For my Mom, who loves loves loves the Sound of Music. And for Carolyn, who is expecting her first great-grandbaby any day now. Happy Mother’s Day to you both, and all you other fabulous moms out there!
Last month, just before leaving on our super-fantastic adventure to South Africa & Lesotho, my little lunchtime English class turned four years old. Four years, wow! There aren’t many jobs I’ve wanted to hold onto for four years in a row before. Who knew that the trick was making sure I worked for free?
It was an unplanned but neat coincidence that also last month, our in-depth study of The Sound of Music came to its long-awaited and glorious conclusion. Sixty-one pages of script had been painstakingly typed and printed, with strategically-placed blanks filled in by the more advanced students who were keen to practice their ears in the new language. It took us fifteen months.
Yikes! Fifteen months of The Hills are Alive and My Favorite Things! Seb would be looking for a gun. Even I was worried about forever tarnishing one of my favorite movies. Death by overexposure. You know that final song in the movie, Climb Every Mountain, the one the choir is singing while the family Von Trapp escapes over the mountains into Switzerland? I could not get that song out of my head while we were trekking in the Drakensburg a week later. (Of course, we were in the Swiss Alps of Southern Africa, and we were actually climbing mountains.)
It was a huge relief to find that I actually liked having “Climb Every Mountain” stuck in my head. “Every day of your life, for as long as you live…” It’s sweet, and subtly motivating. It may not work so well on a treadmill at the gym, but in the mountains it was exactly the right pace for slowly putting one foot in front of the other. It was certainly better than the previous song stuck in my head, ABBA’s “Thank You For the Music,” which we’d heard in a Durban restaurant a few days prior. Some kind of power surge got the track stuck on repeat until customers started complaining. It’s okay for one listen, but NOT a song you want looping endlessly, trust me.
Anyway, back to the main story. (Sorry for the vacation story tease.)
I was looking forward to wrapping up the third and perhaps-final phase of my makeshift class exactly four years after starting. April 2011 to April 2015, all nice and tidy. I say “perhaps-final” because there are certain things about teaching as a volunteer that aren’t so pleasant. The main problem? For some students, what I’m offering is never enough. For example, whenever I announce that I’m going out on leave, the requests for buying this or that begin. Even after explaining I was backpacking in the remote mountain kingdom of Lesotho, one student asked me to pick him up a secondhand computer. As if they just sell those in the airport. Another time a complete stranger showed up on my porch ten minutes after class was finished, asking me to bring him back an X-box in my luggage. Whoever leaked the news that I was leaving soon for the U.S., I never found out. Then whenever I return from leave, my possessions are carefully scrutinized. A new computer or phone (once just a new case for the same phone, making it look different) would trigger the lovely phrase: “Donne-moi l’ancienne.” Give me the old one. As rude in French as it is in English.
One of the ugliest moments in class is hard to forget. I had given everybody a little French-English phrasebook for Christmas, after collecting enough copies over the bulk of the year from four different bookstores in two different countries. Everyone was happy until the first awkward moment, when one of the seven wanted me to give him an extra for his son. Everyone watched me carefully to see if I was going to give in, thus opening the door for their brother/sister/mother/father. Then later in the afternoon I ran into one of the students, a housekeeper, who thanked me again for the book as I walked by. While we spoke for a few moments, the next-door housekeeper, somebody I didn’t know and had never seen before, started begging me to give him the same gift. I tried to focus on my student, avoiding eye contact with the stranger in the background who was practically on his knees, with clasped hands, motioning between me and him in the universal sign of “give me.” Having been begged many times before, I thought the best course of action would be to ignore him. As soon as I said goodbye to my student and started walking away, the beggar turned angry. He went on and on in Swahili, something about me being a greedy mzungu in a loud, angry voice. He jumped in his little motorized four-wheeler and came up behind me. At the last moment when he was on my heels and I had to decide whether to turn around and address him or jump out of the way, he made a U-turn, still going on about “mzungu” in his angry voice.
The meaning of the phrase “no good deed goes unpunished” takes on crisp focus here. There have been lots of moments when I’ve questioned whether it makes sense to continue. The good news is, it’s not the majority of the students, nor does it happen the majority of the time. When it does happen, though, I find it scary, nerve-wracking, angering and depressing — in that order. Another bummer was that the class was taking a lot of my time, interrupting Seb’s lunch at home and often disappointing my friends who had to schedule luncheons and outings around me. I started off teaching two days a week, then increased gradually to five when I saw how quickly the students were forgetting their lessons if more than a day or two passed between them. But it still wasn’t enough; it’s never enough. Some students began asking about six days a week, or multiple classes per day. One newcomer who didn’t realize I was a volunteer said he would “talk to the company about giving me more time for lessons.” Ha! Good luck with that, I told him.
All this to say that sometime last fall, I began visualizing the end of the Sound of Music as the complete and total end of the Sound of English Classes by Jen. I was looking forward to studying French more, writing more, lunching more leisurely. But then in February, a strange thing happened. Three new students joined the class. This in itself wasn’t strange; new people came all the time. What was strange is that they stuck with it, even though they came in towards the end of the movie and had no idea what was going on. They had some English but not quite enough to keep up with the others. But they kept coming, along with another beginner who had been attending very regularly since last May yet, bless his heart, lacked any foundational knowledge. For the sake of the advanced students, several of whom had been coming for years, I couldn’t take time out to bring the newbies up to speed. But I didn’t have the heart to kick them out, either. So they came on their own volition, sink-or-swim.
I figured that, like so many other beginners who had come in late and then shoved off early, they wouldn’t still be around at the very end. But they were, even on April 2nd, our last day, graduation day. Word had spread that it was coming and nine students attended, the largest crowd I’d had since early January. I had baked some bread, made some guava jam, and brewed enough tea to barely fill all the cups. The four beginners (plus one last-minute returnee who had disappeared for the entire month prior) enjoyed their tea with jam and bread (tee hee) while politely applauding our four graduates, the only ones who had completed the entire movie from start to finish. (And who were also doing very well with their English, thankfully, or that would have been a conundrum.) The graduates received a simple certificate with their names and a personal note from me. I was worried it would be a bit anti-climactic, but actually, they were all smiles and incredibly proud. I regret that I was so harried that day I didn’t take any photos.
In the end, I just didn’t have the heart to say goodbye to those beginners who had put in a good effort, and deny them the chance to proceed. Over these past four years I must have seen around thirty different base camp employees come through, all of them at different levels and with different expectations. Some came for just a day or two, evidently to get a glimpse of our little circus act and then be on their way. A few more stayed just long enough to figure out my system, which was that if they persevered through five days, they would earn a folder with their name on it. Kind of an official “you’re part of our class now” reward. It’s just a silly little plastic folder, but apparently it was worth five days of torture even for those who had no intention of staying. So the ones who did, regardless of being lost and in over their heads, impressed me.
I promised my five non-graduates that after I returned from vacation, we’d start from scratch with the Michel Thomas unit for beginners. We did, three weeks ago, and each day’s attendance since the first has been in the double digits.
So it looks like I’m sticking with this extremely well-paying gig a little longer. I’m a total sucker for learners who get all wide-eyed with a new realization, a word or phrase they’ve heard before but now makes sense. Despite the selfish ones, the mean ones, the flakes and the clichés (cue “follow every rainbow” music…), seeing students smile is addictive, and satisfying. Dammit. Count me in again.