Chapter 6 : Dropping like Flies

by Titus Green

 

It was December and somehow, I had survived. I hadn’t been run over, fired or deported. I hadn’t lost my will to teach or packed my suitcase and high-tailed it to King Fahad Airport. Despite the motivation-wrecking ‘teaching’, unhinged colleagues and control-freakery of the management, I was still raking in the untaxed riyals. I started telling myself it wasn’t so bad. Actually bearable. The self-delusion was attractive because it justified being in this suffocating furnace and competence-corroding work environment. There had actually been some professional development sessions in the department that month, even if they had been rather vacuous presentations on motivating your students given by egotistical guest speaker M.A.s from other universities who waffled on nebulously for hours while exuding the pungent cologne of self-regard. At 48, I was making good hay and harvesting decent financial crops fertilized by the pedagogical manure of our syllabus. Clive, my marketing consultant best friend in London encouraged me intermittently by way of laconic e-mails.

Keep your head down. Earn the money while you can.

However, one former colleague and seasoned EFL mercenary thought I was insane to continue tolerating the living and working conditions of Prince Salman University. 

Think about how much life you have left. Is three thousand quid per month worth that amount of stress? Gulf TEFL is a mug’s game played by men in denial, prisoners of desperation and greed. 

Basildon Danny was a fiery, feisty character who’d been around the houses of the TEFL world and didn’t filter his opinions. Unofficially, he’d had over sixty jobs in his EFL career, half of which were walk-outs, midnight runs or sackings that had come about from overly candid feedback to his employers on pay or working conditions. He was currently working on an academic English teaching programme at a university in the north of England. His impulsively composed texts were pinging into my WhatsApp chat. Sometimes they were homilies and at others furious torrents of venting about his own working conditions.

Almost got a verbal warning today. I had to watch and grade 40 presentations and these f****** morons, these clock-watching, useless cretins didn’t bother booking the classrooms! WTF are these wankers paid for? Tenured and they can’t even get basic logistical details correct. So, there I was, with students bombarding me with messages about where their exam is supposed to be and me made to look like a gormless incompetent. I was f****** livid. Went straight to the dimwit they’ve given the Senior Teacher’s position to and gave her both barrels. Was told to calm down!  

I skimmed these enraged epistles over my morning coffee while the call of the adhan directed the locals to the masjids and the legions of the campus guest workers to hot, sweaty toil. I told Danny to hang in there and bank the pay cheque, borrowing my bland, uninspiring advice from Clive. There were no adequate Stoic philosophy systems to get teachers through the Saudi EFL experience.

My new campus apartment had reliable plumbing but was poky and musty. Moldy spores blackened corners of the ceiling, creating a thick fungal skin and the carpet emitted that foul, stale and suffocating odor of ancient dust and grime. The miserable refugee of a bedsit fridge and abysmal excuse for a cooker were the appliances I used to prepare shabby, greasy meals in unhygienic conditions. I eyed the monstrous tome on my coffee table wearily. Longman Preparation Course for the TOEFL Test confronted me. A bible of turgid paragraphs, banal sentences and dulcet-toned dialogue from a make-believe campus world. It was the least inspiring of teaching materials from this authoritarian curriculum but perversely the students enjoyed studying for TOEFL the most. Some of them actually parsed the sentences for the Structure section with pleasure, and it seemed they took the syntax apart as though it was a mathematical challenge. I had two hours of teaching woeful TOEFL to get through because the students had demanded extra revision with the final test approaching and grades to be hustled for. 

However, my morning lessons dragged on as the students quickly tired of the repetitive exercises of selecting lexis or structure to complete the endless, mind-numbing gaps on the page. There was simply no way of livening up these deathly dull, rigid linguistic drills where the students went from one sentence to another diagnosing grammatical defects while the actual content of the sentences was discarded like waste material. Our absurd pacing schedule (‘ten pages per day minimum or you’ll fall behind’ Dim Don the witless and unqualified level coordinator told us in his enlightening e-mails) allowed students no time to explore the language or use it in any meaningful way. However, I did not intend to rock the boat by sharing my view with Dim Don or ‘Dr’ Al-Qahtani, whose knowledge of language teaching and second language acquisition theory could fit on the back of a postage stamp. 

