A short while ago I was Director of Studies at a failing language school somewhere in the Midlands. The reasons for the failure were many and too tedious to relate, but they did not include the work done by Marion, the principal, and me. Our combined efforts were always banjaxed by Géza, the mad Hungarian owner of the place, who could have done much to retard the effects of the second law of thermodynamics on the building, but who instead wanted always to compete with the local Arts Centre in organising exhibitions, talks and cultural events nobody local would have given a monkey’s about. Meanwhile the building crumbled, students stayed away in droves, and morale plunged.
Géza hit upon the idea of sending over a bunch of kids from his rather exclusive school in Hungary. They would, he decided, do a couple of weeks’ English classes, then ‘work experience’. As always he left the details to Marion. The kids would need to be allocated to host families, always a logistical nightmare, and then assigned to such local companies as might be prepared to take on sulky, petulant twinks who hardly knew any English.
‘How do you know they’ll be sulky and petulant?’ I asked Marion
‘Had kids from his place once before. They were buggers.’ she said. ‘Margot had a terrible time with them. They ran rings round her, standing on the bloody desks and mooning at her…’
I thought of tweedy, matronly mem-sahib Margot, a woman I suspected had not been born, but knitted by the Women’s Institute. She always addressed students in tones customarily employed for congratulating toddlers on doing a nice pooh. ‘There’s something about Margot,’ I said, ‘that makes the temptation to moon at her almost irresistible.’
‘Ooh, she’s a love,’ Marion said. ‘But I take your point.’
The kids duly arrived from Hungary, each with a set of operating instructions. These detailed what the kid would and would not eat, what species of domestic animal s/he must on no account come into contact with, what work activities s/he would and would not do (‘no lifting’ – and these were fit young teens.) and a list of allergies. Allergies seemed to be quite fashionable among the kiddies of the Hungarian newly-well-off. Almost all of them claimed to be allergic to something, and one boy was allegedly ‘allergic to everything.’ It was not hard to imagine how these kids’ allergies could be used as an all-purpose bone of contention between parent and offspring, a bargaining chip both parties could exploit when it was expedient. The parents were probably rejoicing that their little darling was someone else’s problem for a month. And they were certainly a problem.
First problem was, as always, with the host families. Groups arriving from abroad are extremely difficult to accommodate in a town as small as ours, because the families and students have conflicting specifications. Family A will accept no boys, while family B will take boys gladly but has three Rottweilers, and so a male student who is petrified of dogs cannot be placed with either. Just as he is finally allocated to a family that fits, the kid withdraws or the host family decides at point blank notice to go to Lanzarote for the summer. This sort of thing goes on for weeks before the students arrive, and costs a fortune in phone bills and frayed nerves. Students have no idea how close they have come to being accommodated in tents, on traffic islands, or up trees, as host families get fed up of being buggered about, and think it's just us playing silly sods. When the kids arrive and are taken to their new accommodation, there is usually a brief period where they all have urgent reasons for wanting to change; the stair carpet is of a colour that displeases them, the bedding of the wrong material, the house smells, two boys have been accommodated with a single man who is obviously a paedophile. These claims are usually ignored, and are soon dropped. The ‘paedophile’ was in fact a single man whose female partner was not home on the boys’ first night, and a phone call to the parents explaining that he was an anaesthetist calmed their nerves and appealed to their snobbery. (‘He won’t touch them. At least not while they’re conscious.’)
The next problem was the mismatch between the students’ expectations regarding ‘work experience’ and the grim reality. Géza had told the parents, but not us, that the kids would be placed in lawyers’ offices, accountancy firms, doctors’ surgeries and the like. But lawyers, etc., are not that daft. This is why kids turned up in business suits for their first day of flipping burgers, and why they were understandably pissed off. Géza was incommunicado at this point; knowing large amounts of shit would soon be hitting the fan, he preferred as always that others be left to sweep it all up.
Complaints from the kids about the work experience were not in the end as many as we had expected. Some delicate young ladies claimed that they had been locked in the cellars of a restaurant and forced to wash up until their hands bled, a tale that suggested a distinct unfamiliarity with what washing up involves. We almost expected them to start telling us they’d been set to breaking stones or picking oakum. Most of the complaints came from the restaurants, cafes and shops that had allowed the kids in. Some of the little bleeders had been as moody and petulant and prima donna-ish as Marion had predicted, and local businesses had been deeply unimpressed, and were eager never to repeat the experience.
Géza was eager to try again, though. The whole thing was reprised a few months later with another group, and with even fewer charitably disposed local businesses, but by this time I was out of that language school, and language schools in general, I hope and pray, for ever.