By Andrew Innes
Gravel crunched underfoot as he made his way down a path which snaked its way through the lush, green lawn leading to the main building. His progress was flanked by willow trees, beneath which students lay around chatting or generally lazing about. Summer had given way to autumn, ushering in its own artist`s palette of yellows, greens, browns and reds. Autumn – the vinegar tang of windfall apples rotting in his garden, the pumpkin festival in his hometown, the carpet of leaves covering his walk to the local park.
His thoughts returned to the present. As he surveyed the creeping ivy and 14th Century architecture of his new campus, he could almost hear the word his American colleagues would use – quaint. Somewhere off in the distance he heard the thwack of a cricket ball on willow followed by polite applause, someone trimming the lawn, birds in the trees. “Harry Potter on steroids anyone?” he said to no one in particular. Cameron had arrived in England two weeks ago, during which time he had realized that: 1. it didn`t always rain, and 2. they certainly did drink a lot of tea here.
He arrived at the stone building, reached out a hand and clasped the cold iron doorknob of the heavy ornate door which led to the waiting area. It creaked open and he was struck by the drop in temperature as he stepped onto the cold stone floor of the anteroom. After introducing himself at reception, he sat waiting in an old worn leather chair which he took to be at least older than his own grandad. A few minutes passed and a diminutive but friendly woman hurriedly made her way out of a small office and smiled as she held out her hand. Mrs. Bannister was dressed in a purple tweed suit, and wore the hurried look of someone up to their neck in the research, admin, politics, and general drama that went with her position. Cameron subconsciously appraised her cut glass accent and other social markers which suggested a woman who hadn`t grown up with a coal miner for a father.
“Mr. Johnson, it`s so nice to finally meet you in person, Jane Bannister. Please come this way. Would you care for a cup of tea?”
“Why that would be just grand. I`m generally a coffee drinker, but when in Rome as they say – I`d love a nice cup of tea thanks.”
They made their way into a small office, shortly after which a tray was proffered with a pot of tea complete with china teacups and two slices of carrot cake.
“How very civilized` remarked Cameron as he sipped his tea, “I really am in England.”
“Earl grey with a hint of lavender, I`m glad you like it. The office staff generally drink PG Tips or Yorkshire tea, but I insist on the imperial Earl grey, it really is the highest quality. Now, there are just a few things I need to go over with you if that`s okay.”
Cameron`s expression shifted seamlessly from casual geniality to one of sincerity. He sipped his tea and appreciated the freshness of the bergamot and understood what people meant when they talked about tea tasting better from a china cup.
Dr Bannister took a sip of tea, and paused as though considering her words carefully. The previous teacher had left six weeks into her contract claiming stress as her main reason. Cameron was in his mid-twenties, and she could see that the charm of his all-American drawl would endear him to the students. He had graduated in the south and spent several years doing military service; a point which was evident in his smartly pressed suit, sharp haircut, and highly polished shoes.
“Now, you`ll be in charge of teaching our foreign exchange students, most of whom come from South East Asia as discussed in our correspondence over Zoom Virtual. This will involve eight classes a week, during which time you will be required to teach speaking, writing and American culture.”
“Now, as I`m sure you`re aware, we`re dealing with students who fall into the category of what is commonly referred to as Generation C. Now, as you know, the generation that came after Generation Z, or Generation i if you prefer, grew up through The Great Pandemic. Some of these kids lost parents, brothers and sisters. Many of them had to fend for themselves when those parents who survived subsequently lost their jobs and homes. They also largely grew up with the culture, music, and film of the previous generation as the draconian social distancing rules meant that collaborate on new projects with any real chemistry was challenging. The social isolation laws put in place also meant that many didn`t develop the social skills that we take for granted. While this brings with it the advantages of a high degree of technological-literacy, it also has certain drawbacks in the sense of an overreliance on technology when it comes to anything of a creative nature. Of course, an ancillary of those hard times was that those same children went on to become strident in their quest for change at the level of government. Emissions around the world fell, animals on the brink of extinction began to thrive again, the air became cleaner, and sea levels defied the computational models of the early 21st Century. In sum, it would be fair to say that despite their tough childhoods these students are bringing about an optimism about the future of the planet that we haven`t seen for decades.”
Cameron, nodded in agreement, sipped his tea and took a bite of his cake.
