Experience has shown me that TEFL is populated by a rich patchwork of humanity, from driven, career-seeking go-getters to odd misfits who seem happy to let normal life go on around them. An ex-colleague of mine had a running joke with his students that we were all taking part in a vast hoax, teachers were pretending they were teaching and students were feigning being students, but, unbeknownst to us all, we were in fact inmates in some form of mental institution. It was a popular joke at which most people laughed, some rather more uncomfortably than others.
Looking back now, the warning signs were there on my month-long TEFL Certificate course in B, where in a rainy November I spent four weeks in the company of as big a cross-section of mental health as can be imagined. As with everything TEFL, the course involved a lot of pairwork, and I became aware of a fellow TEFL graveyard aspirant, hereby known as D, who would virtually run into the room to sit next to me when classes began. Once I satisfied myself that there was nothing sexual in his enthusiasm to share his learning experience with me, I tolerated his ever-so-slightly unnerving desperation with a mixture of fascination and mild anxiety.
It wasn’t as if I had done anything to encourage his purely academic advances, but slowly I began to realise that he was less running to me and more running away from the rest of the human race. He had trouble keeping eye contact when speaking to people, a big problem in such a “people-oriented” pastime as TEFL, and jumbled stories began emerging of a past spent in the merchant navy, culminating in an ugly incident in Haiti. His nickname among some of the other aspiring TEFLers became “The Crimson Pirate”, as amusing as it was absurd. D found the teaching tough. He wasn’t a natural communicator and, when it became clear that his mumbling performances were leading him to a dark place, a TEFL Certificate-free zone where he would end up a thousand pounds lighter, cracks in his perception of reality became fissures.
At the beginning of the third week, like a punch-drunk boxer, D threw in the towel. Aware that he was not so much throwing away a gleaming career as flushing a thousand big ones down the lavatory, I thought I should commiserate with him and ask him if he was sure, etc. The vehemence of his reponse quite took me by surprise and I suspected there was more to the Crimson Pirate’s plank-walking than the chance of a spot of skinny-dipping. “Don’t you start,” he barked aggressively, “I’ve already got enough people asking me all these questions.” I wondered how many of them were imaginary. A clue came when, at the end of the course, we found out that D had in fact been interned in a local psychiatric hospital after he started wandering the streets of B convincing buskers he was a record producer and offering them record contracts. I hope D has found peace over the intervening years. Either peace or the next big boy band.
The irony is that, blissful in our ignorance, all of us soon-to-be-certified TEFL teachers were also embarking on a path towards an imaginary career.