Friday, September 16, 2005

Why I Majored in English: An Essay

When anyone asks that inevitable question, “Yes, but what can you do with an English degree?” I will now tell them only one thing: In Kharkiv, where I went to teach on a fellowship after earning my Master’s degree in English, my class, in a historic, co-ed state institution, was comprised entirely of young women, all of them as beautiful as the rumors of Ukraine. The men were off studying math and science, I'm told, their lives given over to hard lines and facts, not the curves and angles of the literary arts.

The classroom I was shown to was short and narrow and filled with pews, giving it the look of an old Southern church. A portable square blackboard, its color streaked by chalk that after so many years wouldn’t entirely go away, sat on the desk up front. The girls occupied the pews to the right, all of them attentive and with their eyes facing K., their teacher. It was hot. Suffocatingly so. K. introduced me and went over some homework, then turned to me and asked if I would say a few words. Nothing prepared, I stood and fumbled through a brief bio – raised in England, brought to America – and then did the one thing I wasn’t supposed to do: speak broken English. “So I was taught both Englishes.” Englishes? “Both versions – or variants, I should say. American-English and English-English. There are different spellings, you know.” Idiot, idiot, idiot. “Did I say I was a writer?”

I don’t know if it was my performance (I am the first native English speaker all but two of these girls have known) but K. rose at the end of my speech and said we had better leave, it was just too hot and this room too small – it was the worst one, she assured me – and so off we went, K. and I leading the pack, the girls to the murmuring rear. K. had any number of things planned for me, the significance of which I did not understand. I couldn’t keep up. I’d been meeting people all day, being shown into offices to shake hands with men who spoke no English, being stopped on the stairs to lobby for various university memberships and privileges, being given names I just as promptly forgot. Spacibo. Ochen priyatna. And still there was more, it seemed (perhaps a session with the dean, who’d been on the phone when we first tried her) but I wanted a mobile phone, needed one in fact, so I mentioned this and she stopped and turned to face the girls (K. is a precise woman with a need to control her time, teaching as she does 22 hour per week) and said, “Class, okay, class? Today is not normal. Today your task is to go with Stephan and find him a mobile phone. I have told him you are all experts.” Giggles. “No skipping,” she said, “and no Russian – it is rude to speak Russian in front of our guest, English only please.”

And like that I was released, out the doors and onto the streets of Kharkiv, first led to this store, then to that one, with the girls surrounding me the whole while. It was dizzying. As we walked, I would speak with one girl (Had I been to Arkansas? I was an exchange student there.) and then she would fall away from my side and another, like a member of the Blue Angels, would move forward to take her place. “In our country, we address someone in a position of seniority with respect. How do you say it?” “With a patronymic.” “Yes, a patronymic. What is your father’s name? So you would be Stepan Robertovich. I like this very much.” Friendly, I had expected. But with a sense of humor? No, hadn't seen that coming. I had expected something closer to the brooding stoicism you usually see on the catwalk and given to Eastern European characters in western movies and TV; instead I was met with laughter and the sort of easy-going, let’s-have-fun attitude that I’d more easily associate with people who grow up in a reality-free suburbia.

By the time we returned to the English Philology Department on the seventh floor, a phone was in my pocket and a smile must have been on my face. “How has your day been?” asked G., a department administrator. “You do not need to tell me. I can see you have enjoyed yourself.” Yes, I should have said. I’m glad I never learned how to build a bridge.

And of course, though I'd only agreed to teach two classes, by the end of the week I was in G.'s office agreeing to a third.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

Your enthusiastic students will run you ragged if you're not careful--hang onto your hat...
--Richard Cooper