The other day I had coffee with a foreign friend who bore the fizzled hair and drooping face of long years of English teaching in Japan. It looked like the blood had been sucked from his skin and bicycle-pumped into his eyeballs.
“Last night,” he wheezed, “I dreamt I was visited by the ghost of Noam Chomsky. It was so lifelike I was horrified.”
“Are you sure it was a dream? Perhaps it was real.”
“No, no. Everything was in black and white, and Chomsky wore a colorless green straw hat with matching cane. With which he kept poking me.”
But I now jab him with something even sharper — the truth. “Yes, but Chomsky’s not dead. He’s alive.”
“He was dead in the dream. Plus he claimed that I had killed him.”
Like most teachers, my friend is not a violent fellow. Even in a dream, it is hard to imagine him killing anything other than time. I asked for an explanation. He flinched.
“The juncterogative predicate cannot follow a impassive nominalization unless the letter E follows eleventy-eleven Z’s in succession.”
“Um. Or how about, antecedents should not proceed presidents in any degenerative condition even if the couplets are directly consenting, like perhaps Q and U.”
So he confessed . . . with an admission that could be voiced by many a native language instructor in Japan.
“I don’t know anything about teaching. I just go to my classes and talk. I play videos, I play tapes, I play games. Most students don’t mind.”
But his eyebrows rose with the word “most.”
“Yet sooner or later some smart aleck will ask a question. You know Japanese tend to be efficient. They like rules. And many have had English grammar rules pinioned to their DNA. They want answers for things they can’t figure out. The problem is that I have no answers!”
“So I make things up. Some guy asks the difference between ‘a’ and ‘the’ and I say, ‘Oblurrative conducatives must co-relate under each and every bilabial submersible in the case of ‘a’ and never ever in the case of ‘the.’
“It shuts them up, believe me.”
But it doesn’t take away his guilt. He’s built a career on gliding through class after class with nothing other than a glib tongue.
“Don’t you have a degree?”
“Yeah. In art history. Then I came to Japan and built a resume of teaching English. Now I’m a veteran. Employers don’t question my credentials at all. But if they do, I just say, ‘Of course’ and ask if they want to see my thesis on ‘Locative Marsupials Lingualizing in Post-Traumatic Suffixation.’ They always decline.
“It’s not that I’m a bad teacher. I’m almost never late — unless I’ve been oscillating with purgatorial affricatives. I also have a strong teaching philosophy.”
“Do what the people with higher degrees do: Follow the damn textbook. After that, conduct lots of people searches. You know . . . ‘Find someone with pink underwear,’ ‘Find someone with an uncle in prison,’ and so on. Then, no matter what happens, always — ALWAYS — spend 15 minutes taking roll.”
But he doesn’t think a famous linguist like Chomsky would like that. Hence the dream . . . which reoccurs.
“Sometimes he flings me against a blackboard and dares me to parse a sentence. Then he takes the chalk and writes, ‘Shame, shame, shame’s your name! English grammar’s not a game!’ And then he laughs like a goosified gutterogative.”
I interrupt to explain that Chomsky is not a prescriptive grammarian.
“My gosh!” he gasps. “You can goflibberate too!”
“I mean, he’s a linguistic theorist and doesn’t delve so much into the nuts and bolts of classroom practice. His transformational grammar, for example, sort of says the syntactic structures we communicate with are actually transformations of deeper and universal configurations within the murk of the human brain.”
“What’s more, you’re better than me!”
“Don’t be afraid of Chomsky. He seems a nice enough fellow. You should read him, including his media studies and critiques of U.S. policy. They will make you think.”
He acknowledges he has heard of Chomsky’s politics and admits that they leave him edgy. “In the end,” he says, “I’m just a, typical, normal, everyday, true blue American. Which means I’d prefer not to think.”
Yet, when it comes to the classroom, he feels a problem.
“OK, maybe I don’t have to be a Chomsky, but I don’t want to be a chumpsky. I just hate it when the students know more than me.”
Then why not study?
“I also hate to work. Besides, I need lots of time for designing people searches.”
In the end, I tell him, it doesn’t really matter.
“Because you’re right. Japanese have grammar rules vacuum-packed into their skulls. There comes a point when they need to step away from the rules and just talk. Your classes provide opportunities they would never get elsewhere.”
“True,” he says. “I mean, where else can you walk up to a pretty girl and ask her the color of her undies? And then have her obliged to tell you!”
The topic, I remind him, is teaching, and I feel that as long as he’s being conscientious and earnestly trying to get students to use their English, he’s doing OK.
“But what happens when I can’t answer their questions?”
I tell him Chomsky’s e-mail address can be found on MIT’s Web site.
He scribbles a quick memo. “Excellent,” he says. “I’ll use this in a people search. ‘Find someone who knows how to find Chomsky’s e-mail address.’ It’s bound to stump the class.”
And if it doesn’t?
“Oh, I’ll just liperize the cantankersphere, like always.”
“. . . You’ll wing it?”
“Hey,” he shrugs, “I’m a teacher. It’s what I do.”