Confessions of a teacher: Part 4 An Arab Gulf

In the course of my short teaching career, I have already learnt that you can make them do anything and that there’s nothing worse than a runny nose. My fourth confession is marginally more profound: you learn more than you teach.

Since I started working last February, it’s been the Arab students who have most fascinated and inspired me and of course it is they who have cemented my desire to learn Arabic and to visit the middle east.

Among Saudi and Omani students I have met with the most genuinely gallant and warm-hearted of gentlemen. “Teacher, let me carry your bags” “Teacher, I will help you clean board”, “Teacher, in Saudi Arabia; BIG respect for teacher”, “After you, teacher”.

Among Saudi women, I have noticed more than anything the expressiveness of their eyes. In many cases, along with the feet and hands, the eyes have been the only feature visible to me. They are often heavily made up. Their nails too are carefully painted and manicured. It’s surprising how little one needs to be identified: the shape of your eyes and the size of your head; the colour and pattern of a headscarf.

. Some months ago in class, I posed an open question: “Do you like Dublin?”

Generally, a mixed response: Ridiculous weather. Friendly people. Bad food. Not enough to do. Two Saudi women shook their heads. “Not good city” said the first. “Oh”, I said, interested. “Why not?” “Not big enough” the other answered: “No shops..”
“No SHOPS?!”, I asked incredulously. “But We’re right in the city!”.
“Not many shops”, they repeated.
“What about Dundrum?” I insisted. “That’s one of the biggest shopping centres in Europe”.
“Yeah; Europe“, they muttered and rolled their eyes.

And then there’s the unparalleled adulation for King Abdullah. Some time ago a student asked me what I thought of the uprisings in the middle east. I was uncomfortable in my answer and skirted about the subject by stressing the general importance of putting an end to corrupt regimes, but that I knew too little about the region. I did ask however whether King Abdullah was popular. “Oh yes”, he replied, his lips curling into a smile and his eyes wistful “I love him like my father”.

King Abdullah

And they really do. He is constantly nominated for the “greatest person in the world” contest, which I occasionally moderate for the purposes of fluency development. They tell me that he introduced a social welfare system a few months ago as part of his great reforms, which some say were a way of saying thanks for the no-show of protests following some facebook stirrings urging people to go to the streets.

Money has none of the moral associations that I am used to. One day I am practising opposite adjectives with an elementary class. The opposite of rich?” I prompt. They all know this one.
“In Saudi Arabia, no poor people”, a girl tells me.
“NONE?” I repeat
I put in on the board. “Poor people=0%??????”
“Yes!” another chips in. “Saudi Arabia lots of Oil”.
“I know”, I say “but I’m sure there are one or two poor people…”
Another time, we are practising modal verbs of obligation to respond to the problem pages of a magazine. A girl called Jenny is an unemployed shopaholic. Her habit is sustained by a foolish and ubergenerous grandmother, who keeps sending her money. “She should get a job” a French student says. “Yeah, and her grandmother should stop to give her money”, a Brazilian adds. “No problem in Saudi Arabia”, the girl from Riyhad chips in. “Family send money every day. No problem”.

Most of all, they enjoy shocking me with descriptions of the terrible consequences of committing minor offences in their country. “First time drunk on street” one tells me “name in book; second time, lashings” (he mimes a violent whipping action in case I have misunderstood) “Third time life prison”.

There is a sudden outburst of laughter from the whole class because they have  noticed the horrified expression I have been wearing unaware. He grins, adding in a conciliatory tone “Alcohol, in secret, no problem”, as if that had been my biggest concern.

LSB never fails to make an appearance either. One day, I got chatting to a class about my leprechaun-kraut heritage. The Saudi ladies seemed disproportionately impressed by my having a German mother, which makes a nice change from the inane references to Fascism to which I am accustomed.
“Boyfriend Irish or German?” they ask.
“Irish” I say.
“WHY Irish?” they gasp
“What do you mean?”, I enquire.
“Why you choose Irish man, not German. Germany better”.
I pause. “Because… because I like him”, I almost whine.
“Yes, I like LSB. And LSB is Irish.”
They shake their heads and raise their eyes.

