I’d always assumed before coming over to Brazil that my most awkward classroom moment would’ve come from the time I was teaching in Japan; where I’d been asked by an elderly group of women to explain what a ‘smear test’ was.
Well as I was soon to find out, I was wrong to have written off my Brazilian students quite so quickly. As an English teacher here, I’ve had plenty of interesting classroom incidents over the last couple of years, but none that have made me squirm quite like the one I’m about to describe.
My intention with this blog is not to identify the student in this post (I’ll change a few details to ensure this doesn’t happen and also, perhaps more importantly, to make sure he doesn’t hunt me down and kick my ass!), but I’ve written it to illustrate how quickly things can go wrong during an English class, and when you’re least expecting them to.
So I’d been asked by my school to substitute for a teacher who’d gone on vacation for a few weeks. At the time my schedule for Tuesday mornings was pretty empty, so despite being told that this student was likely to be ‘different’ from the others I was used to teaching, I gladly accepted the extra classes. The guy I’d been sent to teach was into Muay Thai in a big way, had arms that would’ve made Popeye slightly envious and he had an incredibly deep, authoritative voice.
I’m not going to lie; he intimidated the shit out of me!
Unfortunately for me, he seemed to be well aware of this. “You took the subway here?” he once asked, before waiting for me to answer in the affirmative. “I sometimes ride it with my children on a weekend, just to let them see how the poor people in the city live”.
“Ohhhhhhh right” I replied after a few uncomfortable seconds of silence. Then as he stared at me quite intensely, I really didn’t know what to say and then became quite conscious that my face was reddening a little.This seemed to invite a teasing smirk to play across his lips, one that said, ”gottchha!”
Another time he gushed about how his absent teacher was probably the best he’d ever had class with, and that he was really looking forward to her returning. He said this with a look of full meaning, one that did more than merely suggest he wanted me to know I was not someone whose classes he thought a lot of.
As soon as he said this I could see that he was greedily enjoying watching me squirm.
So on the day of our last class, I’d psyched myself up and told myself I wasn’t going to let myself get tongue tied in front of him. I went into class feeling prepared for whatever he was going to throw at me.
Only, as it turns out, I really wasn’t. But not for any of the reasons I’d imagined before stepping foot into his office.
In the middle of our class I asked him a question, one that prompted him to swing his over-sized, leather chair away from me and towards the direction of his office window. There he carefully considered the answer to my question and about ten seconds later he slowly turned the chair round to face me again. As he did this I couldn’t help but think he was just a cat and Russian accent away from being a great Bond villain.
Then as if we’d just been talking for the last ten seconds instead of sitting in silence, he said. “So I know where my favourite restaurant is…”
But before he’d had the chance to continue, his phone rang. He briefly held out the palm of his hand in my direction whilst he talked, like Keanu Reeves did in The Matrix when he was stopping those bullets. I’m not sure what my student was trying to stop me from doing here, but like an obedient pet I sat and waited it out and distracted myself by pretending to consult my agenda for the week ahead. After a few minutes he’d finished and I once again had his attention. “So where were we?” he asked, sounding like he’d only just remembered how utterly bored he was.
“Your favourite restaurant” I prompted.
“Ah yes, it’s near here. It’s quite cheap and there are many alternative people who go there…and even jealous people”.
“Jealous people?” I repeated, whilst theatrically raising my eyebrows, being sure to do this quite slowly in the hope it might make him question what he’d just said to me.
“Yes, jealous people” he asserted quite firmly, with a strange pronunciation on the word ‘jealous’. “I often go to restaurants where there are jealous people”.
Again, I feigned the sort of enthusiastic surprise usually given by actors in a pantomime, “REEEEEALLY?”
“Why? Do you have a problem with jealous people?”
“I guess so” I replied instinctively, deliberately ignoring how assertive I felt he’d become. “I don’t really feel comfortable around jealous people. I prefer to go to more relaxing places, places without a negative atmosphere”.
For the first time since I’d known this student he looked flustered, stunned even. It was as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. I’d never seen him with his cool composure quite so ruffled before; and I remember thinking at this moment that if he was an actual Bond villain, right about now he’d have definitely pressed a button under his desk, and my chair would have been swung back into a pool of ravenous sharks.
“Well I have no problem with jealous people” he continued, only this time his voice was a little louder. “No problem with them AT…ALL. In fact, some of my good friends are gay”.
I genuinely had no idea why he was so bothered about me not liking jealous people, or even what his gay friends had to do with this snotty restaurant he was telling me about. Despite teaching English at this point for over a year and a half and becoming quite familiar in the common mistakes made by Brazilians in English, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out where this misunderstanding was coming from.
“Well, what do you understand a jealous person to be?” I asked after a few seconds of us looking uncomfortably at each other.
“I understand a ‘jealous person’ to mean gay, lesbian and their sympathisers” he said quite robotically; looking at me like I was a fool for even asking. And at that moment it all made perfect sense.
The letter ‘J’ in Portuguese sounds like the English letter ‘G’, and acronyms here are sometimes said like words instead of individual letters. VIP is a prime example of this, and is often pronounced ‘veepee’…. by those rich enough to be able to afford a veepee ticket. I’d never heard GLS (The Brazilian equivalent of LGBT) being pronounced like ‘jealous’ before, or even since come to think of it, so this was quite new to me.
“Now I understand” I said, almost relieved to have got what he’d been trying to communicate to me. Yet his serious expression remained as I explained where the misunderstanding had come from; and he made it quite clear that this feeling of relief was not one shared by both of us. As someone who suspiciously questioned all of the new words I’d taught him by consulting Google Translate (“Ah yes, so you are correct with that one”), I could see that he still wasn’t entirely convinced by the explanation I’d offered him.
And then it dawned on me; he must have interpreted what I was saying as me having a problem with gay people and therefore being uncomfortable around them in restaurants.
I could have sat and tried to explain that I really don’t have a problem with anyone’s sexual orientation, but then considered that he would have again relished in me looking uncomfortable. So I swiftly instructed him to take out his textbook and to turn to the page we were going to be looking at for that class. I raised my eyes when I’d opened my book to the right place, and find that instead of him opening his book too, as I’d been searching for the page he’d been sat there glaring at me…and was doing so still.
The class never really recovered from this moment, and the next hour and fifteen minutes proved to be quite awkward….which was a bit of a shame, being that I’d only wanted to know where his favourite restaurant was, and instead I’d inadvertently made myself sound homophobic!