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Lesson Two: Never forget Lesson Number One

My brief experience with the wannabe “deeplomat” Manolo should have warned me. He’d said he had intimate knowledge of the second-language needs of every member of the Pensión Los Girasoles, all of whom appeared to be in dire need of my services. Amongst those who had been longest on the waiting list for second-language surgery was Jesús María d’Avila, in Manolo’s unhumble opinion: “Is bank manger so his Inglish is only with money. But, Mr Grammer*, an advice: he has no got my good level.” The visit couldn’t come quicker, I thought.

Manolo’s offer of help – together with the now customary just-slightly passé and badly-absorbed set phrase – had more the ring of a tactful threat from the Mob about it than true concern for Mr d’Avila’s second language skills: “Ah will hav some words on him. Teeshirts like joo are no two for every new pence here in our town. He mus leesten to rison”.

I espied the non-sticky half of a piece of yellow notepaper chewing-gummed to my door that evening. I also recognised Manolo’s doomed stabs at second language “Scrawl-it” communication. However, to be fair, he had also made an initial attempt at helpful diagnosis: “Jesus come,” it proclaimed. “Prepare oneselves good. Needs big helps with bowel ‘oi’ and ‘oo’. Suggest start con Unit number First.” Somewhere, I made a mental note to go over my recent note-writing lesson with Manolo next class. Then I quickly realised the futility of this, Manolo currently having enough trouble chomping his way through the main course of oral English to worry about dessert. I read on: “He come nine and a quarter. Much money.” I quickly tore down the note before the divine coming.

He was as true as his threat. As the Granada Cathedral bell struck the hour and started up its little jingle, I felt a shiver go down my spine and the air grow cold all around me. Someone, or some thing, was creaking its way up the stairs towards my third-floor classroom. Whatever it was was having a hard time of it, mind, for the creakin’ ‘n’ heavin’ had begun a full fifteen minutes before the eventual knock at the door. At each turn of the stairs towards the next floor, I heard the thing stop, blaspheme a bit, emit what sounded worryingly like excess wind, and slog on ever upwards. Had I listened hard enough, I ween I might e’en have captured the sound of chains being dragged behind the object. Then, by the time the Cathedral bell had doinged its final warning, the thing had heaved its way up to my floor. As the object paused before the last few steps, there came the closing sigh and a final expelling of potentially useful vowel or bowel puff. It knocked. I approached the front door with trepidation.

Let me just give a quick plug here to Spanish front doors. They come with spy-hole as standard. The idea is that the fish-eye lens gives the spy a wide view of who or what is outside doing the knocking, and thereby provides one with the chance to accept or reject whatever is on offer before committing oneself. On this occasion, however, it did Mr D’Avila no favours. He was already rather obese and, having just shlapped and generally blown off his way up three flights of stairs, his face alone filled the lens view completely. He was also using his hand against the door to lean on and recover from the ascent. As a result, his face was so close to the lens that the thing was rapidly steaming up. I held my own breath as I observed the scene. After twenty years of teaching experience, believe me, you know a dud student when you spy-hole one.

As I opened the door, I’d half expected to hear something like “I am the ghost of fiestas past and I have a bowel problem”. While a leaning towards antiquity was indeed to become a trademark of Señor Jesús María d’Avila’s lunges at my native tongue, his first breathless attempts were suitably simple but portentous.

“Ah em Jesus. Eem ah iirly to come?” he ventured. For those of you who have never had the honour of being English teeshirts, let me explain that these initial few seconds on the first close encounter with the enemy are crucial. Here is when you realise what you are in for, what kind of lessons will be needed, how many, and what you could reasonably ask for, how classes should need to be focussed, what progress might be made, and if the two of you will get on in a space of three square metres. Having experienced the full sonorous impact of the way Mr d’Avila negotiated the stairs, I had doubts on that last one. In short, you discover just how far you will stoop for a few pesetas more.

While still regaining his breath, Mr Jesús María d’Avila opened hostilities: “Plis, …Ah must to eensist…joo coll me just Jesus.” “Just Jesus?” “No.. Ah em.. only Jesus, noothink more. Not Mary, plis.” He was at least humility – if not divinity – personified and I already imagined the pride welling up inside me as I presented a future curriculum vitae to the University of Cambridge staff selection board which ran something like:

“Previous employment: Private English teacher to: 1. Manolo Luque, Ambassador – Spain in Uzbekistan; 2. Jesus and Mary.”

Now, all I needed was a phone-call from July Churches (Manolo’s ever-helpful translation of “Julio Iglesias”) and I’d have to fight off the floods of lucrative offers for my services.

Once Jesus had negotiated his way into the only vacant seat in the classroom (i.e., the other side of the table), he told me his needs: “Een my brunch come meny meny peepuls who have not de Espanish tong.” So far, so good, I thought. He has sized up the problem. He knows where he wants to go in his classes and might prove cooperative to new methods. My hopes were then cruelly dashed. Suddenly, Jesus’s bank seemed to take on a more evangelical hue. “Dey come for me to convirt dem,” he said. He must have noticed the sudden instinctive twitch of pain fly across my countenance. “Joo know, dey ikschange with me der dollars. Ah haf sperience with many costumers along de jeers. Like dis.”

My job, as Jesus saw it, was to teach him how to handle such converts in a way that would cause least embarrassment all round. A challenge, indeed. But already, inside Round Three on that first day, it became clear what the major obstacle would be. Jesus was one of that breed who had last been to English classes over twenty years ago, when they were being administered in daily cod-liver oil style doses. And equally indigestibly. The textbook he mentioned I know only too well. It was based on the not totally unsuccessful audio-lingual method, wherein pupils heard a phrase on the tape recorder and then indulged in en masse repeating. Mr d’Avila must have felt particularly at home. Unfortunately, the method encouraged some unscrupulous teachers temporarily to hang up their chalk and let the tape do the talking. The result was often a class of pupils filled with meaningless English set phrases culled from the set of stilted unrealistic dialogues they had been made to absorb. Enter Jesus, downstage right, with his particular cull somewhat yellowing with age:

“De costumer arrives and ah greet heem dus: ‘Gud moornin, aftirnoon, or ivining, dear sir or madam, wot can ah do for joo on dis day?‘ De pirson replays: ‘Tank joo, sir, ah em new in dis city and ah wish to get myself ikschanged…..’

I could only sit back and wonder. As Jesus took his first lesson upon himself, spending at least fifteen minutes on a number of mock scenarios, taking on all parts, I just could not get out of mind how the hapless tourist must have felt suddenly faced by Mr Blob the Banker. I surfaced long enough from my musings to witness what became one of those key moments in my private teaching career (the one when I knew I’d probably arrive at the other end of it one shrimp short of a paella):

“Wen de costumer show to me hees corrants, ah give heem de rat. Eef he laik dis rat, ah geev heem Spanish corrants for good rat. All dis I know pirfect in Ingleesh, joo see. Ah want learn more formal Ingleesh for to make spich in beeg eenternational bonking confirence.”

* Manolo, like most Spaniards, has had continual trouble pronouncing my name. He asked me if it has a Spanish equivalent, like “José” or “Paco”. When told there was none, he began resorting to a number of near-misses such as this. Others regularly tried are “Dr. Grime”, “Crème”, “Grimy”, and – on more informal occasions – “Crummy”. The local hairdresser has been through a similar process lasting the ten years since we first met and came down on the side of logic last year. “Ah coll joo Peter, becos is name ‘Peter Pratt’ boy in my dortir’s Inglish book.” Ten years from Grimy to Pratt. I could only be flattered.

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