"SAM SAM SAM could I talk to you?”
I cringed. The last time Ms Thao, my boss, had taken me aside for a little chat had been so that she could tell me to put my tie in my bag when I walked out at the end of the day, rather than hold it in my hand. The time before, it had been to tell me to stop sitting down while I teach, as students had told their parents that I occasionally sit down, and the parents had gone on to complain.
I’d gotten a little miffed at that one. There is patently no way that a child goes home from English school, is asked how his day was, and by way of response says “it was great! The teacher sat down for a few minutes!” So it was with some trepidation that I went into a side room to hear my boss’s latest request.
“Can you wear a jacket tomorrow?”
“Sorry, I don’t own one.”
“Well can you buy one?”
Her forehead wrinkled, giving away incredible amounts of anxiety that she tried to hide with a not-very-genuine-smile. “Do you have a white shirt?”
“Sure.” I put out a feeler. “Why?”
“We are taping an ad that will go to all of Vietnam tomorrow and we want you to look very handsome.”
This was interesting. I couldn’t really say that I expected this exact situation to arise, but its strangeness was definitely par for the course. This is a school that regularly tops itself in terms of the bizarre.
For example. Part of my job is testing new students, which I already don’t entirely understand. I sit with a small, terrified child and have him or her repeat words after me. Since the child tends to be new to English, he or she will always have no vocabulary and atrocious pronunciation; hardly unexpected. But still, I’m consistently pulled out of my classes to go through this charade.
So I carry the whole process out, and after I’m done (this is determined by when my boredom reaches its apex), a local teacher will ask me how the child’s English pronunciation was. I’ll give an answer, and be on my way.
Then, a few weeks ago, they started asking me a new question. I answered the usual pronunciation question and made to leave, when the woman said “wait.” I obliged, and she asked me another question: “how is his psychology?”
“Psychologically? You know, his brain, his mind?” This shattered the impression I had of her misunderstanding the word “psychology.”
“I’m not sure…I’m not a psychologist,” I tried to be tactful as I gave this what I thought to be rather obvious fact.
“Hmm, yes.” She smiled and nodded. “But is his brain okay?”
“Well, I guess, but like I said, I’m not a….”
She cut me off and bustled me out of the room. “Thank you see you again.”
So I wasn’t caught completely off-guard when my boss told me why I was to dress nicely the following day, as the abnormal had long ago replaced the normal at Super Youth. On the contrary, I was flattered. Just a few short months ago, I was an embittered civil servant living in his parents’ attic; now I’m well on my way to becoming a Vietnamese TV star.
“What do you need me to do?”
“Make the children very happy,” she said as she shoved something into my face. It was all in Vietnamese, but I recognized it as a script. I was literally going to be running a scripted lesson.
Actually, I kind of liked it, as it had a song to teach the kids and a couple of games that looked fun. It was kind of amusing that from my first day on I’d just been thrown into a classroom with vague instructions to “teach these pages” for 45 minutes, and it was only now, in the presence of cameras, that I was being given any meaningful tips, but I’m familiar with the adage about gift horses and their mouths.
The next day came, and when I arrived at work the first thing the boss told me was to come down to a classroom where she had my six-year-olds ready. We were going to practice. “Great,” I thought. Even though I’d nodded and said yes, mostly because I didn’t want to be in a conversation with my anxiety-ridden boss anymore, I wasn’t entirely clear on the details of how the class was to run. So a run-through would be great. Iron out the kinks, et cetera et cetera.
The kids were sitting there, excited that their routine was being broken. I opened my mouth to begin the lesson (the first scene on the script was to introduce myself to the children, which was odd seeing how they’d had me as their teacher for months), but I was interrupted by Ms Thao shrieking. The children, it turned out, had not been sitting with their arms crossed on their desks, and today that was an inexcusable offence.
It’s not like sitting with crossed arms is a rule that just isn’t enforced. It really was completely new to everyone involved – me, the children, and the Vietnamese teacher.
We started again, with 16 little arms obediently crossed. I made it through the introduction, and moved onto the first game. This one was easy – I was to pantomime different vocabulary words, and the students would raise their hands and answer as to what it was. No problem; I’d done it a million times before.
I pantomimed my first word (apple, by the way) and eight hands shot up. They went right back into their arms-folded position, though, when Ms Thao shrieked again, possibly louder than the first time.
The problem? Today, the six-year-olds weren’t going to simply raise their hands. They were going to shout “ding-dong!” as well.
It was about here that I couldn’t stop myself from breaking out in peals of laughter every few minutes. We only had a couple hours until the cameras came, she was stressed to the max that it go perfectly, and she was calling audibles?
Luckily, that was the last time she changed the play during the rehearsal, and it proceeded without a hitch. Then she had us do it again. And again. And again. Three times we did that twenty-minute lesson, and by the third time she was shrieking that the kids’ “ding-dongs” weren’t loud enough.
Finally, she told me not to call on one girl because “she is too slow, she will make school look bad.” I asked if that wasn’t more than a little harsh, especially seeing how the girl in question was six, but Ms Thao gave a weird smile and walked away.
We had a quick break, and then our moment arrived. The cameras were here, and the children, exhausted by now, were led through their “lesson” for the fourth time. Ms Thao stood nervously outside the open door, a regular bundle of nerves.
I went through the lesson, with the children giving half-hearted “ding-dongs,” constantly looking to Ms Thao in fear and trepidation. After the introduction, it was time for a song.
The song was simple, but I messed it up. Oops. It was supposed to go “up down, turn around, up up up, down down down down, turn around and JUMP!”
I only said “down” three times. I know. Unforgivable. Ms Thao came blustering in, shrieking and flailing her arms, screaming instructions in her shrill voice to the cameraman, trying to get him to stop recording so we could start the lesson over. He snapped back, also in Vietnamese, and judging by the fact that she faded into the corner, it was probably something along the lines of “are you insane? We’re not starting over.”
But she was on edge. She hovered around for the rest of the lesson, interjecting not-very-quietly over and over again. She looked like she was about to explode.
I was getting a little frustrated. Not that I overly cared how the commercial went. I was just a little annoyed that she was such a pile of stress over the kids being happy and everything being perfect, but at the same time she was singlehandedly ruining it.
It was time for the game. And an inspiration dawned on me. I would call on the slow girl.
I did it, and it was great. The colour drained out of Ms Thao’s face as she tried to signal to me what a mistake I was making through hand gesture and facial expressions, as the cameraman had by this stage insisted on silence from her. I pretended not to understand, and called on the little girl again. And again. And again.
It was like the climatic point in a children’s movie; just as I had expected, she wasn’t slow at all. She answered the questions at the same speed or faster than anyone else. In my brain, the violins swelled, as the underdog and I stuck it to the (wo)man, who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
And then it was over. Ms Thao approached me. “Are you stress?”
“Oh I think maybe you are because forget not to call on slow girl.”
“I didn’t forget.”
Then I walked away, smug smile on my face, having successfully, once again, stuck it to a figure of authority, and on television to boot.
It was a good day at Super Youth.