Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Wanted: Teacher

Learning English in Japan

"This is a pen."

"What would you call this?" That was the first question out of Mr. Peters mouth the day I arrived for my first job interview in Japan. It was with a huge English language chain school (there are such things) that is now no longer in existence. Boasting locations that were strategically situated at the most travelled intersections, the schools were magnets for bored housewives who would while away the week honing their near perfect dictions in the school’s famed conversation cafés. Dead-tired businessmen would congregate there to sacrifice the few precious evening hours they had to spend with their families all to worship at the alter of English. Then there were the most pitiful of the whole lot, the school kids who would make a mad dash for the after-hours program the minute they dropped their school books off at home. It was one of the best money-making schemes I’d ever seen and I was bound to be a part of it.

I had been told on good authority that they hired anybody with a pulse. I really needed the income and was so nervous about the interview that mine was beating double time so I thought I would be a shoo-in for sure. The question Mr. P. asked was in reference to an 8 x 11 glossy color photo of a truck laden with ripened bananas parked in a teak wooden frame at the corner of his desk closest to where I was now sitting. Like all good language instructors, he repeated the question, “What would you call that?”

“I would call that a truck,” I answered matter of factly.

“I see,” replied P as he pursed his lips and nodded his head up and down.
“And this, what about this? What would you call this?” he uttered while waving a lit flashlight he had just retrieved from his top desk drawer.

Shielding my squinting eyes in face of the blinding light, I told him it was “a flashlight of course.”

“Yes a ‘flashlight,” retorted P.” Then he sat his scrawny frame back in his luxurious black imitation leather high-back chair on coasters, crossed his legs and began to size me up. As he stroked the small crop of whiskers that he cultivated just below his bottom lip and looked at me with a gleam in his eye, I realized that the interview had begun and that I had probably just passed the rigorous Q&A segment. I was already thinking of ways to spend my first week’s paycheck when he spoke again.

“We really speak an entirely different language you and I,” he said with a wry smile.
I would refer to what you describe as a ‘truck,’ as a ‘lorry.’ As for this little device, it’s called a ‘torch’ where I hail from.”

“Ah, yes,” I replied.

He elucidated further explaining how he had spent the better part of the morning compiling a list of words, Briticisms that were virtually unknown to the North American continent. I’m sure I would have found it all terribly fascinating, but my mind was on getting the job. He then went on to describe the teaching position I was interviewing for, spending the next thirty minutes outlining salary, work hours, responsibilities, plus all the perks. It all sounded great so when he asked me if I was interested, I told him I definitely was in.

That’s when he pulled out the standard textbook the students used and started to quiz me with a battery of annoying questions. The first one was based on chapter one, “What’s a noun?” he asked.

What’s this? A question about grammar? I wasn’t at all prepared. Wouldn’t he rather check my pulse instead? Then I suddenly realized that I knew this one. “A person, place or thing,” I answered. He puckered his lips, nodded in approval and continued to the next chapter. We were up to chapter five or so and I was doing swimmingly. “Bring on the next one P,” I said to myself. I was ready for anything. Then he hit me with a trick question.

“Can you tell me what a present participle is? No?”

There were about ten more chapters to go and my brain was spent of every scintilla of grammar knowledge it contained at chapter three. All this time he had been merely loading the barrel of the gun, now he had cocked the trigger and was about to fire.

“What is a past participle?”

My jaw dropped as I shook my head in total stupidity. Then coming to the realization that it was all over I looked Mr. Peters in the eye and said, “We really do speak totally different languages.”

He smiled, nodded his head and asked, “Can I show you to the elevator?”

That’s when I realized I had him dead in my sights. I returned fire immediately, “Don’t you mean the lift?”

“Exactly,” said P pointing the way out the door.

Later that evening as I lay sprawled across the floor of my apartment, a piece of emotional wreckage washed up along the shores of this Far Eastern archipelago, I received a phone call from an administrative assistant at the school. She informed me “the interview didn’t go as well as it could have.” Just to make sure I didn’t get the wrong impression, she translated the message into words I could understand, saying, “You didn’t get the job I’m afraid.”

I told her I understood and I really did.


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