If someone from Algeria describes you as ‘a doctor’, even though you are in fact a teacher or a lawyer or a marriage guidance counsellor, you should take this as high praise. When one of my Algerian classes told the course leader that I was ‘a doctor’, I thought they meant I gave them unpleasant tasks as a doctor might administer nasty drugs or painful procedures, but no, they meant I knew what I was about, and understood instinctively what they needed to know and how best to impart that knowledge. I assumed a posture of becoming modesty in the face of this shower of praise, knowing pretty well what sort of teacher they were used to back home – self-important gas-bags, mostly, with no sense of audience. Still, no point doing myself down; I’m better than any self-important gas-bag and I know it.
Being called a doctor is one thing, but my Saudi students tell me that for them, a teacher is a prophet. What if he talks out of his arse, I wanted to ask, but... well, yes. I thought better of it. This came up when a group of young Saudi men were complaining to me that another teacher’s lessons were not profiting them as much as they might. I asked why they had not told her what they would prefer to do, so that she could accommodate their wishes. This is adult education, I said, in which students are deemed to be in charge of their own learning. Teachers are not trained in telepathy, so talk to us. This was when Sami told me that for them, a teacher was a prophet, and theirs was not to question, but to submit. Then bitch about her to a third party.
If comparisons must be drawn, I’d rather my function were compared to that of doctor than prophet, but it was suggested today that perhaps, by the grace of God, I am called to both. One of my Algerian students had been very pleased with a task sheet I had given the group and by the way I had exploited it, as he felt it had been just what he needed at that time. He called me over.
‘Steve,’ he said, holding up the sheet of A3, ‘Your shit is medicine!’