There was only one Saturday English class I ever taught where my student was more hungover than I was. Meet Mr. Appletree. Mr. Appletree loves accounting, his Cambodian mail-order bride, and their son, and he’s writing a science fiction novel about dragons. He has pale, pinkish skin, and I can always hear him coming a few minutes before he arrives because he’s always fifteen minutes late, and he always sprints up the stairs.
On that particular Saturday, he was already 30 miunutes late. I was disappointed to hear his footsteps echoing up the stairwell; after 45 minutes we’re allowed to go home (where we can spend the rest of the lesson’s allotted time getting paid to do the grocery shopping or finish reading that new book). But there he was, in all his plump, pink, number-crunching glory.
“Sorry I’m late,’ he panted, still out of breath from the stairs, “I was at a wedding reception last night until 6 am. Barely got any sleep. Had quite a lot to drink.”
Halfway into a listening exercise in Chapter 3, he fell asleep. I stifled my laughter and waited. It was another ten minutes before he woke up. He’d insisted on coming because if he’d canceled that morning, he still would have had to pay. At least if he showed up, still drunk or not, asleep or not, he could feel like he was getting something for his 42 euros a teaching hour.
For the rest of the Saturday (or Monday, or Tuesday, or Wednesday, or Thursday, or Friday) classes, the ones where I was too hungover/tired/demotivated/completely over it to bother planning a real lesson, I would use my favorite fall back: the agreeing and disagreeing worksheet.
The worksheet contains a list of supposedly contraversial statements like “the military should be abolished,” “abortion is immoral” (best to avoid that one), and “forcing animals to perform in the circus is wrong” and allows students to practice diplomatically expressing their opinions in English, just like they might someday need to in a business negotiation. (Just imagine it: I have uttered that sentence, out loud, in front of other people, in a sincere, and convicing tone. Feels like another life ago.)
Sometimes “diplomatic” turned into “screaming match,” for example when the woman from Croatia started screaming at the ex-army officer across the table because he says war is necessary, and she says well I’m getting pretty tired of dealing with it on my god damn doorstep. On the good days, though, it kept people talking for the entire hour and a half, without requiring much more from me than nods and grammatical corrections.
During Doctor Sweet’s third class, I pulled out my good old A and D–not out of disinterest, but because I’d been teaching a class of beginers the present tense all day, and I was in dire need of an adult-level conversation.
Meet Doctor Sweet. He has brilliantly blue eyes, three children, and works in insurance. Doctor Sweet doesn’t want to go through the book; he just wants to sit around chatting, practicing small talk and building up his confidence. Doctor Sweet didn’t even care when I was over an hour late to our first lesson. Just the kind of one-on-one lessons I like best.
We’d already gone through “football clubs should be government subsidized” (“I don’t suppose it really matters.”) and “in 25 years there will be an equal number of fathers taking paternity leave as mothers taking maternity leave” (“Probably. I would never take paternity leave, but it seems to be becoming more and more popular.”) when we came to one of my favorites: “Vegetarianism is unhealthy.”
This one caught his attention. “I know, it really is!” he said, his voice becoming more enthusiastic with every syllable. “They have proved that you can’t get all of the vitamins that you need if you don’t eat meat.”
“That’s interesting, because I’ve read the opposite,” I countered, leaning back in my chair, my hands folded on the table in front of me.
“No, no, it’s very bad for you. And there are these people,” he went on, leaning in towards me conspiratorially, his voice slightly lowered, “called vegans“–he emphasized the word vegan as if to say, they are monsters!, seven-headed monsters!, seven-headed, infant-murdering monsters!–“They don’t even eat cheese!”
He went on for a few more minutes, about the horrors of veganism’s malnurished, insane mutant zombie followers before I joined in again.
“You know,” I said, looking down at the table, pausing, then directly into his eyes, “I’m vegan.”
Silence. His cheeks flushed; he slid a few inches down into his chair. I stifled a laugh. This was the man who never showed a second of weekness. The manager of his department, high-paid, in-control, confident and charming, even in a second language. Sitting in a classroom, embarassed by some American with disheveled hair, two years younger than his oldest child.
“Oh.” He laughed. I smiled, raising my eyebrows expectantly. “Really. So what is it that you eat?”
This time I laughed. I’ve met a lot of meat eaters who can’t fathom that a vegan meal could possibly contain enough calories and vitamins to keep a person healthy, let alone enough flavor to keep her happy. Some people seem to think that rice and ketchup are animal products (true story), and that all vegans are militant, malnourished, closed-minded assholes who subsist on iceberg lettuce and twigs. I am happy to report that neither of these things are true.
“The same things you do, probably, just without the cheese and the meat and the fish.”
“Ok, well, what do you eat on an average day then?”
“Ok, well, for breakfast toast and a glass of juice, or maybe musli with soy milk. For lunch a sandwich–”
“But what do you put on the sandwich?”
“Oh I don’t know, roasted vegetables, maybe hummous, or grilled tofu or tomatoes and basil, things like that. Then maybe a salad or some french fries or a chocolate bar. For dinner I like to cook Indian or Asian, curries and stir fries and that sort of thing.”
He considered this for a moment. “And you don’t have an vitamin deficiencies?”
“No, not so far. I get my blood tested every so often, but I’m not missing anything. I’ve heard that there are some people whose bodies can’t absorb everything they need from plants, and if my body couldn’t handle it I would eat animal products again”–at this he looked relieved, as if he had just been contacted by alien life and had finally confirmed that they had come bearing peace–“I don’t think eating meat is wrong necessarily, I just don’t want to support the meat industry, and I figure, if I can live my life without having to take any other lives to do it, I should.”
“You’re very idealistic. I guess I’d just never met anyone who was vegan before. It doesn’t sound as bad as I thought.”
At the end of the our lessons, he took me out to lunch. “Let’s go to that vegan restaraunt you mentioned,” he suggested, “I want to see what it is you eat.”
At the restaraunt we spoke German for the first time–“Now it’s my turn to correct you!” he grinned–and he had his first vegan meal. I don’t think I taught him a damn thing about English in six months of lessons–his speaking skills were already near perfect–but the six months did amount to something: he discovered that every vegan isn’t fucking mental and I discovered that every insurance salesman isn’t fucking boring.
Well look at that. I’ve gone and ended this tale with a nicely packaged little feel-good moral. I promise it’ll never happen again. Next time I’ll tell the conservative insurance salesman that I eat out of the trash, and he’ll never speak to me again.