Image courtesy of Or Reshef
Preface: Be warned. This is a long(ish) true story, but I promise, there is a point at the end of it.
It was a spring day in 2009 and I was at my desk doing some last minute preparation for class when the phone rang.
“Hello, Mr. Hall?”
“Hello, I am Irina from the bookstore. Cambridge University Press is giving a seminar today and I was wondering if you may be interested in attending our fine event.”
“That sounds interesting. What time is it at?”
“It is half past ten in the morning.”
“I have class until 10:20, so it would depend on where it is at.”
“It is located at the Russian high school in the auditorium. Do you know where that is?”
“Is that the school close to Manto?”
“Yes, that is the same one. If you are interested in attending, you may come without registration and you do not need to pay.”
“That sounds good. I may be a few minutes late, but I would love to come.”
I hung up and grabbed my stuff for class. It was now a few minutes before the start of class and I wouldn’t have time afterward to come back up to my office, so I grabbed my coat and headed up to the fifth floor.
Class went well, or at least I think it did, and I put on my coat and headed out the door. I made sure to go past the receptionist’s desk to let her know I wouldn’t be back until the afternoon before my late class. I worked for a shipping company as their in-house English language teacher and customer service trainer and my boss was the CEO who let me make my own decisions on most things. I knew it would be fine with him if I just took off, but I just wanted to make sure that someone knew where I was.
I ran off down the street since it was now about 5 minutes before the session started. The school wasn’t too far away, but I had never been there and I had no idea where the auditorium was. I was out of breath by the time I arrived at the school and entered the old, dark foyer. Now I was in trouble. I had spent three years in Lithuania and had been studying and using Lithuanian during that time, but I had never learned any Russian other than a few phrases I would hear and repeat in the office. As I had feared, all of the signs were in Russian. Trying to play it cool, I pretended to know where I was going. I mostly did this out of fear since I was not prepared to have a conversation in Russian, especially as a “strange man” in the school. Instead, I wandered up and down the hallways looking for anything that looked like an auditorium entrance. No dice. I finally had to give in and hope that the “key lady”* would be able to speak a little Lithuanian.
(In my putrid Lithuanian) ”Excuse me. Do you speak Lithuanian?”
(In Lithuanian / Russian mix) “Yes. Some.”
(In my relieved and hopeful Lithuanian) “Where is the auditorium?”
(In Russian, or at least I think it was since I am not certain what she actually said) “There”
With that, she pointed at the stairwell behind me. I thanked her in my terrible Russian and ran up the stairs. I was now 10 minutes late. At the top of the stairs there were two very tall wooden doors. I grabbed the handle and attempted to open them just a crack.
“Crap. You might as well go for it now,” I thought to myself.
I swung open the door and marched inside. Yep. Everyone noticed, including the speaker who stopped his presentation.
“Do come in. There are a few seats left at the front.”
The front. Of course. There were only about 150 teachers in the room and they had all turned around to see who was late. Scratch that. There were about 150 WOMEN in the room and I was the only man other than the speaker. I shuffled up to the front as quickly as possible and I crouched down in the front row.
“I am invisible. No one can see me,” I tried convincing myself.
The speaker went on his way and after a while, I straightened up and settled into taking notes and looking through the goodie bag they had left on the seats. You should note that the term “goodie” here translates to “marketing stuff” and I ended up just using the pen and paper, leaving the rest on the seat.
Eventually it was time for a lunch break and we were told that a hot lunch was available in the cafeteria downstairs for purchase. I had been told that the food here was actually pretty good and relatively cheap, which is about perfect for a group of English teachers. Since I was in the front, I was at the end of the line of people leaving the auditorium, which was fine with me since I had no idea where I was going and I didn’t want to get lost again.
The cafeteria was a typical Russian style eatery where you grab what you want, other than hot beverages, and then they weigh your food and give you a price at the till. This is a great system IF you know the language. You can have as much, or as little, as you want and can pick and choose through the options. I grabbed my salads (I do miss those marinated salads) and hot food before heading to the till. One of the only words I know in Russian is for tea. What I wanted was an herbal or fruit tea, but at lunchtime they only have pre-brewed black tea. So that settled that, black tea it was. What I didn’t know, and I have now certainly learned from experience, is that they serve it in drinking glasses. Without handles. And it is wicked hot. The man reached back, grabbed the glass, and handed it to me as if nothing was the matter. So, I grabbed it and instantly lost all of my fingerprints (not really, but it certainly like it).
After quickly putting down my glass, I looked up to see the man using a tabletop abacus to calculate the price. He was so, so fast with that thing. He looked up and told me the price, in Russian of course. Blink, blink. You could almost hear the crickets in my head. Realizing that I was too stupid to understand him, he quickly crabbed a piece of chalk and scratched it ON THE MENU for me and for anyone who was looking at the menu.