“Teacher. Break. Please!” It was crafty Nasser practicing his study avoidance routines.

“Ten minutes,” I said tapping my fingertip on the face of my watch. I felt more like a fitness coach pushing reluctant, unfit people to do more reps than a teacher of English as a foreign language. The Longman Preparation Course for the TOEFL Test was heavy enough for powerlifting workouts and the thought of these idle boys being made to pair up into bench-pressing groups and lift the brutal volume again and again above their chests, grunting with the strain as their spotting partners exhorted them with hadiths was appealing. 

“Teacher, I need to pray.” This was Osama, another low aptitude student who had recently been inserted into my class without explanation trying it on. We were not even close to any of the prayer times and Brad’s orders forbidding any such requests had to be followed. When my resolute headshake crushed his idea, he nodded, smiled wistfully and turned his attention to the window and entered a reverie of unknowable reflections. Meanwhile, the rhythmic noise of nasal airflow constriction cycles continued from the back of the class where Moath was in stage 3 or 4 slumber, and I kept my glances at the door aperture frequent for signs of thobes, shirts or indignant glares from management. Steve, a teacher from Minnesota had recently been caught with several sleepers in class for the second time and had been named and shamed by Al Qahtani in a department e-mail. Moath’s snoring was then interrupted by a burst of jarring, hysterical high-decibel Arabic soccer commentary being streamed on a phone as the headphone jack, which a boy called Talal had surreptitiously inserted into his phone and covered from view under his ghutra, got yanked out. Al Hilal had just scored against Al-Ittihad and the King Fahad International Stadium was erupting. The event was a suitable punchline for this dreary joke of a lesson. All the students except serious Zahid and conscientious Rayan laughed heartily at this sweet moment of carelessness. Since we had no disciplinary framework with which to punish such cheeky transgressions, all I could use to slap Talal with were feeble scraps of reverse psychology.

“Those goals won’t get you grades,” I remarked with insouciance. I indicated that the lesson was over and set several pages of sentence structure homework tasks. Telling somebody to spend their time choosing multiple choice answers to find faulty sentences didn’t seem to be a useful pathway towards any meaningful, holistic acquisition of the language: the students simply replicated ad nauseam in their writing the very syntax errors they had successfully ‘identified’ in these tasks. Zahid asked for more office hours, as did Adel, whom I was determined to avoid since I had no more glib answers for his broken record teacher how do I get 100% score question. His joint agenda with Naif to get me to agree to go to Bahrain with them one weekend was also intensifying, and so I was determined to keep my distance.

I was making progress along the corridor and looking forward to dumping my books in my office. I wanted to get clear of Building 21 for a couple of hours before afternoon lessons as I was finding its psychological hold over me becoming more oppressive. Even in the fragile sanctuary of my office the students, Brad, Ishmael and Al Qahtani et al had started to haunt this precious retreat as I heard their complaints and demands emanating from the gap at the bottom of the door. 

You did not record attendance. You allowed the students to complete the test paper in pen. We need to take more grammar.

When I reached the corridor intersection, I saw the typical sight of Donald jawing away to a small gossip audience. Whatever the content of his bad news download was, it certainly had his listeners’ attention. Facial expressions were turning sombre at Donald’s words. Something major had happened. The Irishman saw me, but I declined his invitation to hear the bulletin of doom and headed for the second floor. When I was ten yards from the door somebody called from behind. “Hello Mr. Henry.” Turning around, I saw Bandar. He was one of Al Qahtani’s subordinates responsible for managing the logistics for the final ‘main event’ TOEFL tests at the end of each semester. He was likeable enough despite his laughable veneration for the TOEFL test, about which he believed no other English proficiency exam on the planet prepared students better to speak natural English. He could sometimes be seen pausing in the corridors as he passed classrooms where teachers were playing the listening practice recordings and tilting his head upwards and grinning with a strange kind of satisfaction in the fact that the students of Prince Salman University were learning from the most authentic language models. “TOEFL is the English of life,” he’d told me on many occasions, and I just nodded. I’d once seen how deeply the TOEFL recordings impressed him when he was put under a kind of spell by a riveting dialogue between a student and a professor regarding the location of a restroom. Instead of challenging his belief, I encouraged it by agreeing and suggesting that he practice these conversations with his son who was due to start his studies at a college in Utah. I told him this language would help young Bilal adapt quickly to North American campus culture, communicate effectively and make friends.

