In summer 2006, after three years of teaching in Poland. I was ready to come back to Ireland. I tell the (wildly inappropriate) story of why in this post. I googled the many, many language schools in Dublin, and wrote to many of them.
However, there was one I was more interested in than any of the others. It was part of a quality chain that I was familiar with in Poland and I was especially interested in working for them. I did an interview over the phone from Poland with the boss and got a very positive response from her, provisionally getting a job offer. When I got back to Ireland I phoned again, and had an interview with the same woman. She asked the same questions, seeming to have no recollection at all of the first time we spoke. Once again, she provisionally offered me the job. I wrote her an email that day, as she’d asked me to do, with the names of my referees. She responded, asking me to come up to Dublin for an interview.
I arrived to my third interview, well prepared. I had already answered these questions twice. I loved the school from the minute I walked in the door, there was a massive open landing, with students from all over the world sitting around and chatting, big skylights flooding the place with light and “art” consisting of framed sets of stamps from the nations of the world. It felt airy and friendly.
I was invited into the boss’s office. It was a tiny room, with stacks of paper spilling everywhere. The boss was stern woman, with big sweeping hair, pearls and a little black dress. She seemed more like a leader of the French Résistance than the director of a language school. Her authority was diminished by the facts that (a) she was asking me the same questions for a third time with no seeming memory for either of our other interviews and (b) at least once every thirty seconds, a drawer would slide open and she would reach over and close it until she eventually gave up and spent the rest of the interview with her arm jammed against the drawer.
I started the following Monday. And I thrived. Anyone who has made the transition from teaching English to monolingual mainly teenage groups of students abroad, to teaching multilingual, multinational groups of adults will identify with me on this. Levels of motivation are very high, student interest is easy to generate, you meet people from lots of different backgrounds and cultures and the classroom is a place you can really look forward to being in.
And I didn’t just enjoy the classroom. I enjoyed the staffroom too. The September I started, there were eight other teachers:
- There was A, a willowy, wispy young woman who had grown up partially abroad and was an excellent drinker. She, like many others in English language teaching, was “artsy” and after leaving the school she went on to a career in bag-making and bone-carving. She once banned me from playing Britney’s Lucky in the teachers’ room. She came to my rescue years later, as described in this post.
- There was J, a jolly hairy guitarist, who men found funny and women found hilarious. I have to admit that I was a little jealous of how much he made people laugh, but he was someone who it was entirely impossible to dislike. He was like a young Santa Claus and he couldn’t have possibly been lovelier.
- There was T, a timid older man. He was a former priest, who’d been “on the missions”, where he’d learned Spanish. He was popular with students, but rarely seen in the teachers’ room. We only really ever had one conversation. At the weekly staff meeting, he would tell me that he was only there for one more week, and that he was just temporarily working in the school. I believed him at first. Eventually, after about nine months of one more weeks, he left.
- There was M, a South African Indian muslim man, who was joy personified. He would bounce into the staffroom in the morning, bounce into the classrooms all day, bounce off to play football with the students in the afternoon and to the pub with them in the evenings. And all this while keeping ramadan. I soon fell in love with his smile, and himself. I flirted outrageously with him. One day, I offered myself to him and he very kindly turned me down. We only worked together for four months, but in that time, he had at least three birthday parties and at least four going away parties. At one of these, he bought every single member of staff a gift, and we shamefacedly presented him with a single present that we’d all bought together.
- There was K, a Born-again Christian divorcee from Northern Ireland. She was a clucky woman, who would tell me off when I lost weight and when I flirted with M. She was the kind of person who would give you little gifts for no reason and was generous to a fault. Housekeeping was her passion and she was the kind of person who had recipes for things you wouldn’t expect recipes to be necessary for, like beans on toast. She was unashamed about her religious beliefs and she was at the centre of more than one argument in the teachers’ room.
- There was C, a dark-haired man with long eyelashes and well-defined arms, who only ever wore black, with an occasional grey or navy thrown in. On some days, he seemed to do just two things. He would brood. And when he wasn’t brooding, he would smoulder. He was very good at smouldering. He was also interesting, a lover of literature, fine food and music and he could be chatty and very funny. Needless to say, I spent many of the next three years falling in and out of love with him, which I never managed (or really tried) to hide. Part of what made him so attractive, aside from the chiselled-ness, the smouldering and the eyelashes, was how straight he was. In many ways, he was the most heterosexual man in the school (not a massive challenge). On rainy mornings, I used to look forward to getting to the teachers’ room, because C would arrive in, having cycled from the Northside, in dark, wet, smouldering silence, and would strip off his wet gear.
- There was S, a warm and wonderfully fun woman who was massively popular with students. One of my strongest memories of my first term there is of seeing S sprawled out on the floor while M gave her a full body massage, while she made all the right noises. And another is of A and myself holding her up on a night out while she sang “I am what I am” over and over and over again at the top of her lungs, while she attempted to hide a naggin of Southern Comfort from M, who disapproved of drinking to excess. S was all you needed for a good party. She would rather walk home than set money aside for a taxi, so she could spend her last fiver on another drink. But it wasn’t just that she was a party animal, she would also concern herself that everyone else was having a good time too, and would worry if they weren’t.
- And finally, there was S2, the backbone of the teachers’ room, a man who’d been there longer than anyone else. A man who managed to be simultaneously 60 and 16. He was 60 in so far as he would never get excited or get involved in staffroom drama. He was patient and kind and was always the first person to help a new student or a new teacher to settle in. He was like a father-figure. And yet, he was also a teenager. You always got the impression that all he wanted to do was go outside and run around a field until he collapsed in exhaustion. He was also a bluegrass guitarist in a band that he’d been in for years and he would never identify himself as a teacher.