“Great. Now the whole building knows I can’t speak Russian,” I grumbled to myself.
I handed him the money and he flung the change back at me as he grabbed the food from the next customer so he could weigh it. It was at that moment that I noticed that there was no room on my tray for the tea. So, instead of swapping one of the salads for the tea and then carrying both (the logical choice), I left the tea on the counter and ran my tray to the nearest table (the choice that created new problems) . As I put my tray on the table, I noticed that there was only one spot left out of the 10 chairs at the table; the rest were filled with the ladies from the session. I smiled and ran back to grab my tea. I tried picking it up again, but my hands weren’t as callused as the man behind the counter, so I grabbed it by the very top rim, hoping I could make it the 6 feet to the table. I spun around and ran back to the table as quickly as I could only to find that all of the ladies had left or relocated to another table. I was now all alone.
There I sat, all by myself as others talked in Russian and Lithuanian at the tables around me. At this point I couldn’t figure out why they had abandoned me there, but I guessed it was something to do with the fact I was also the only native English speaker in the place and I was also the one who didn’t teach in the public school system. I later found out that it was a combination of all three things: my gender, my language, and my workplace. It turns out they were worried I would judge them on their English ability and this made things awkward for them, so they simply did what they could which was to avoid the situation.
After my quiet, and somewhat depressing lunch (although, the food was great), I made my way upstairs for the second half of the session, which was fairly uneventful. At the end of the time, I noticed everyone getting up rather quickly and running to the back table which had been set up after lunch. It turns out they were receiving their certificates they needed to show their PD clock hours for this session. Being as my boss could care less and the same with me, I decided to slip past everyone and try to escape unnoticed. But that didn’t work.
“Excuse me, sir, excuse me,” a smiling lady exclaims in a loud voice as she chases after me.
I stopped, although everything within me is screaming at me to make a mad dash for the door and freedom beyond it.
“Excuse me, everyone!” she yells at the top of her voice.
Everyone stops. And looks. At me.
“I would like to present this certificate to OUR MAN!” she proudly pronounces as she hands me a certificate.
I must have turned about 10 shades of red as I sheepishly thank her and reach for the certificate. Everyone clapped politely and smiled before turning around to find their own certificate. I wheeled around and bolted out the door and half walked, half ran back to work. I didn’t have to get to work in any hurry, but I just wanted to hide away in my office for a while.
I decided to share that with my students later that afternoon, which they all found terribly funny and ribbed me about it for months. It was all in good fun as I knew them quite well. The upside to all of that? Someone taught be how to carry a tea glass without burning off all of the skin on my hands. I’m quite proud of that.
* The "key lady” is the person at the front of the school who sits in a locked kiosk and gives out the keys to the rooms. It is almost always a lady who is proficient at scowling and making you feel like you are intruding.
Why am I telling you this story? Believe it or not, this story came back to me as I was thinking about preparing my TESL course for the next time I hope to teach it. I realized in my reflection on this semester and on the curriculum and material I have used that the way the class is being taught and presented could be difficult to understand or complete if a student had a disability of some sort, such as a sight or hearing impairment. I am actually surprised I haven’t thought about it before, but any time it has come to mind in the past, I have thought about how I would adapt the course to fit their needs. But then it struck me: I should be creating the course with them in mind, not adapting it to them.
I thought about how a student entering this course might feel knowing that they are doing things in “different” ways, separate from the other students. It made me think of my encounter with the other teachers: the outcast left on my own. I desperately don’t want that to happen. I am hoping there is a way that I can create a course with minimal changes needed for students with various disabilities. Of course, I don’t think it is possible to change everything and I will need to make some accommodations, but there are so many other things I can do that would work for all students in the class.
I am not an expert in this area and I feel I will need to consult some people who know best how to create material for courses that increase accessibility for all students, but I feel there are some things I can start doing right now. Mostly, it is about a change in mentality as I prepare my lessons and my materials for the next time I teach this course or any course for that matter. I owe it to my students to do what I can to help them even before I know who they are. I don’t want them to feel isolated or singled out like I did on that day. In no way am I considering my minor inconvenience to the difficulties that these people go through on a daily basis, but the story did trigger something for me and I hope it sinks in even more as I continue on my teaching journey.
One last thing, I hope no one thinks that the teachers in my story are rude or that I think they were mean. To be honest, I think it was a simple misunderstanding and given the chance, I think I would handle it differently today. I also think that the English teachers in Lithuania are doing a great job as a whole, especially given the pay and working conditions many find themselves in. They are industrious, hard working, and often loved by their students. I also don’t want people thinking that I am creating a stereotypical image of Russians in this story. This is just what happened on that day, and for the most part, I worked with some amazingly caring and friendly Russians in my office who I still consider as friends to this day. Overall, my experience in Lithuania was something I wouldn’t trade the world for and I still consider it to be my “other home.”
Aš myliu Lietuvą