?, always ending with a confession of helplessness. Neither of us says it, but I feel she doesn’t like him very much.
I go back to my own uncomplicated babies with a feeling that is half relief and half awareness that it’s only a stay of execution. My concerns about them at this point are relatively simple, mainly centering on food and sleep and how to stop them falling on their heads too frequently. They’re so easy to love, and it occurs to me in the wake of these lessons that it might not always be the case.
I have started to teach a group of little girls, a prospect which initially filled me with dread but has now become one of the highlights of my week. They can’t speak much English and I have been given the class because I can give instructions in Polish but am still a native speaker, which their over- ambitious parents apparently insist on. What this means is that unlike adults, who are reticent about telling me when I make a mistake, they have no problem correcting my case endings or laughing hysterically when I accidentally use a male conjugation when I’m talking to one of them. They have no problem asking me how old I am or why I don’t have my husband’s surname, or telling me my fly is undone, in such a cryptic way that they have to repeat it 4 times before I get it- (Niech Pani zapina rozporek, bo dzisiaj nie wtorek!). I have often wondered at what point kids master the polite form of address and can now testify that by 9, they have it firmly under control.
But most fascinating for me is the glimpse into small-girl society, a land where I haven’t ventured for well over 20 years and which I didn’t find all that jolly when I was there. They are mad fountains of energy but also have confiding moments where they hug me, or show me their fake sideburns, rubber bangles, and dress- up books for dogs. They are obsessed with justice and when I write their names on the board at the beginning of the class (so that I can put marks against them when they’re bad) there is a chorus of complaints- why is my name first? why is mine last? why am I in the middle? Miss, it’s not fair!
This obsession also emerges in their games. One day in their break they decided to hold a trial for one of their number who had been complaining that she didn’t feel well (apparently she’s a well known malingerer). They set themselves up a little court and began interrogating her. At some point one of them halted proceedings and said “Wait, wait, she needs a lawyer to defend her.” I watched on with fascination and slight anxiety, wondering if I could consider myself a legitimate anthropological observer or if I had stumbled into “Lord of the Flies” and should call a recess.
Anyway, the whole experience has left me with a boundless admiration for their real teachers, who have to deal with 26 instead of 6 of them, as well as some new items of vocabulary. I also wonder how they actually ever learn anything, since their energies seem to be almost entirely absorbed by herd politics.
Being an English teacher and developing a sort of intimacy with the students means that I am sometimes privy to more information than I want or expect from them. The lesson on job satisfaction can cause an outpouring of frustration and resentment. The “Nearest and Dearest” lesson from the Cambridge Proficiency in English textbook prompted my 15-year old student to comment that she didn’t think she’d ever had a real friend. Conversation classes on gender roles encourage men to express their opinion that they wouldn’t like to have a female boss because women are bitches. And so forth.
A harmless query about pet ownership led somebody else to confess that well, she had had a cat once but since she has a penchant for closing all the open doors in the house before she goes to sleep, the cat ended up spending the night in the drier and suffocating.
But my favourite story so far concerns the crazy husband of the woman who killed the cat. I did nothing to invite this confidence and was actually even trying to persuade her to do some work, which wasn;t all that easy on a Friday night with the crazy husband and the 2 children hanging around. The children were saying “Fish!” and “Hello-how-are-you!” over and over again in English and the husband was lurking peaceably in the background, looking much more normal than he apparently is.
When hubby left to drive Grandma home, D. commented that her oldest daughter is similar to her husband, who tends to ‘worry about the future.’ I expected to be regaled with some banal list of concerns about pensions and poverty stricken retirement, but it turns out he has more serious things on his mind.
First of all, he is convinced that the Russians are coming. Also the Germans. And to complete the trifecta, he’s certain that the Wisła is going to bust its banks, sooner or later, and drown the city. The family are looking for a new house, since their flat is too small, and apparently there is only a tiny area where he is willing to live, in what (according to him) will be the ghetto that the Germans will build for the Poles. He wants to live there because he thinks everything will function like clockwork and they will be spared the Slavic anarchy that the Russians will impose. I almost wet my pants laughing but when I sobered up, had to confess that I’m happy I don’t have to live with him.