Few who have worked in private language schools would deny that the owners of these establishments tend to... eccentricity. Some are certifiably bonkers. Samuel, the owner of the school in England that gave me my first permanent contract, had advanced, inoperable bats-in-the-belfry and was famous around town for this reason. He was Mr Toad, his humourless enthusiasm for his various projects quickly aroused, easily dashed and swiftly shifted to new ones. If his mania was at its height, he could speak of nothing but the proposed installation of a new video projector, or of the carol concert he was planning for our Christmas delectation, so you did not want to get cornered. People would dive out of second storey windows at his approach. Plans for the end of term Christmas party were usually drawn up about the end of July and circulated for everyone’s approval, meaning only approval was permitted. Come October, Sam would have recruited a number of students for his Christmas choir and be rehearsing them to the screaming limit. On the night of the do, every member of staff would be pig-sick of the bloody party before it started. Flashback:
Ten of us are huddled in the kitchen as though mulling the wine were as labour intensive an operation as separating conjoined twins. Students arrive expecting a disco, but find seats set out in rows as for a lecture. The choir is assembled, looking self-consciously smart and staid. Sam eventually turns up in bustling seriousness, wearing evening suit, bow tie and silken cummerbund. He peremptorily expels teachers from their hiding place in the kitchen. He welcomes the students formally, oblivious of their long faces. He extracts an ivory baton from a velvet pouch, taps the music stand, and the concert begins. It’s not bad. It just goes on. And on. Applause gets more and more desultory. At (considerable) length, Adeste Fideles has rung out and Sam, spent, is escorted home by his lady wife. The teachers dash for the mulled wine and the disco finally gets underway.
Greek language schools are so numerous that in the Athens suburbs there is one in nearly every street. If you do a commercial seminar for OUP on some new book, you will meet quite a few people with eccentric views of language and learning. Coffee, sticky cakes and fizzy pop will be served after the seminar and you will be required to partake, smiling, smiling, and answering questions. You thus are a sitting duck for bores with theories. Someone wants to know what you think of the Theory of Language Acquisition / Accelerated Learning / Grammar Book he’s been elaborating in his head for years. You smile and nod and say that’s interesting, yes, yes, indeed, aha. You are actually thinking ‘aw, fuck off, you pompous git, go bore someone else into catatonia, please. Your ideas are as cutting-edge as the phlogiston theory of combustion.’
Nutter in chief, the real whacko’s whacko, was Géza, Hungarian owner of a failing school in the Midlands where I worked for eighteen months. He would arrive every so often from Hungary with a list of ideas to rescue the whole moribund mess. These never included renovating the crumbling building, which would have been a good start. They usually involved plans to organise some series of cultural events which nobody local would have given a toss about. On one visit, Géza announced that we would invite local parents to a series of talks on how to tell if your kid is doing drugs. We said, no, this has been done to death, and lots of local parents are on drugs along with their kids anyway. ‘So zis is serious!’ Géza said. ‘Outside of the school ve vill place coffins, so people vill know how it is serious!’
Now, here speaks the true looper. Your language school is dying on its feet, and what do you do? You display coffins around the main entrance – that’s the way to pack them in.
Despite Géza’s tenacity and enthusiasm for the idea, the coffin display was shelved during my time as director of studies there. The school limps on though, and whenever I go past I check to see if G. has got his way after all.