“Hello Bandar. You look well.”

“ Alhamdulillah,” he replied smiling, before adding:  “Mr. Henry, I have come to tell you that Mr. Brad would like to see you in his office.”

The sentence stung me like the flick of an elastic band and immediately put me on the defensive. Oh god, what did he want? There was no worse feeling in ESL than the ‘sudden mystery summons’ to a senior teacher or director of studies with whom you could expect mealy-mouthed, critical conversations about your teaching, triggered by negative feedback from students. I’d had my share over the years, including humiliation at the English Council in Korea where I’d been called to a senior teacher’s desk to explain myself after some female students, probably spoiled little princesses whining because I wasn’t the bronzed, six-foot, square-jawed hunk of a stud-u-tainer that the teaching centre leaflets advertised, had complained that ‘my face was unfriendly.’ With trepidation I knocked and entered Brad’s office, ignoring the quizzical look from the petty secretary Paul, who took his ‘gatekeeper to the management’ role far too seriously and irritated us by insisting on trivial appointment protocols. Brad was seated at his desk, and Ishmael was next to him, oozing disdain as he scratched his goatee. I braced myself for the two-pronged attack that I was certain this gruesome duo was preparing to unleash and did a quick review of my conduct that month to check if they had any grounds to criticize me. Had my unflattering remarks about them been reported back by a snitch? Were our offices or staff apartments bugged, even? 

“We’re going to be giving you some more hours. You’re going to be taking over some of Rick’s classes.”

And that was it: no barrage of criticism. No warnings about haram behaviour, poor teaching or reports of sleeping students. Just a kick to the groin that was almost as paralyzing: a huge dump of unwanted overtime about as welcome as a king-size camel dung kofta. 

“But Brad, I’m already on a full schedule. How many hours?” Rick was on a ‘late-shift’ teaching timetable that finished at 6pm, whereas I was on the early shift with my last lesson at four. The earlier finish meant a bit of downtime or the opportunity to get to the Al-Khobar stores before the maghrib prayer and shutdown of business. Now that priceless pocket of mental breathing space would be denied to me. More marking. More surly, yawning shababs and worse still, more TOEFL.  

“You’ll be doing his 4 and 5pm classes now,” said the director with the kind of curtness, the kind of hope-crushing finality that had already executed any prospect of a compromise.

“For how long?” I asked despondently, still reeling from this katana thrust to my morning positivity. I’d been ambushed and had no arguments, strength or will to defend my interests.  

“For as long as we need you to,” answered Ishmael gloating, as though I was a snail he’d just stepped on. A good for nothing useless eater teacher. A breed from an inferior species fit only for following orders.

“But will I be paid for this overtime?” I asked, recalling Donald’s reports two months prior about the amount of as yet unpaid overtime owed to instructors throughout the department. Without an answer, I was ejected from the office and told my updated schedule would be arriving by e-mail shortly. I traipsed down the corridor, dragging my feet through the dense sludge of a self-pity swamp I’d be mired in for days. Bemoan? I was ready to broadcast my discontent from the rooftops with a bullhorn! Where was Peter? He was officially still my ‘mentor’ and might be able to appeal on my behalf against this outrageous imposition—but then again probably not. Rick. Damn him! Why did he have to go and put me in this position with his drooling, horn-dog middle aged foibles? What had the bloody fool gone and done? Said to hell with it and walked out on this miserable gig with a ‘Bahrain girl’ to feed grapes into his mouth on a palm tree hammock in some post ESL pacific paradise? But perhaps it was something else? Maybe a family emergency? It occurred to me that I’d been jumping to conclusions. Being hasty and unfair. I hadn’t actually asked why Rick could no longer teach his classes.

