By Robert Steward
Bromley, England 1999
I parked my white Mini in the forecourt of the Bromley adult education centre in Nightingale Lane. I took my shoulder bag from the passenger seat, got out the car and locked the door. The head of studies stood at the entrance to the red brick building. She was pale and fair, like an English rose.
“Good morning, Rob.” She smiled.
“Hi,” I replied.
“Did you find the place all right?”
“Yes, I only live up the road.”
“Oh yes, of course.” She closed her eyes. “You told me at the interview.”
She looked at her watch and pursed her lips together.
“Let me show you around the school.”
She led me through the main entrance.
“This is the reception.” She indicated with her hand. “The cafeteria is just down there on the left. And your classroom is this way.”
The school was deserted since it was still early. We walked through some double doors into a long corridor. On the wall hung an old wooden honours board, listing the names of past headmistresses.
“Was this a grammar school before?” I asked.
“Yes, for girls.”
“It looks quite old.”
“Yes, it’s Victorian, I think.”
I followed her up the old wooden staircase to the first floor.
“So, do you hire the classrooms here?”
“Yes, we generally use them in spring and summer,” she said. “Are you still thinking of teaching abroad in September?”
“Yes, I’ve got an interview for a job in Monza next week.”
“In Italy?” Her eyebrows rose. “That’s nice. I’ve never taught abroad myself.”
At the top of the stairs we went through another set of double doors and turned into another corridor.
“It’s like a maze in here, isn’t it?” I said.
“Yes, it is a bit, but I’m sure you’ll get used to it.”
She stopped outside a classroom and opened the door.
“This is where you’ll be teaching,” she said and walked in.
The room was spacious with large sash windows. The tables and chairs were arranged in a semicircle and on the walls hung pictures of the famous writers: Charles Dickens, Jane Austin, Oscar Wilde and Emily Brontë.
“So, you have a flip chart, board pens, a tape recorder,” she said as if she was checking the items off a list.
She crouched down and opened a large plastic box.
“Here are the placements tests,” she said, handing me a pile of booklets. “This is the answer key, and here are the coursebooks you’ll be using. Is there anything else you might need?”
“I think I’ll be fine, thanks.”
Just then, a large woman appeared at the door. There was something motherly about her.
“May I?” she asked.
“Yes, of course,” the head of studies said. “Come in.”
The woman entered the classroom with a group of children behind her, about twelve in all. It was like watching a swan with all of her cygnets.
“This is Olga, the Russian group leader.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said, shaking her hand.
“And you too.” She smiled.
Once the children had sat down, the head of studies turned to the class.
“Welcome to Passport Language Schools.” She smiled. “This is Rob, and he’s going to be your teacher for the next two weeks. First, you’re going to do a test, so we know what level you are.”
The children looked shy, excited. They seemed a little young to be in a foreign country on their own and so far away from home. They must’ve been at most eleven or twelve years old.
The head of studies turned to me.
“We’ll leave you to it, then,” she said in a low voice. “We’ll probably pop into the class at some point just to see how you’re getting on.”
“Oh, okay,” I said.
When the two ladies left the room, I took the placement test papers and handed them out to the students.
“So, we’ve got one for you and one for you, one for you and one for you…”
After I had given out the test papers, I took one of them and showed it to the class.
“Okay, if you open your tests, you can have a look at the questions,” I said, pointing to the first page. “So, you just have to circle the correct answer: A,B,C or D for each question. Okay? Any questions?”
There was no answer.
Then I remembered why you should never ask that question.
“Well, if you have any problems, just ask.”
I gave the students some time to get started, then went around monitoring the class. Everyone seemed to be diligently working away, so I sat down and started to plan what to teach the next day.
Just then, a girl raised her hand. She had a pink top with I love London written on it.
“Yes?” I asked.
The girl stood up as if she was about to give a speech.
“This is first time I do English test in England, and would you be so kind to take photograph of me?”
A photograph? I thought. During a test?
Her words sent me into a panic.
“Er, maybe I could take the photograph after the test.”
“Please,” she insisted, “Then I can show to my father when I go to home.”
Everyone looked up from their test papers. Now, I was the one being tested. Her camera sat conveniently on the desk. It was a Nikon. I glanced at the classroom door.
Oh, it will only take a second, I thought and reluctantly agreed.
“Just press here,” she said, handing me the camera.
She smiled sweetly and tilted her head, her eyelashes fluttering like butterfly wings.
I took a photograph and handed her back the camera.
“Could you take another?” she said. “Just in case.”
A prickly heat came over me. This was taking longer than I thought. I wound the film round and took another picture.
“Thanks.” She smiled as I handed back the camera.
Suddenly, the whole class erupted.
“Me too! Me too! Please sir! Please sir!” the other pupils cried.
I was thrown into confusion.
What was I going to do now? I couldn’t just do a favour for one of the class and not the others.
I found myself going around the classroom, taking photographs of all the students. There were so many different types of camera: digital cameras, point-and-shoot cameras, disposable cameras, cameras with long lenses, Polaroid cameras, Kodak, Olympus, Canon, Pentax. My fingers tried to find their way around the different devices: on/off button, film advance lever, viewfinder, zoom, flash, shutter release…
How did I find myself in this situation? Only twenty minutes into my first ever lesson, and I seemed to have turned a formal placement test into an impromptu photo shoot!
“And Me! Please sir!” they continued.
Panasonic, Kodak, Canon, Nikon, Olympus…
Just as I put one of the cameras down, the head of studies and the Russian group leader came into the room.
There was complete silence.
I looked up with a start and smiled at the two ladies as if nothing had happened. I pretended to monitor a few students, then carried on with the pantomime by sitting at my desk and staring blindly at my blank lesson plan. The two observers exchanged a few words with each other as they walked around the class and seemed totally unaware of the photographic melee that had just occurred. Paranoid they might have suspected something, I glanced up at the class to see if any of the pupils would give me away. I caught the eye of a boy, wearing a red Manchester United shirt and a mischievous grin. He smiled at me as if we had done something complicit and gave me the impression he was on my side. I prayed the others were just as obliging.
When the ladies left the room, I gave a big sigh of relief, and the children smirked and giggled. After a while, one of the boys raised his hand.
“Yes?” I asked.
The boy stood up. He looked like a skipper’s mate with his blue and white striped t-shirt and shorts.
“Please sir,” he said, scratching his head and looking at the ground.
“Sorry to disturb your so good lesson, but could you also take photograph of me?”