Of all the soul-wearying débâcles that TEFL thrusts upon its traipsing minions, the School Christmas Party has to be near the top of the flammable fake plastic tree. I suspect swept along by the nincompoopery we serve up daily as “Business English”, the school owner decided to “strengthen our brand” by delivering a festive “Happy Hour” for our gibbering charges last Friday, the fate-tempting title of the event practically guaranteeing a diametrically opposite result. Brands are only strengthened when companies offer something that their customers actually want, I have always imagined.
School Christmas Parties in Britain are one thing. There, the students are essentially trapped, as they normally have little or no social life outside the boundaries of their surrogate college – therefore, they are all too happy to turn up and participate, however half-baked and forced the occasion may turn out to be. With our students being sent to study English by their bloodsucking companies, every last one of them probably had an almost infinite list of places they'd rather be, or things they'd rather be doing – hence, of the 34 students who had enthusiastically embraced the idea in theory, I counted a maximum of 15, who were clearly the politest and/or loneliest of our befuddled student body.
Things started inauspiciously when even the waiter hired for the event didn't turn up. With the alleged festivities due to burst into life at 5pm, another bow-tied server screeched to a halt outside in an ageing Volkswagen Beetle at 5.45pm, and still managed to be the first non-staff member to arrive. He turned out to be a nice, industrious chap, with notably clean hair.
We teachers had been expressly instructed to mingle only with those students we didn't teach, a move that practically killed off any hope of maintaining anything like a flowing conversation. What little we might have had to talk about with the people we vaguely knew, and might actually want to talk to and get to know a little better, was lost, and we were reduced to making painfully slow small talk with complete strangers, which is bad enough even if you both have equal language skills. Early on, for what seemed like a lifetime, I got cornered by a rather unnerving girl with a brace on her teeth, through which she cackled just a little too loudly and heartily for anybody's comfort. “I no have children,” she babbled at one point, in response to one of my simpler questions, “I trying, but nothing. I very trying,” she squawked, gaining momentum, “I very like trying!” she shrieked, launching into a snorting belly laugh that only swift medical intervention could have curbed. Suffering from a slight head cold, I willed my nose to run just a little more obviously so I'd have an excuse to leave her increasingly frothing company and spend at least half an hour in the toilet.
At the one point I was chatting to one of my students and we were actually having what resembled a good time, the school owner sidled over to me. “Go and speak to that group,” she hissed through the side of her mouth, nodding to a group of trolls in the corner, “I think they're talking Portuguese.” Reluctantly, I sloped over to them, and of course my presence instantly put the kibosh on their animation and laughter and I might as well have been an anthropologist meeting members of a previously unknown Amazonian tribe who'd never seen a white man before. Most of their ensuing garbled conversation was an abject admission of their inability to speak English, laments about how hard it was for them, how many years they'd been self-flagellating at various English schools with little or no result, how they felt like giving up. We just got depressed together, really, between painfully awkward silences perforated by frequent swigs of beer, the specially chosen, bouncy jazz soundtrack and festive balloons merely providing the perfect juxtapositional backdrop for their bleak midwinter yammering.
Luckily, Show turned up at eight to pick me up, and I made my escape. As for our brand, the only thing strengthened that I could discern was my belief that Christmas parties should only be held at the students' express request, at a location of their choosing, and there should be no obligation to speak English imposed.
Anything else is a load of baubles.