A girl in one school said I looked like E.T. Sooner or later we are all aliens.
In London I met a teacher called Miss Ruby, or something like that. I’ve changed the middle vowel. Most of her Year 3 class had families from Africa or Asia, like her own. These children had enough linguistic problems without Miss Ruby pronouncing most long vowels like oo in poo. She set them some work, and then meant to say: “I have to go and talk to sir,” but in fact said: “I have to goo and talk to Sue.”
There was a spelling list to learn and a set of instructions on how to do it. Look at the word, read it, say the letters out loud. But not like Miss Ruby. Incidentally, the list of spellings, if you shuffled them around, would read like a tropical romance, an indiscreet one: adventure, beautiful, important, laughter, stumble, mumble, grumble, dangerous, escape, village.
Many of the pupils I tutor privately are from sticky, foreign places. Sri Lankans on Saturday. The mother, aunties, female cousins and servant sit on the kitchen floor around a great bowl of uncooked rice, inspecting, grading, and picking out stones. So skilled are their fingers, they hardly need their eyes, which view the room instead with an equatorial glow. Miss Ruby’s vowels wouldn’t make them blink, but I wonder how long it will be before I am picked out like a twig from the rice bowl and discarded. The children, as in many immigrant families, speak more English than their parents. They interpret for them. Don’t ruffle the interpreter. If a tutor is too strict, or gives too much homework, the children just tell their parents something, and out he goes.
One of our lessons clashed with the Annual All-London Sri-Lankan Tamil Summer Carnival Sports Weekend. Nothing was a match for this. The week before, a thirteen-year-old explained why the lesson had to be cancelled. I must have tilted my head, because she stiffened her top lip, which is usually as pretty as a ripe coffee bean, and retorted: “My mother won the fifty metres last year!”
In India, my own Sports Day was not so glorious. I taught in Tamil Nadu for a year. The sports field was a plain of red dust, and the setting of my first whole-school humiliation. The penchant for adult sprinting, remember? I’d arrived in the country a few hours earlier. I was put down for the Staff 50 Metres. I had no choice. I was on the staff.
When the starting pistol fired, everybody else, even the staid and portly Miss Peter, hurled themselves like javelins at the finish line. Most of these ladies were averse to walking. I couldn’t see them sprinting. When they did, it startled me. I hesitated. Then, knowing I couldn’t catch them, and not really wanting to, I followed in slow motion, my knees bobbing along, elbows lazy, like ballet on the surface of the moon, as if I’d always planned to do a comic turn.
Everyone below eighteen laughed and cheered. Congratulations at the finish line. It was the first time I saw Miss Peter wince. The exertion must have winded her.