Approximately four hours later I learned that Rick was dead. I took the news ashen-faced and incredulous as Peter spoke to Tim and myself in the seating area outside our staff apartments. I had to sit and sank onto the low wall, in front of our shabby laundromat, that functioned as an improvised bench. A guy called Phillip was also there wearing an equally grim expression, the source of his grief being of a dual nature since he’d been moved into another of the ground floor apartments with chronic sewage blockages and had recently been flooded with faeces. He was struggling with the Housing Department to get moved.

“What on earth happened?” Peter answered my question, asked in a quavering voice. All he knew was that Rick, Roy and a Scottish teacher called Jim had gone to Bahrain in Roy’s Toyota Yaris for a typical frolicking weekend. Roy had a regular Thai lady called Fon he was planning liaisons with while Jim and Rick were going to play it loose and easy and do tours of the pick-up spots. They’d booked into the Paradise of Juffair Hotel, notorious ‘girl friendly’ accommodation where the girls knocked on doors. Jim and Rick had gone out on Saturday evening, doing a quick tour of the live music spots. They had spent some time in a bar where Jim adored one of the Philippine singers and then moved onto the working girl bars to sate their urges. They settled for the nightclub at the Delmon International Hotel because they were less likely to run into students there and be acutely embarrassed in the first lessons of the week and possibly exposed to student blackmail.  At the Delmon Rick had started joking around with three Thai hostesses and got friskier as the evening progressed into the early hours as alcohol eliminated what remained of his limited inhibitions. He became embarrassing, telling them he intended to take them all as wives because what was good enough for the Saudis was good enough for him. Booze was amplifying his sexual bravado and creating the perfect conditions for bad decisions. After half an hour of flirtatious banter Rick invited all three women back to his hotel room. This, I suppose, was to be his peak debauchery experience in his live-for-now, seize the moment and try everything in life once attitude. “It’s only money, after all. When am I ever going to get an opportunity like this again?” he told Jim as he escorted his rented harem through the Delmon’s gaudy doors. It was to be Rick’s last comment to the English-speaking world, and it carried a certain poignant irony.

He hadn’t answered Roy and Jim’s text messages the next morning. They had grown more anxious as the minutes passed and the window of opportunity to get onto the King Fahad Causeway for their return to Saudi at a time of reasonable traffic volume was diminishing. They tried him several times again before going to his room, which was three floors below them. Knocks and calls got no response so after half an hour they asked the reception to call his room. When no answer came, they explained that they had travelled to Bahrain together, were colleagues at Prince Salman University and that they needed to know if their friend was OK. At first, the wary Philippine receptionist was reluctant to agree to call the manager and have somebody go up with them to open the door to Rick’s room. “I cannot do that sir—we need to respect the guests’ privacy,” she said righteously, but she eventually relented, and the manager appeared. The manager swiped the door key and they entered. Even though Jim knew Rick’s formidable appetite for debauchery, he could not anticipate just how outlandish the potential scene that greeted them would be. They hadn’t mentioned the Thai trio that had been with Rick; although the hotel approved of ‘joining guests’ they would surely be unimpressed with Rick’s carnal excess. 

In the shady room they found him naked and horizontal on the bed’s creamy linen sheet. Juxtaposing the rigidity of his rigor mortis limbs was his expression of absolute serenity. It was a face of release, of smiling, satisfied peace with the universe. On the bedside cabinet, next to a bottle of water, were several opened boxes of Viagra. Roy and Jim were obliged to wait for the ambulance, give statements to the police and watch the composure of the hotel’s Egyptian manager implode as the procession of Red Crescent medics, gurney and police officers caused a commotion in the corridor and attracted the attention of guests. He probably cursed the jinn that had arranged these events and produced this catalyst of scandal on his watch. He started shrieking orders at his subordinates and gesticulating frantically. Roy and Jim were detained overnight for questioning, resulting in desperate late night SMS alerts to Brad to arrange cover for their morning classes. 

