The work was done: the memos had been written, the meeting held, the speakers questioned, the presentations made. “From here on in,” I told the class, “it’s all fun.” And what could be more fun – or a better way to blow off steam after a three-week intensive course – than a Broadway musical about the very field you’ve been studying?
It was the second-last day of “English for Professional Purposes: Business,” which I taught this summer in Columbia University’s American Language Program. To friends, I admitted, “What I know about business could be engraved on the head of a pin, and you’d still have room for ‘War and Peace.’ “ ALP offered me this course because, I was told, “you have all that outside experience” – meaning, I came to realize, that I had in fact spent more of my adult life in a corporate setting, in my case newsrooms, than in a classroom. Even so, this arts-journalist-turned English-teacher felt like an imposter.
I needn’t have worried. As I told the students the first day: “This is an English course, not a business course. And I’m pretty good at English.” They bought it. Among the group of 14 – three Brazilians, three Italians, two Chinese, two Koreans, one Japanese, one Ecuadorean, one Pole, one Swiss — were several headed directly to Columbia Business School and one to New York University’s. Some of the younger ones (the average age was 30) were thinking about business school, but most were already working professionals in fields like banking, finance and real estate. They didn’t need me to teach them about business, but while all were already quite fluent in English, they did need a little polishing and a lot of vocabulary.
The work of the course – the first 14 days – included a case study by a B-school professor just as he would teach it there; a screening and dissection of “Inside Job”; an introduction to the American nonprofit sector; field trips to Wall Street and NASDAQ; and a talk by a colleague from The New York Times on the Great Newspaper Meltdown of ’08, the business crisis that had indirectly propelled me into this classroom. Students wrote memos on an executive compensation issue, then simulated a meeting on the subject. Each week they made team presentations — one on a venture capital project, one on a business in crisis — and then joined me to watch the videos and evaluate their performance. Interspersed were exercises on grammar points like the proper uses of who, which and that.
The fun began after the final presentations last Thursday. That evening we would make one last field trip, to the Al Hirschfeld Theater on West 45th Street. No way was this course going to end without a Broadway show, and none could have been more perfect than the Hirschfeld’s current occupant , the revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” starring Daniel Radcliffe as J. Pierrepont Finch and John Larroquette as Mr. Biggley.
I became acquainted with “How to Succeed” in its original form, Shepherd Mead’s satirical 1952 book on climbing the corporate ladder in the form of advice to a young window-washer. An older brother had left the paperback behind when he moved out of our house, and I first read it when I was about 8. I thought it was funny then, and now, having been through the career mill myself, I find it even funnier, mainly because it’s so true. You can do your damnedest, work your hardest, make yourself available for every extra hour and extra task that’s asked of you, but it will never move your career along as far or as fast as riding in on connections or sucking up.
Even though tickets weren’t covered by student activity fees, everyone in the class responded enthusiastically when polled by e-mail weeks before the course. Sergio from Brazil expressed one reservation: “I’m only worried about my having a hard time to understand Radcliffe’s accent. Other than that it seems an outstanding idea.” I reassured him: “I’ve already seen the show, and he does quite a good American accent. If you’ve qualified for this class, I don’t think you’ll have a problem.” Well, duh! “I was just kidding about the British accent,” Sergio wrote back. “I know I’ll be just fine.”
My friend Heidi had ushered “How to Succeed” the night before and reported it was an exceptional performance; we hoped the theatrical magic would last at least another night. We were not disappointed. Throughout the show, I could hear my students behind me laughing in recognition; even the visitor from Dubai sitting beside me, who normally follows a strict no-musicals policy, was enthralled. At intermission, I asked Sergio how he was doing with the accent; as predicted, he was doing just fine. Dong Geun from Korea admitted he wasn’t getting every word of dialogue but had no trouble following the story. At the end, we all joined in the standing, screaming ovation.
Since it’s always important to follow up on a lesson, the next day I asked the students what they thought of the show. “It’s the best show I’ve ever seen in my life!” Sergio said. “Well, I don’t know what shows you’ve seen . . .” someone countered, but he pretty much agreed. They expressed special admiration for Radcliffe, whom they knew as the non-singing, non-dancing Harry Potter, and I shared my indignation over the dismissive attitude toward his performance among critics and the Tony Award nominators. Then I asked if the show had reminded them of anything in their work experience, and the answer was unanimous: “Absolutely!”
“It reminded me of situations I’ve seen in my company,” said Seok Keun, a portfolio manager from Korea — for example, the advice to work for a company big enough that no one exactly knows what anybody else does, or the way any idea of Ponty’s was opposed by his colleagues until the boss said he liked it and they all chimed in, “I like it!” Seok Keun also cited “a lot of politics” and how crucial they become as you move up the ladder. “I think good luck is important, too ,” he added, noting how useful it was to Ponty literally bumping into Mr. Biggley at the beginning of his ascent. Then there was the matter of timing. “Notice,” I said, “that every time Ponty is in the spotlight, it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time.”
We talked about the status of women in the workplace of the early 1960s. “Who’s the most powerful woman in that company?” I asked. No question: “the boss’s secretary,” whom Marcello from Brazil said reminded him of his own boss’s secretary. Here I shared a business rule of my own: “Always make friends with the secretaries. They’re the ones who really run the place.”
But back to English. The show gave me business idioms to introduce – phrases like “the corporate ladder,” “dead-end job” (the kind where you may end up if, like the head of the mailroom at World Wide Wickets, you “play it the company way”) and “kiss up, kick down.” Sometimes there’s even a teachable grammar point in a Broadway show. When the students assembled for Friday’s class, the sentence “It is I whom am late” awaited them on the whiteboard. “Who said this?” I demanded. Although they couldn’t remember her name, they knew it was the dumb but sexy hat-check girl Mr. Biggley brought into the steno pool. What was wrong with the sentence, and why? The class split on whether it was the “I” or the “whom.” I reminded them of what I had said the first week about “who” and “whom” — that people who don’t know the difference often choose “whom” when they shouldn’t because they think it sounds more proper or educated. Here was the perfect illustration, and Tammy Blanchard’s performance as Hedy La Rue should make it stick in their minds.
Then, too, there were American cultural concepts to explain, like the “Old Ivy” number. The students understood the wisdom of sucking up to a boss by any means necessary, including college football. Drawing on my own experience, I speculated that my career might have gone further if only I’d pretended to be fonder of my alma mater to a boss who was a rah-rah alum. Since the Groundhogs-versus-Chipmunks rivalry eluded them, I introduced the concepts of mascots and fight songs. The Geico commercial I use in teaching tongue-twisters could have shown what groundhogs looked like, but since it calls them woodchucks, it would only have been confusing.
Points taken, the course concluded with a brief survey of the differences between American and British English, followed by a practice session on business socializing over veal parmesan, rigatoni and sangria by the pitcher at Carmine’s. Not that these people needed lessons in socializing. Having bonded by lunchtime the first day of school, they were trekking to Yankee Stadium together at the end of the week. At Carmine’s they were planning a night of bar-hopping and clubbing; the next day, photos of them piled one on top of another in a stretch limo dropped into my inbox. Two days later, I was still getting e-mail every 10 minutes about that night’s dinner plans.
Nor do they need a book like Ponty’s to tell them how to succeed in business. These people are definitely trying. May their careers not be ruined by their hard work and integrity.