“Of course, and as you are well aware, we didn`t realize until well into The Great Pandemic that the solution was lying at our feet all along. Who would have known that we could simply use an app to train our dogs to sniff out the virus and coerce those who were positive into isolation chambers for fourteen days until it went away. Billions of dollars wasted on vaccines that were never needed, and we`re only just recovering from the economic fallout that ensued – but I`m rambling now. Part of your job will be to determine where genuine linguistic ability ends and technology takes over. Bear in mind that just because a student appears to have a high degree of English ability, it doesn`t necessarily translate into genuine linguistic competence when you take technology out of the equation. These students are extremely tech savvy and will take shortcuts whenever they can.”
This was all common knowledge, but Cameron nodded, narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips as though considering her words carefully. He leaned in conspiratorially.
“Sure. It`s one thing to be able to use your AR contacts to read a menu in a restaurant written in Chinese or virtual translation to book a taxi in Mumbai, but what happens when your phone battery runs out? I understand exactly what you`re saying.”
Dr Bannister smiled, closed her eyes and lowered her head in apparent agreement. Cameron really didn`t have a clue what he was in for.
The following Monday, Cameron arrived twenty minutes before his class, and was in the lecture hall as his students gradually filed in. Scanning the room with a curious smile, he noticed that most of them were wearing masks despite the fact they hadn`t been mandatory for some years now. What else was apparent was that each student was engrossed in their holopad as they sat down, barely acknowledging the person sat next to them. What a contrast to the rowdy lecture halls of his university days where it generally took a good five minutes for the general chatter to die down before the lecturer could speak. Cameron grabbed the mike and began.
“Good morning ya`al! My name`s Cameron, and I`ll be teaching you over the next few months. I`m really excited to be here in this charming country and hope that you enjoy your classes. If you have any questions – no matter how trivial – please, don`t be shy!”
He took in the general lack of interest in the room and pressed on. He went through a few ground rules and outlined the syllabus as it appeared on each student`s device. He was in the middle of making a point regarding his scoring rubric when he noticed a ripple of laughter make its way around the lecture hall. He looked up expecting to see perhaps a group of students watching some kind of viral video, but was more surprised by the fact that all eyes were now focused on him.
Despite the number of masks, he could see that many of the students were finally making direct eye contact with him and had creases around their eyes suggesting laughter. A large number of the students appeared to be looking at his leg, but when he glanced down, the merriment only increased. A few of the students appeared to be shaking and Cameron suddenly felt uncomfortable. The anonymity of the masks increased his feeling of isolation and paranoia. The room suddenly felt a bit clammy despite the pleasant weather. Had someone turned up the heating? Cameron pressed on and mopped his brow. He stepped away from the lectern towards the screen to see whether the source of mirth perhaps lay in a fault with the technology, only to be met with more laughter, and those anonymous eyes.
The clock finally struck ten thirty and Cameron headed back to the teachers` room after a quick visit to the gents to freshen up. Seating himself among the other teachers, he shook hands and introductions were made.
“Awright, Mah neem`s Dennis. Nice t` meek` yer` acquaintance. How wis` yer` fis` claass?”
Rotund and with a thick beard flecked with grey, Dennis had an imposing presence. Having read Trainspotting in a classic literature class as a student, Cameron had no trouble discerning that he was Scottish.
“Well, something made them laugh and I`ve still got no idea what it was.”
“Och, y` cannae let th` wee radges git one oover an ya`. See, th` trick is t` be super strict in th` firs` class, let `em know who`s boss ya ken? Then, sloowly… raamp it up frim thare till thir` shittin` bricks. That`s mah tuppence wirth anyhoo.”
“Hmm, I might have to give them the old Full Metal Jacket drill sergeant if things don`t improve – from now on you will speak only when spoken to! and the first and last words out of your filthy sewers will be ‘Sir.’ Do you maggots understand that?!”
Dennis laughed and fell into a smoker`s coughing fit.
`Oh aye. That`s bonny guid. Ya cannae beat a bit o` Kubrick.`
Cameron had a break and decided to open up a teaching app. He`d made an old fashioned video and posted it for the students, the idea being that it would serve as a catalyst for them to make their own videos in response. He clicked on the first response video and watched as a student gave her opinion on whether dogs or cats made the best pet. She had used the app`s technology to add a pair of virtual dog ears to the side of her head and a snout where her nose should`ve been. He watched a couple more before he found himself watching a video of himself delivering the very class he had given just that morning. He furrowed his brow and leant into the screen. What was this all about? He watched himself walk around the stage discussing how much he had loved his pet dog when he was a kid back in America. Unbeknownst to him though, someone had used an augmented reality app to superimpose something onto his leg, something that could be viewed if the owner had a pair of AR contact lenses.