Gents,

It is with regret and sadness that I inform you that Rick Willis, a member of our PYEP teaching faculty, passed away this weekend. The US Embassy in Manama is assisting his next of Kin and our thoughts are with them at this difficult time. Henry Green and Miles Resnick are taking over Rick’s classes. 

So went Brad’s concise announcement, through our intranet, of Rick’s demise, noteworthy for its brevity and peculiar, in my view inappropriate, mention of me and Miles as Rick’s replacements. What did it matter who took over his wonky classes of crafty chancers and bone-idle no-hopers? Who cared who turned on the projector and went through the meaningless motions of loading one discreet item grammar quiz after the other? We didn’t belong in that paragraph and had no business becoming names in this tragedy. This was typical Brad. Born with minimal tact, he’d be tone-deaf till the end of his days. 

Immediately after Rick’s death speculation about what happened and what, medically speaking, brought the curtain down on his eventful life was being swapped in quick, furtive chats in stairwells and outside classrooms. Was it true drugs had been involved?  What did the girls say when questioned? Some callous, grinning cynics were suggesting kinky sex storylines which Donald was developing with relish. Since Rick’s death, he’d gone into full tabloid reporter mode, implying a BDSM storyline. In fact, when passing his office I was certain I could hear mumbling rehearsals of what he was going to report to others now and when he was the university’s longest-serving employee and historian of instructor horror stories in the distant future.

In Rick’s class, there was some surprise, mortification and sorrow. However some students, clearly not satisfied with whatever vague explanation of Rick’s passing had been fed to them by Al-Qahtani and the university administration, were digging for the truth. These students were obviously no innocents where Bahrain was concerned and had their own unsavory theories which I was not, under any circumstances, going to entertain either inside or outside of class. Publicly admitting that their instructor had died in a Viagra assisted orgy in the Middle East’s capital of vice was not the kind of public relations coup the university would celebrate and would likely trigger a summons to Brad’s office that would bring me enormous grief, since our Program Director has already taken me aside and briefed me on what I could and could not say. Rick had been a cheerful and positive colleague and I had been slightly envious of the effortless way he had applied Epicurean principles to his life. He didn’t deserve to be remembered or talked about for this seedy imbroglio. 

“That’s enough,” I said shutting down another question about ‘Mr. Rick’. “Rick is no longer with us, but we have work to do. Many of you have to dramatically improve your TOEFL listening scores to match the course average, remember? And we won’t achieve that by getting sidetracked by this awful situation. Study hard and ace the listening section. It’s what Rick would have wanted,” I told them with a resolute look. With this cue, the students turned to the relevant page of their thick TOEFL Torahs and clasped their pencils with varying degrees of commitment.

This section measures your ability to understand conversations and lectures in English…some of the questions are based on the speaker’s attitude…listen to a conversation between a student and an advisor.

The rubric, spoken in the masculine, educated tone of a middle-American everyman, droned on for another minute. I stifled a laugh at the idea of Bandar venerating this appalling drek. Even making it daily discourse in his household. Perhaps he even greeted his wife and children not with ‘good morning’ but with TOEFL instructional phrases. The practice conversations began.

Guy: That exam was just awful.

Girl: Oh, it could have been worse!

What does the woman mean?

At the exact moment that most of the students had their pencils poised over the pages of their practice answer sheets to shade in an answer bubble, exactly the same recording at the identical place burst out of speakers in the room across from me in the corridor, and then less than a second later it emanated from another classroom, creating a horrific echo of ETS discourse to torment any sane human in proximity. It could have been worse? Nothing was worse than teaching that class in view of the events of the previous day. And yet, the timing of the recordings and their content also held a perverse relevance for the occasion. They became randy Rick’s requiem: the TOEFL chorus sending him off with a grim gallows joke.

