by Bryan R. Monte
As a lecturer of English language and cultures at a Dutch polytechnic, I watched for years as some of my freshmen struggled to declare a major and choose an eventual profession. However, for me this important decision came quickly, easily, and by accident at the very beginning of my education.
When I was in the first primary school class, I came home every evening and taught my younger sister that day’s reading lesson. I helped her learn how to sound out the words using the examples from my Fun with Phonics book. “Hs,” I told her, “were the sound you made after running hard and had to catch your breath. Ss were the sounds snakes make as they slithered through the grass.” I was so happy to share what I was learning in class that was helping me to start to decode the newsprint my father read every night as he argued with the television news announcers. With my help, my sister was soon reading the simple texts tacked above her kindergarten classroom’s chalkboards and recognizing words and phrases from the books her teacher read to the class. So at the age of five, I discovered I could not only learn how to do new things, but I could act as a conduit for this new knowledge. I could pass information onto others and check, whilst I was doing it, if they grasped what I was trying to teach.
Sometimes though, in later life, I wondered, as some of my undergraduates did, if I had made the right career choice. Even though teaching seemed to be my calling or beroep, the Dutch word for profession, it was also a very labour-intensive, low-paid profession in comparison to other specialist and similarly complex and continuously-certified professions that work with the general public, such as pharmacists, (my father’s and next younger brother’s choice) or audiologists. I wondered if teaching was perhaps the best expenditure of my time and energy and if there was a measurable, social return on my efforts.
In addition, I wasn’t able to teach every year after I left college with my MA in English and writing. I taught for one year in exurban New England where I felt perhaps I’d been chosen for the job because my name, as the other teachers, ended in a vowel. Here, the male and female teachers sat at two separate tables and I felt I would only be accepted if I married, produced children and lived there for a generation. In addition, every Friday evening that winter it snowed heavily. By midnight, the roads were impassible, making a foray into Cambridge gay society for the weekend impossible.
I knew there was a place in America where one didn’t have to worry about blizzards or being gay so, at the end of that school year, I moved back to California where I had obtained my BA at Berkeley. Here I never had to worry about spending an hour digging my car out of the snow before I could drive somewhere. I could also choose from scores of gay places and organizations for society. However, I did discover I had moved back to an area that had a glut of teachers. After applying for dozens of teaching positions, I ended up getting a job in an insurance company because I was literate, organized, and could file, retrieve, update, and print computer forms with ease. I stayed in insurance because I discovered that most of the teaching jobs available in the Bay Area were free-lance and without benefits, including most importantly, health insurance during the AIDS epidemic. So I held a weekly writers’ workshop in my living room and taught technical writing classes at the UC Berkeley Extension one evening a week every other semester to keep my teaching skills sharp and my CV updated.
However, I did learn something meaningful, when I worked at one of the insurance company’s divisions that had underwritten a lot of ‘bad business’ that year. Due to the losses from these new accounts, which outstripped the earned premiums, the underwriter at the desk next to mine remarked that if the company had shut its doors for a year and we had just sat at our desks and read our continuing education insurance books and not written any new business, then the company would have made a bigger profit.
But insurance as well as education, has a social benefit that is largely discounted these days by companies and governments driven by short-term profits or objectives. And I could enumerate and measure these educational and social benefits as clearly as I could my incoming freshmen’s English fluency seven years later in the Netherlands. At the beginning of the college year, I administered the same standardized tests in writing, listening, and reading. The students’ scores dipped consistently overall by a percentage point (two points for reading) each year for over a decade.
Despite this, though, I could see definite progress in my students’ spoken English once they were in my class. At the end their first class, my freshmen English students left the classroom complaining to each other in fluent Dutch that they had too much homework, unaware that I understood their every word. After going on their freshmen and sophomore excursions to London and Dublin, visiting museums by day and pubs by night, however, the value of English and my small talk conversation drills became more than apparent. They suddenly discovered they should have paid more attention so they could chat up a handsome or beautiful British or Irish young man or woman at the bar! (My coach drivers for these excursions also complimented my students. They said they were the only group that consistently showed up on time and who took their rubbish with them). By their senior year, these same students left my classroom at the end of the first class complaining to me in fluent, polite English, using the persuasive phrases I had taught them, that they had too much homework. Then I knew all my time and energy as head of English had not been wasted, that it wouldn’t have been better if I’d stayed in the teachers’ room and spent most of my time reading books and planning curricula as some of my predecessors had done. I knew that due to my efforts, I had managed to change the world, even if by just a little bit, for the better. AQ