Sunday, 27 February 2011

Useful Circles

Anyone who claims that children put a brake on your professional life have either never reproduced or live in neighbourhoods where the pinnacle of personal achievement is being able to cough without breaking wind. Other parents can be extraordinary fertile networking sources (they can also be extraordinarily fertile full stop, if you will) and ours has certainly done me proud these last few years.

Music is a pleasurable-enough way to earn your living, but if you really want a buzz with no two days the same, then you should teach English. No kidding. It's great. I did a couple of years at Berlitz in Paris about ten years ago and was amazed at how much I learned about other people's careers, expectations, hopes, dreams and disappointments, as well as a fair bit about passing on the language of Shakespeare and Bernard Manning. Aside from my euphonious day job I've been moonlighting at a large lycée in the centre of Toulouse and was asked a few months back to teach 30 hours at one of the city's universities. Both of these offers came from fellow parents at the Fingernails' school, my main qualification being, in their eyes, the fact that I was, er, English. The fact I'd done it before did help, though.

The lycée students aren't actually schoolchildren, they're university-age and attending 'classes préparatoires' with a view to getting accepted at one of France's so-called 'Grandes Ecoles', graduating as highly-qualified civil servants who will then suck on the big tit of the French state until their demise. If you are French, your entire future will be played out between the ages of 11 and 19; fail your bac and you can't realistically hope for more than the minimum wage at any time in your life. Get into a Grande Ecole and you're set. It's a bit like Oxbridge: it's not just the education, it's the contacts you make while you're there which often turn out to be as, if not more, important in your subsequent journey through life. Still, all this is a post in its own right, and I'll get around to it soon enough. Suffice to say that these 'prepa' egg-heads often have an astoundingly high level of English. They are, without exception, extremely intelligent, motivated, resourceful and courteous. They basically teach themselves while I sit there with a finger up my nose. Well not really, but you know what I mean.

Anyhow, back to these 30 university hours. I had a few months to prepare for this period, where I would hold seven four-hour classes and finish off with a 2pm - 4pm session before the students dispersed to their various internships. It was a group of 14, thirteen women and one man, and the level was probably going to be intermediate. Believe me, four hours is a long time for students of that level to concentrate, so I had to plan my lessons thoroughly, alternating speech with written exercises, comprehension games and a juicy break in the middle of it all where we could all relax with a coffee. I might have mentioned French contemporary architecture before in a post, but I'm going to dredge the matter up again, if only to reiterate my open-mouthed incomprehension concerning their urban planning. In England we had red-brick universities: modern, fairly interesting constructions, no two alike. In France, maybe to underline their inherent socialist principals, we have one uniform style: grey, poor-quality, weather-beaten concrete. With bits missing. Situated on main roads between disused petrol stations. Urban France is a rich version of the Soviet Union. The centres are invariably delightful, the late 20th-century urban sprawl that surrounds them meandering, characterless and depressing. Needless to say, most modern universities are located on the cities' peripheries, and my establishment was no exception. Opposite the building was a tagged and vandalised car garage, irresistably monikered 'Auto Université'. On our left, an Esso station, to the right a car park with a single wooden cabin situated in its centre, selling pizzas. This is the France that Peter Mayle never writes about. And why should he, to be fair...

My students were all doing a Master's course in Documentation and Information Management. Hearing that immediately reminded me of day one of our Berlitz training in Paris, when someone said 'But what if I don't know anything about the student's line of work?'. Dave, our Leader and Teacher, responded: 'Get them to tell you'. Simple, yet invaluable advice. If you're talking, the student isn't learning. Berlitz was a bit sound-bitey on occasions, but the guidelines were worth their weight in gold. Anyhow, faced with thirteen delightful twenty-something ladies in today's Toulouse, I was determined these lessons were going to be rewarding. They introduced themselves: 'My name eez Lydia, I have twenty-three years, I leev in Toulouse since five years'. Anyone who's ever taught English in France or to the French will be familiar with this. They were terribly shy about speaking at first, but by the end of the thirty hours they were talking about their interests and fielding questions from the others while I just sat there like a Wimbledon line judge.

Some moments were pretty hairy, though. When one girl said 'I was enjoyed a lot when I went to Paris last week' I had to suppress a playground titter. Ever curious and desirous to improve, she pressed me for an explanation of what she'd said. Having intimated that I couldn't explain it without the presence of my lawyer she burst into fits of laughter. And then went extremely red. They all improved drastically over the time we spent together and I've been asked to do it again, next year. Can't wait. Documentalists are a lot of fun, you know. My Mum was a librarian and she's still a hoot.

One particular episode of that time warrants a mention. The IUT building is surrounded by a metal fence, a greying, rusty, knee-high barrier. An Open Day - Journée des Portes Ouvertes - was planned for mid-February. This was a Big Deal for the admin crowd and flyers a-plenty were being distributed all over the place. In-house TV and radio were everywhere and I was asked i.e. told to open up my English class so that prospective students could come in and observe a coven of petrified trainee female librarians trying not to say they were gang-banged the last time they went up the Eiffel Tower. In the end, I managed to reduce public access to my group for fifteen minutes...

In preparation for this Open Day, the University's Supreme Soviet ordered that all fences, gates etc should be painted in order to present the crumbling, grey concrete block in its best light. However, in true communist style, work was either delayed or forgotten, paint deliveries did not materialise and the fences were still dripping wet when the first applicants arrived. Now, we can't have humans near wet paint, can we? That would be far too dangerous, Elf 'n' Safety 'n' all that, so what did they do? They cordoned off all access to the university. Yes, you read that right. In order to get to the Journée Portes Ouvertes, you had to climb over the fence, preferably out of sight of the authorities, who would have chastised you for loitering with intent near aqueous substances. The cordon was the official red and white variety, too; no messing around. It won't surprise you to hear that no-one came to observe our lesson; how could they, when the university wouldn't even let them in to the Open Day?

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