He now knew the source of the merriment. As the camera panned out and Cameron discussed how Barny used to steal his darn slipper and chew on it in his back yard, a VR Golden Labrador Retriever humped away rhythmically on his leg, it`s tail twitching from side to side as it appeared to grin and lick its lips in concentration. As Cameron moved around on the stage, the AR dog hopped along to keep apace while it continued to hump away. He smiled reluctantly, but felt a nagging sense that the students certainly hadn`t been laughing with him.
Cameron was in his afternoon class, having put the dog incident behind him. He was just writing down the day`s teaching point on the board when he heard what sounded like a dog panting. He scanned the sea of masks sitting around the class but couldn`t locate the source of the noise. He turned back to the board to add some more points when he heard a low growling sound, which was then accompanied by a low woofing sound. The classroom became a cacophony of various dog noises, the source of which was everywhere but attributable to no one.
“Alright, very funny. I geddit, I geddit. Ya` got me guys.”
Cameron held his hands up and smiled as though surrendering to an insurgent troop.
He tapped his marker on the board as if punctuating the point with an exclamation mark.
“In today`s class, we, are, going, to…”
He looked around the room making eye contact with each student as though trying to underscore the point that this was his territory, and he was… top dog.
“… work on story telling in English! You will each compose, and then tell, a short story of your own creation to the rest of the class, the topic of which is, `memories of yesteryear`. You have the next half hour to put your ideas down on paper. Go!”
Cameron clasped his hands behind his back and walked round the room, occasionally leaning in to see what the students were up to. Probably online translation – you could spot it a mile off couldn`t you. While this irked him somewhat, he was particularly annoyed with the students who were sleeping. He waited until the time was up and immediately called on a student wearing a vintage band t-shirt from the 2020s who was sat near the window and had spent the time catching up on some extra shut eye. Cameron pointed to the student and asked if he would kindly tell us his story.
The masked student rubbed sleep out of his eyes, sat up straight in his chair and gathered himself before beginning. He looked around the room and started speaking in a refined British accent that sounded as if it had nonetheless had a long and intimate relationship with tobacco and whisky.
“The sights on those dark, 17th Century, cobbled streets defy description, but I`ll try. The smell of decay was made worse by the confluence of raw sewage, animal carcasses and general detritus thrown into the narrow streets from the upper windows of houses that leaned towards each other as though perpetually trying to steal a kiss. The damp and poor ventilation of the cramped accommodation was suffocating, and people frequently ventured out to try and restore some sense of sanity. The air was redolent with smoke as coal fires were said to ward off pestilence, and theories about the disease were two-a-penny. Red crosses marked out those doors beyond which one was forbidden to step; the residents confined for forty days lest they infect others. Victims experienced excruciating buboes the size of apples on their skin, and internal bleeding. Off in the distance, the sound of children singing carried on the wind.
Ring around a rosie, a pocket full of posies. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
Some believed that the `pocket full of posies` kept the smell of the plague at bay, some said that the rosy ring was a symptom of the disease, others said that `ashes, ashes` was a reference to the disease as sneezing and coughing portended the final fatal euphemism: `we all fall down`. Whether or not these theories were true is merely academic however, as the more important lesson is that we haven`t truly learned from the past. China, 3000 BC; The Plague of Athens, 430 BC; The Black Death, 1346; The Great Plague of London, 1665; The Russian Plague, 1770; Spanish Flu, 1918; SARS; H1N1, MERS, Ebola, Zika, The Great Pandemic. I could go on. I certainly would not like to take a trip down Memory Lane thank-you.”
Cameron was taken aback, the student had barely been able to talk about his hobbies the other day.
“That was certainly interesting, and not at all what I was expecting. Now, who`s next?”
Outside the teachers` room, Cameron found Dennis smoking a roll up in the courtyard and explained the strange story he`d just been told.
“Oh aye, he wuz pribably usin` Google Drimtech.”
Cameron looked confused, he wasn`t too tech savvy.
