It’s raining lightly and the streets for once are quiet as I leave the Berlitz office and start scanning the road for a taxi. It’s nearly five, and for some mystical reason the traffic has died. Finally I see a taxi, with a woman sitting in the back. It pulls over and the driver leans to open the window. I state the name of my neighbourhood. “Which one?” says the driver. My neighbourhood is not that well-known; although the houses are old, the designation is relatively new. So I state several landmarks. I name my road, which most taxi drivers know. Non? I state the nearby now-defunct theatre. I mention a fountain. The driver continues to look blank.
The woman in the back rolls down her window. She speaks some English. “Where do you want to go?” she says in English. I state my neighbourhood again, more loudly this time. I name the theatre again—all the taxi drivers know it. Sure enough; this time the taxi driver nods and pats the seat. I get in.
“You need to work on your French,” the woman tells me.
I grimace. Just what I need after 3 hours of lion-taming—er, teaching teens, I mean.
“I do speak French,” I tell her. “I don’t know why he didn’t understand me. I don’t usually have a problem.”
“You need to add some verbs,” she tells me. Then, thankfully, she speaks to the driver in Arabic and has him pull over. She gets out. We continue on in a blessed silence, except for the conversation we have, in French, about where exactly my street is.
On Wednesday afternoons, I teach a group of teens, all boys. I find this challenging. The split instant I turn to write something on the board, they punch each other. Why? I tell Elliot, “You know how I always thought your teachers shouldn’t shout at their classes? I’ve changed my mind.”
So I bail on the curriculum (which is not Berlitz and is not good; they are teaching “cool” vocabulary like “going to a gig tonight” and have a lesson on NOT sending a cassette of your band to a recording label, but sending something new called a “CD.” Uh, yeah). Instead, we play a lot of educational games in there, where to score a point you must say if a sentence is grammatically correct, for example, or change the grammatical tense to change the meaning. “All we do today is games,” says one of my students. “Are you learning anything?” I ask. “Well yes,” he admits, “But the time goes so fast.” For you maybe, I think, but I keep my mouth shut.
Teecha-teecha-teecha, they chant, until I make them stop. I am teaching them to talk one at a time, to raise their hands and keep their mouths shut UNTIL CALLED UPON. I leave this class feeling frazzled and in no mood to deal with stupid women in taxis criticizing my language abilities. But I like these kids, one on one at least. They’re nice boys. I wouldn’t want my one free afternoon taken up with extra school if I were their age. They’re really not bad.
I ask their favorite movies. “Twilight!” announces one. His neighbour punches him. “You like girl movies,” he mocks. “No, I like it…how you say?…loup-garou,” says another. “Werewolves,” I tell him. This is necessary vocabulary when you’re 14. We end up discussing battle scenes in Gladiator, which I would consider too violent for my own children, basically the same age.
They all know Twilight (one is reading the books in French). They all know the Percy Jackson movie, which Ilsa is DYING to watch. Their cultural references are overwhelmingly American; I know the bands they listen to, the actors and actresses they admire. They probably know the pop culture aspect of my own country better than I do, although that’s not surprising—I was never all that cool. At least I don’t say gig!
I return home and my own teenagers are punching each other.