started teaching English recently. It wasn’t in the plans. My mother is a primary school teacher. I spent many an afternoon screaming at my brother for throwing tanbark at me or covertly stealing art supplies for whatever decoupage project I had just dreamed up. My sister is a teacher and so is my sister-in-law. Teaching is to the women in my family what accounting is to the men. It’s all we know how to do.
Then expat life happened and it didn’t take me long to figure out that I possessed a very marketable skill. I spoke English is a country that still thinks “baby parking” is a synonym for baby-sitting. I’d like to pretend the chips were down and I had no choice, but I tumbled into teaching like I tumble into everything else in life, through a chronic inability to say no to whatever sounds easy.
I am not saying teaching is easy, well, actually, I am. Teaching English in Italy is exceptionally easy. After all, it’s a simple case of being born in an English-speaking country. Teaching degree optional.
A couple of weeks ago, I was toiling away with my students in a local restaurant. They are hospitality students, so their classes are conducted in either the kitchen or dining room. Since I refuse to wear appropriate footwear or a chef’s uniform, I have been banished to the latter.
Whoever said young minds were inspiring had clearly not met Generation Z. Close your eyes and cast your mind back to “The Nightmare on Elm Street,” except the roles are reversed and the teenagers are doing the murdering. Victim count: one perfectly sweet and amiable Egyptian chef, circa 30 zucchini and myself.
The day’s lesson was vegetable flowers. Retro, I’ll admit, but it beats last week’s utterly enthralling demonstration on the correct procedure for moping the floor. Paring knife in hand, the chef was expertly trying to show the students how to carve a rose from a zucchini. The kid next to me was expertly trying to stab his knife in the spaces between his companion’s fingers. He looked at me like I was a monster for making him stop.
Now that I think about, he was right to be affronted. I was only the teacher’s aide. Their classroom teacher had disappeared 20 minutes ago to dedicate himself to carving a penguin from an eggplant. Why should they listen to the kooky Australian who looks about their age and keeps forcing them to speak English as if that could possibly be useful in their future careers as wait staff? If they spent as much time listening to me as they did trying to hit on me, they’d be fluent by now. Nothing is more demoralizing that telling a 16-year-old not to give you their mobile number #InspiringYoungMinds.
If anything the Egyptian chef was to be commended for his dedication. His hands were shaking as he wasted his breath explaining the steps in broken Italian. The kids had already diced all the zucchini with vicious karate chops that went through the plastic covering to leave nasty gashes in the wooden table underneath. There were no zucchini left to transform into roses.
His salvation came when we stopped for a snack break. I shared in his sigh of relief as I tried to commiserate. I was eaten alive in my first year of teaching almost a decade ago. My students were brutal and calculating — all five of them. They found immeasurable joy in correcting me every time I misspoke, eviscerating me with almost the same relish they gleaned from eating the counters they’d found on the floor or covering themselves in paint.
As the chef glanced at his watch and wondered why this 10-minute school-mandated break had gone on for so long, I resisted the urge to shake him. There he was, standing at the head of the table, pumpkin in hand, with such innocent joy. He really thought these teenagers wanted to see him transform the gourd into a bouquet of blooms. I didn’t have the heart to tell him two-thirds of the class wasn’t coming back and those in the room were too busy running from one side to the other trying to get cellphone reception.
Then I remembered I was just the teacher’s aide. For me, the nightmare was over in half an hour and I wouldn’t have to suffer the company of these mini Freddy Krugers for another week. So I went over to admire the teacher’s penguin before joining his colleague at the makeshift bar. It was 11 a.m. and she was dispassionately watching the chaos, Spritz in hand, effortlessly Italian in her stance, demeanor and wanton negligence.