This essay is the product of an “assignment” given to me by Susan Shapiro in her recent workshop on how to sell a first book. As a way into a project that was just starting to take shape in my mind — a memoir of my experiences as both student and teacher of language — Sue assigned me a 900-to-1,500-word essay on how I became an ESL teacher. The essay is below; the book, “Traveling in Tongues,” is now well under way.
It’s finally happened. I’ve turned into the old-lady English teacher I was always meant to be.
Like the man who had that appointment in Samarra, running away from Death only to find it waiting at the end of his journey, I have long had an appointment — not with Death (though eventually that, too, or so I hear), but with teaching. A 35-year career in journalism? That was just a detour.
I was the youngest of four children born over a 20-year span to a mother with a high-school education and a father pulled out of school after eighth grade to work in a shoe factory. Married at the height of the Depression, they spent their early lives scrounging for a living in rural Pennsylvania. But our family was upwardly mobile in its own modest way. My three brothers all went to college and all became high school teachers. It was good, solid, steady employment when they graduated in the 1950s and ‘60s, and it paid well, compared to anything my parents ever made. As a child who did well in school, I knew early on that I wanted to go to college someday. And what we knew was this: you go to college, you come out a teacher.
Besides, playing school was always my favorite “let’s pretend.” (Producing my own one-sheet newspaper on a toy typewriter came in second.) In the basement of the neighbor kids down the road, somehow it was always the first day of school, and I was always the teacher. We had a decades-old green-and-red textbook titled “Human Use Geography.” I would start with the first chapter, about the Kirghiz and the Kazakhs, nomadic peoples who swept across the steppes of Central Asia on horseback. I had no idea what steppes might be, or even how the word was pronounced — one syllable? Two? But I was the one with the book in my hand, and thus I learned the first principle in methods of teaching: all you really have to do is stay one step ahead of the class.
School was a place where I could succeed, where I could win favor with adults that was hard to get from parents who worked too much for too little, who rarely showed affection and, in my father’s case, grew increasingly authoritarian. I adored my elementary-school teachers and often sat in class observing their methods, thinking I would be one of them someday. In first-grade reading class (a skill I had mastered by age three and a half), we were taught to “frame” words with our fingers, to understand one at a time before stringing them together into sentences. “That’s an interesting way to teach reading,” I remember thinking. I was 6 at the time.
By junior high, I was starting to realize I didn’t want to spend my life trapped in a classroom with 30 kids. Not cute, not popular, just smart – the kiss of death for a teenager in small-town America – I looked for validation not from my peers (many of whom came to me for help with their homework) but from my teachers. I received it mainly from those in whose subjects I showed promise: literature, foreign languages, writing. “Great!” my parents must have thought. “She can go to East Stroudsburg State, and then she’ll come home and be an English teacher.” I knew differently. It was clear I’d have to earn my own living as soon as I graduated from college, and my business would be words. But I was already chafing at small-town life. Which old-lady English teacher would I become? Miss Bryan, who humiliated me in ninth grade for using “like” as a conjunction when “as if” was correct? Miss Sloat, the white-haired, straight-backed retiree who was much respected but intimdated me? Or Miss Paul, the eccentric who talked to her plants?
So I rebelled and fled to college – not East Stroudsburg — intending to be a writer. But I found the English professors pompous and discouraging. Having already started to work on the college newspaper, I declared a major in journalism instead. It was still the word business, and besides, it would give me job skills to tide me over until I could support myself as a writer. Surely that wouldn’t take more than a year or two.
Thus began the detour, not only from teaching but, as it turned out, writing. Early on, I realized I didn’t have the right temperament to be a reporter – which I assumed was synonymous with writer – but my ease with language brought me jobs as an editor. I worked my way up in classic fashion, from low-level jobs to more responsible ones, from small papers to larger ones. My journey took me as far as The New York Times, a workplace by turns rigorous and rewarding, exhilarating and exasperating. In a hard-driving, politically charged environment where every day survived is an achievement, I served honorably for 20 years.
An editor works at a desk in the newsroom, not out in the wider world like a reporter. Yet my own world gradually grew ever larger, for I had developed a serious and expensive addiction: travel. From a two-month study-abroad in England at 20, I brought home a firm resolution — “I want to see the world” — and over the years I had, one vacation after another, on multiple trips to Europe, three to Australia, 10 weeks circling the Pacific, cruises and sailing trips almost beyond number.
As time passed, I realized two things: sooner or later, The Times would come to an end for me, and if I wanted to spend my golden years traveling, I’d better find a way to finance it. The solution I came up with was teaching – not journalism, since a multimedia world had largely lost interest in the print skills I could impart, but English as a second language or, in current parlance, to speakers of other languages. In late 2005 I enrolled in the English language teaching program at New School University in New York. Two years later I had not only earned my certificate but also taught abroad, in the New School’s teaching practicum at the University of Lower Silesia in Wroclaw, Poland. “Why are you doing this, when you have such a great career?” other practicum teachers would ask me. “It’s for someday,” I’d answer.
“Someday” arrived within the year, in the form of the Great Newspaper Meltdown of ’08. The Times, looking to reduce staff by 100, had a buyout offer on the table, and I took it. Three days later, just as I was reaching the “Oh, my God, what have I done?” stage, two invitations landed in my e-mail: one to teach that summer in the American Language Program at Columbia University, and one to go back to Wroclaw. I jumped at both.
Standing at the head of a class takes me back to the neighbor kids’ basement. As a native speaker with professional training (much in demand abroad), I’m more than one step ahead of the already well-educated adults who are thirsting to improve their English. I enjoy breaking down lessons into digestible chunks and seeking out just the right readings or media clips to illustrate them. (I can’t wait for the next time I teach the tongue-twister “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck . . . ” as a pronunciation exercise, now that I have the Geico commercial that shows woodchucks actually chucking wood.) I also enjoy what I call “the kindergarten aspects of the job” – cutting and pasting materials, decorating a classroom with visual aids, devising scenarios that will help people learn. Most of all, I enjoy the students, who are so grateful for any vocabulary word, correct pronunciation or snippet of American culture that I can teach them.
After four trips to Wroclaw I’ve become a regular, and last spring my world widened yet again when I taught oral English in China for a full semester at Hunan University of Science and Technology. My repertory has broadened as well, from language into content: a course I was unexpectedly assigned to teach in China, “Cultures of English-Speaking Nations,” traveled well to Poland last October. So do the teaching skills I learned in my ESL training when I make occasional visits to journalism classes as a guest speaker.
My hair is graying, I’m a big fan of Celebrex and I have no firm grasp of why the Kardashians are famous. But I’m a stickler for proper English. (No text-message baby talk, please!) In short, I’ve turned into that old-lady English teacher, on my own terms. It’s not how my mother or even my most visionary teacher would have pictured me — leading a class on the other side of the world, almost within sight of rice paddies where peasants wade barefoot behind water buffalo. I haven’t seen the steppes of Central Asia yet, but in a world where “Human Use Geography” is available on Amazon.com, you never know what “someday” may bring.