“Ya` dinnae ken whit a mean? It rids yir` brin patterns as ya` slip and convirts y` drims intae text yah see. he pribably just raan it through an app that convirts it intae speech and hid the mic inda hiz mask. They`re nae much bigger thun yer` finger nail thiz` days see.”
“But what about machine translation, it was terrible when I was a student” replied Cameron.
“Och, true. Bit it`s c’mon lips ‘n’ bounds since th` deep learnin` project. Some wee radge here wiz` tellin` me a story abowt it th` ather dee. Apparently, arund 2030 it started t` think far itself, and tek` on a kind a paysonalaty; an attitude dependin` on the langige it wuz convertin` to due to the prevalence o` stereotypes it`d picked up online. So, yah see, when speakin in Japanese, it wid git aw` polite and non-committal see, apalagizin` an` all that. An` when translaytin` to Scootish, it wid` invariably try t` start a fight. But th` input frim th` speaker wuz` th` sim`.
Dennis tapped the side of his head as he made this last point and narrowed his eyes.
“Och, he pribably daydrim`d his story, ya ken?”
“Yes, I see, so what you`re saying is that students don`t even need to write their story in their own language before using online translation? They can literally sleep through class and get an A?”
“Aye, thas aboot th` size of it ah guess. We cannae stowp `em frim usin` th` technology, but it begs tha question disn`t it. If it`s okay t` augment our awn reality wi` technowlagy, how come it`s considered cheatin` t` use th` same technowlagy t` augment ourselves? They dinnae need t` learn aboot grammar an` aw that shite anymore. Technowlagy is thar teacher.”
Cameron sensed some bitterness at this last comment but saw Dennis` point. He looked Dennis over, again taking in the social markers which pegged him as Scottish born and bred as he had done with Mrs. Bannister. However, as he did so, he also noticed a red light flashing on Dennis` jacket, the way a battery does when it needs charging. Dennis was still talking, now engaged in a discourse regarding the best pubs near the campus and their relative merits, yet his sandpaper accent and dialect had now become somewhat diluted. Was it all an act? Another practical joke on him? Slowly but surely, certain other sociolinguistic markers became apparent which suggested an – what had they called it on his linguistics module – `outer circle` origin.
“So, you see my friend, I think it`s got a lot of people very worried.”
Cameron heard Dennis` accent change and thought of the immigrant worker stacking shelves at his local supermarket he`d got chatting to. He`d discovered that she had come to America with a doctorate in her twenties, but couldn`t get commensurate work. A fact that wasn`t helped by the policies of eight years of a president whose racism had become less dog-whistle and more fog horn. The light on Dennis` lapel translator stopped flashing and flatlined on red. For the first time, Cameron noticed that Dennis` persona was merely an act and that he could no more speak English with a Scottish lilt than his student could have told his story without recourse to technology.
“Dennis, what`s happened to your voice?”
Dennis held his hands up and shed some light on the situation.
“Ah, not again. At least it`s not in front of the students. Let me explain, my friend. It was my dream to come and work in the UK, I had the qualifications, the experience, and could speak English like a so-called `native`. The only thing counting against me seemed to be that I wasn`t from the `inner circle` of countries such as America, Australia, Canada, or the UK. Basically, my accent didn`t fit. Do you think that Mrs. Bannister speaks like she`s having tea with the Queen when she goes home at night? I think you might find her more Eastern European than afternoon tea at Ascot if she hadn`t charged the batteries in her augmented identity app.”
Dennis put down the roll up as though realizing that he didn`t need the affectation to complete the act anymore.
“My friend, while technology has taken away the necessity for mental effort, it has given us the means to bend reality to meet the needs of the dominant culture. Is that cheating? Is the system set up to be fair when the fact of where you were born trumps ability and hard work? What would you do in my situation?”
“To be honest Dennis, I don`t know, but I can actually understand you a lot more now the thick Scottish accent`s gone. I`d stick with your own accent if I were you.”
“ Weel, I`m glad ye kin ken me better noo. Dae ye fancy gaun fur a pint?”
Cameron thought the impression was pretty good, and agreed that he would very much like to go for a pint. Dennis knew the local taverns like the back of his hand, and they spent the afternoon walking the cobbled streets, staggering back and forth between the various taverns and inns with much merriment. Despite the thousands of miles which lay between their respective backgrounds, both physically and metaphorically, a few beers later and it was as if they`d known each other all their lives.