A week later I was wandering aimlessly around the student mall, having consumed something uneatable from the fully awful falafel stand for my hurried lunch, since with the extra contact hours there was no time to go back to my apartment. My head ached and I felt nauseous. I needed aspirin and sleep that were unattainable for many hours. Then I saw a Red Crescent ambulance barreling down the university’s beltway road. It made a sharp left turn at the traffic lights and proceeded towards Teaching Building 21 at which point I had a presentiment comparable to Obi Wan Kenobi’s disturbance in the force moment when Alderaan is destroyed in Star Wars. I made my way over to the building under sufferance, dragging my reluctant feet in the direction of the bleak-looking nerve centre of our crimes against English language teaching, our shambolic boiler room of bogus education. I went in by the south entrance, passing the parked ambulance. Taking the elevator, I decided I didn’t have time to go looking for the event that had summoned it. There were only fifteen minutes before the first of my four afternoon lessons, and I needed to go to my office, compose myself and cobble together some kind of scheme of work for the arduous contractual contract hours ahead. I left my office and strode down the corridor determined to arrive at least five minutes early for class so that I could get the troublesome projector working and PTTs for the class opened ahead of time. The portly physique of Donald materialized around the corner like a fiendish extraterrestrial nourished not by food but rumour and teleported from a planet where the currency of survival was gossip and muckraking the only occupation. His white, frazzled hair was more unruly than usual, and his black-framed glasses were set on his face at an angle. On seeing me he approached and seemed charged by the energy of a drama he needed to relate.

“Have you heard about Monk? He’s been taken to hospital. They say it’s his heart.”

The statement reminded me of the tarot card nobody wants to have dealt. The warning note never found or read when it was needed. John Monk, a teacher with blood pressure so high that if his veins had gaskets they’d burst, had finally succumbed to the stresses of low evaluations, conflict with students and withdrawal of management support. Aged 69, he was now unconscious and being transported in a Red Crescent ambulance to an emergency room where foreign medics would fulfil their contractual obligations to do everything possible so that he could recover and have yet more of this misery. We learned that his cardiac arrest had occurred during an after-class face off with the most truculent students in his class who were blaming John for their low TOEFL scores. By all accounts, it was an explosive confrontation with verbal missiles launched from both sides that exploded sending the unedifying shrapnel of accusations, recriminations and threats in all directions.

Gents,

I regret to inform you that John Monk, our colleague from the PYEP department, has been hospitalized. Tim Bradshaw will be covering his classes.

“There goes my downtime,” said Tim with weary resentment as we read Brad’s e-mail on my office PC. 

“What’s the latest on John? Does anybody know?” I asked, surprised at Tim’s apparent lack of sympathy for his former British Aeronautical Systems colleague. At the same time, I knew only too well the effect that the additional hours had on morale and its potential to rapidly increase misanthropy. 

“Dunno. Somebody said that he was in intensive care for 48 hours.” And with that sentence, our concern for John just expired suddenly. He’d never be coming back to teach. He was now just another burnt out casualty of the department, yet another story in Donald’s catalogue of catastrophe ready for repatriation. Tim and I only had time for here and now issues and people germane to our survival, especially since Keith Barrow, a colleague from Yorkshire with a cavalier attitude towards attendance keeping and attending any department meetings, had been instantly dismissed after a summons to Brad. Catapulted out of the job without salary or benefits, hurtling over its perimeter fence towards the next temporary, meaningless contract in the EFL marketplace. With Boozer, Rick, John and Keith now gone, the department’s turnover was getting serious. More teachers were bound to have potentially unpaid double time foisted upon them and they also wouldn’t be smiling at bedtime. How deeper could the department’s rock-bottom morale go? I mentioned Keith, saying that our colleagues seemed to be dropping like flies.

“Yeah, and they’re also dropping like flies over there aren’t they?” he said, pointing to the developing Yahoo story on my open browser about a mysterious virus causing mayhem in China.

I nodded. “Very contagious they say.”