A few days later LSB makes a re-appearance.
“Teacher how long you know boyfriend””
I sigh “Oh about 5 years” I answer.
“When you marry, teacher?”

It’s my turn to shock. “Oh I don’t know” I say with a sigh of casual self-indulgence.
“Maybe never”.

Katekatharina and LSB: No plans to marry soon

Confessions of a Teacher: Part 2

I have already documented in gross detail the plight of the teacher suffering from the common cold. In my continuing confessions, I turn to another phenomenon recently realised: You can make them do anything!
It’s remarkable. Last week I was highlighting to a class of elementary students the difference between the sound of ‘th’ as in ‘that’ and ‘th’ as in ‘think’. I proceeded to write many words connected to the theme on the board. I then led a group chorus of these words, which I conducted whimsically by gliding the tip of my whiteboard marker in foul swoops across the board, alighting dramatically on my word of choice. There was something so ridiculous about the whole endevour and my temptation to make them utter whole sentences that I lol-ed facing the board and behind their chants.

Another time, I was saying adieu to my class of French engineers. I had decided that their last class would be ‘fun’ so I had bought a box of delightful Irish truffles in that insufferably successful tourist shop O’Carrolls. Throughout my three week stint with the French engineers, I had been encouraging them to contribute to my home-made “Vocabulary Box”. I had made same on the advice of a highly-experienced teacher. I had “adapted my material” and “connected with the student body” by pasting a large picture of Brian O’Driscoll on the cover of the box.

Culturally relevant vocabulary box

This was to act as a gentle reminder to Céderic, Frederic, Laurent and Stéphane (not their real names), that though France may have beaten Ireland at the rugby the previous weekend, the vocabulary box was a zone not to be conquered by Les Blues.

They had accepted this with the bemused equanimity to which I had become pleasantly accustomed. However, as the time came for me to wrap up my classes, I realised that the vocabulary cards resident inside the box had not come to any kind of finalé. Therefore, I packed in my bag a three-cd set of Irish music and announced that we were having a vocabulary quiz with on-the-spot prizes. I explained that I would pick at random a word from the vocabulary box, which they would then – working in teams of three- have to put into as many sentences as possible. The time limit would be set by the pumping beat of Lord of The Dance, which would stop suddenly in the manner of Musical Chairs. As I watched them scribbling frantically sentences containing the word ‘shamrock’ over a mix of Irish melodies, I had to once again turn away to hide my mirth. The first spot prize – a lolipop with a picture of a shamrock on it – was flung to Bernard, for his sentence “The shamrock bring me good chance”. A chancer I certainly am.

Prize lolipop

Confessions of a Teacher: Part 1

As a teacher, there is no opportune time to blow your nose. I know this because I thought I had cracked it last Friday. My middle-aged French engineers were engaged: the weekly test, you see. You could have heard a pin drop so a sniffle was out of the question. Nothing but the soft scratch of their pencils: a concerto with passages of relative conviction and uncertainty. The tickle of moisture that was descending my nasal passages caused me to twitch. With reverence for the exam conditions in place, I fumbled gingerly in my bag for a tempo tissue. I dabbed gently.

Somewhere dancing in the air about me, I sensed the chemical energy of eyes boring into me from the side. I was caught. Francois, first finished and ready to doodle flashed me a sympathetic grin. Or at least, that’s what I thought it was at the time. With the benefit of mature reflection, I realise he was bemused. He had been watching my entire escapade and he had thwarted the very possibility of success by mere observation. I would have been furious had he not been my second favourite student. I was now in the precarious position of having to dispose of my snotty tissue in a classroom without a paper basket and in the knowledge that Francois was enjoying full comprehension of the wordless language of awkward etiquette. Up my sleeve? Total no-goer. Too risky. Could fall out at any time; particularly when writing on the board. Nothing for it, but to drop it back in the bag, slowly does it, just stretching my left arm, downward. Drop. Done. Gone. Can’t help myself. Take a quick look over at Francois who averts his gaze, quickly. Test over, little bit of bustle as scripts are handed up and responses compared. I sniff long and hard into the background murmurs and exhale, deeply. Bliss.