Stephen King’s book The Green Mile is told through the eyes of retired prison warden Paul Edgecombe. There is a point in the novel where he compares the writing of his memoir to a very old wind up car he used to own. On some mornings, he says, the car would have trouble starting, and he’d have to crank it again and again until the engine would finally ignite. On some particularly cold mornings it would feel as if the car was not going to start at all, no matter how many times Paul Edgecombe would crank it. In the end, however, the car would always start. In the same way, Paul Edgecombe would sit at his desk every day and begin writing, and the writing would always transport him back to his time at Cold Mountain Penitentiary. Some days it would take him longer to fall through that hole in the page than others, but he could always trust that he would fall through that hole eventually.
I totally understand Paul Edgecombe’s perspective. Writing is a very meditational exercise. Once I fall into that productive groove it feels as if my mind has shifted planes, but on some days it’s harder to find that groove than others. Some days I will sit at my laptop writing and deleting paragraph after paragraph for ages until I fall through the hole in the screen and start living my writing experience. It’s a process that can’t be rushed, but today I have set myself the challenge of writing a blog in one hour or less*.
You see, Dear Reader, my schedule has become dangerously full, to the point where I have no time in the week to do anything other than teach. I’ve not slept very much this week. My diet has gone out the window and I haven’t exercised at all. My mind is filled with lesson plans and and timetables and optimal bus routes. At the time of writing, I have 15 students that I see multiple times per week, and I suspect that in the time that I’ve been living in Chile, I have easily had over one hundred students. That’s a lot of people to get to know. I’ve forgotten most of their names and quite a number of their faces. Some linger in my memory more than most, for better or for worse. With some students, I remember moments rather than the people. There was the fellow who said “signify?” eight times in a row, straight-faced, because his pronunciation was off and he was trying to say it in such a way that I would understand him. There was the awkward moment when a rather fluent student said “hand job,” and I had to keep my composure while I told him the phrase he was looking for was “manual labour.” On more than one occasion, I have had students say the N-word in class because they did not understand its power.
So with all that in mind, I figured I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge some of the students** who have had a lasting effect on me.
I’ll never forget my first student. He was a squat man with square features who worked at a shampoo factory all the way out at the periphery of the city. I always thought that he looked like an Hispanic Joe Pesci. Joe’s enthusiasm for English was a few steps ahead of his ability, but he’d stumble ahead anyway in order to eagerly get his message across. From his office I could see the factory floor, with long conveyor belts, dormant for the day, where thousands of bottles of soap and shampoo would be bottled and packaged and sent off to suppliers all around the country. Joe seemed like a rough-and-tumble bloke. The type who might have had experience working on a factory floor, but he could expound on the science of soap for hours on end.
Montague’s company payed for his English classes on the condition that he follow a specific curriculum. This was a tragedy, because Montague and I connected instantly over movies and superheroes. I was happy to spend 90 minutes arguing over the virtues of Marvel Comics as opposed to DC, but company pressure meant that we had to curb our playful banter. I believe that in another life he and I could have been really good friends.
Rhododendron and Sylvére were a Spanish couple who were working towards doing their IELTS. It was the first time I had taught that course, and it was also my first class so late at night. What I remember most about teaching that couple is not only how cold I always felt while walking to their apartment in the dark, but also how they complemented each other perfectly. Sylvére was a strong and confident speaker, but he could never get his grammar quite right. Rhododendron, on the other hand, had the grammar down pat, but absolutely struggled to express herself. What haunts me about that class is Sylvére’s ringtone. It is a fairly common ringtone here, and I find it quite pleasant to listen to. But the first time I heard it was on those nights in their apartment, and I know that years from now the sound of that ringtone will transport me back there.
I have liked every student I’ve ever had, but part of me strongly suspects that Nathaniel was the bad guy. He was a stickler for procedure, and he’d often complain about the way his coworkers were far too relaxed about the rules and regulations of his company. He seemed to make enemies easily, and while I did my best to show sympathy, I couldn’t help but suspect that perhaps he was the one who might have been rubbing people the wrong way in the first place.
Clarinet is the first student I had who started with no English whatsoever. Over time she has developed to the point of being conversational, and I am starting to think that if she and I could have a fluent conversation, I would laugh my head off. Her razor sharp wit is starting to come through in her English, and I wonder if she knows how funny she is. A few weeks ago, I told her that I had recently run a race and I had done quite well. She asked me what position I’d come, and I told her 9th. Her next question to me was, “And how many people ran in the race? Nine?”
Later on we were talking about superstition, and whether it was possible to predict the future. She said that she didn’t believe in such things, but that she did once go and consult a psychic. The word she used for psychic was “bruja,” which means witch, but I understood what she meant. She told me all the things her “witch” had told her, and then she looked off wistfully to the side and said in complete earnest, “But she’s dead now.”
Thinking I had misunderstood, I asked her to clarify. She said that she had tried to text the “witch” some time after their meeting, and the son texted back explaining that she had passed away.
“So now I don’t have a witch,” she said sadly.
However, I think the oddest student I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching was a middle aged lawyer who worked for a prominent bank in Chile. This was a man who could not focus on anything for more than a few moments at a time. He was also a man with far more work piled onto him than was really fair. I would often sit in his office in silence while he worked on something else, textbook on my lap because his desk was overrun with piles upon piles of paperwork. He would sometimes be explaining something to me and then would stop mid-sentence to send an email. His phone would ring at least once per class, and those conversations would last for five minutes or more. He had a brusque manner, but I think he meant well. He would sometimes interrupt me and ask if I wanted a coffee, or at the end of a class we would fish an alfajor from his desk and say “You must eat this because my daughter brought it back from Argentina.”
On one particular day, during a class about illness and disease, he was busy speaking when suddenly he stood up. still talking, he walked to the back of his cluttered office and opened a filing cabinet, from which he extracted a small toiletry bag.
“I did a first aid course many years ago,” he was saying, “but I think I have forgotten everything from that course. My wife, on the other hand, is a nurse so if anything happens in the house I am going to brush my teeth.”
And then he left the office.
*Okay, that first draft took like 80 minutes.
**have of course changed their names… Or have I? Chun chun chun!