It was a wonderful and wonderfully crazy group of people. The teachers’ room wasn’t stable and teachers would come and go frequently. In my time there, I came into contact with literally hundreds of people. There are far too many to describe, some of my best friends (who I’m deliberately not going to write about), admin staff, cleaners, social programme co-ordinators (including an actual real-life troubadour who has always inspired me to be whoever I want to be and a young man I liked a bit too much from Belfast, a story about whom you can read here), and so many teachers, including many musicians, artists, writers, lost souls, rebels and linguists.
The teachers’ room was my second home. I would spend hours there after classes had finished, chatting and befriending this wonderful group of people. It was a place where I felt wonderfully accepted. Although people in Poland and people in university and school had known that I was gay, the teachers’ room here was the first place where everyone knew, and I felt I could speak freely. The talk in the teachers’ room ranged across a very wide variety of topics and themes. We would talk politics and music and literature and food and film and sex, and there were a lot of jokes. But it was also very much a work-place. In many ways, that teachers’ room was the studio where I learned my craft. It wouldn’t be unusual to hear one teacher coaching another in the finer points of reported speech, or two teachers exchanging ideas for teaching past perfect, or a discussion about strategies for speaking exams, or ways of engaging students in any number of topics. My life very much revolved around that room.
And my second year in the school (2007) is one I will always look back on fondly. Apparently, studies have found that the three universal ingredients of happiness across all cultures are autonomy, competence and mutually-affirming relationships. This was a time when I had all three. 1. I had autonomy. I was living alone. For the first time in my life, I had decorated my own flat according to my own tastes and I lived there in tacky glory. I was earning a lot of money too ( I have never earned as much as I did that year), and I genuinely was independent for the first time in my life. 2. I was competent. I was a good teacher when I arrived at the school, but I got better and better across that year and I still remember some of the groups I taught at that time. I was given more and more responsibilities, working on a teacher training course for secondary school teachers and working on business contracts. At one stage during the year I was even the teacher in charge of corporate training. I also started a Masters degree that year and did very well at it. 3. I had mutually-affirming relationships. My social circle that year was built around school. We had nights out in pubs, in clubs and in houses. There were nights when we would play SingStar until 5:00 am. There were nights that ended in kisses and nights that ended in drunken tears, but we were one big family and we the tears didn’t matter.
I was very happy. All the teachers had a half-day every Friday and A or J would have us all in the pub across the road from the school by 2:30. There was more than one Friday when I would get on a bus home at 9:30 or 10:00 pm and I would be absolutely sloshed. We were all known to the staff of the pub across the road and we all knew each other’s drink orders.
My life went very well. I lost an awesome amount of weight. I lost so much that people didn’t recognise me. That people told me that I should stop, because I’d lost too much. I briefly had a man who called himself my boyfriend, as I relate here. (NSFW). I started wearing contacts, got a whole new wardrobe and started seeing myself completely differently. I got firsts in my Masters. I got a few other qualifications that year too. And I did charity work. At one stage in 2007, I was working at 4 jobs, doing a Masters and an online qualification, going to Polish classes and going to WeightWatchers. I was the busiest person anyone knew and I was in a flurry of happy.
But the core of my life was that staff room. And it continued to be important to me. As 2008 turned into 2009, I started gaining weight again, my life reverted to its former sexlessness, I stopped going out to clubs and house parties as much and my Masters got harder. And then I got a pay cut. It was the recession, but my faith in the whole industry of English-language teaching was shaken. From about the middle of 2008 till the middle of 2011, I was constantly short of money, borrowing all round me non-stop. I blamed a lot of what was going on in my life on school and I started looking around for alternatives.
In the time since I’d started the school had got much bigger. There was a busy teacher training department, and I was the most junior member of it. I liked the new challenge, but I’d decided to move on. I went to another institution and proposed a teacher-training centre there, to compete with my own school. I had a business plan, with accounts and schemes of all sort. It was exciting. I had secret meetings. I got agreement. I interviewed employees. I discussed my salary. We discussed a timeline. It was a done deal. And then I got a phone call. The institution I’d gone to were pulling out. They wanted me to take the financial risk on myself. I didn’t know what to do. I still regret it now, but I didn’t fight it. I didn’t write a new proposal.
I went back to my boss, the bepearled Résistance leader. She told me we were done. There were no hours for me. Everything had exploded in my face. I was in massive debt. My business plan had failed. I had no job. And with my job, the hub of my confidence and my social life was altered too.
I moved home to Cork for three months. By the time I came back to Dublin, I had gained so much weight, that once again, people didn’t recognise me.
I was surprised to get a text from my former boss in 2011, offering me 10 hours of teaching work one week. I couldn’t take the offer and we both forgot about it.
And then, in the new year of 2012, a time when I was more hopeful than is been at any time since 2007, I wrote to her and offered my services to work part time as a teacher and a teacher trainer. And she said yes.
I returned to a very different teachers’ room. Although I’d worked with most of the teacher training department before, only one of the people in the teachers’ room had been there the last time I’d worked there. But it was still a lively place where people told dirty jokes, massaged each other and exchanged ideas for the teaching of the third conditional.
In a lovely metaphor for a new start, my first week back at the school was the last week of work in the staff room and building I had grown to love previously. Five days after I arrived back we moved to a new building, right next door to college. It couldn’t have worked out better if I’d planned it.
And I’ve had a great two-year extension to my original time in the school. I’ve made new friends, had a lot of fun, earned plenty of money and become a better teacher trainer than I was. And I managed to put to bed any demons that were left over from the way I left first time round.
When I left/was fired/disappeared/quit in 2009, I wasn’t happy with how things ended. And I didn’t get one of the massive blowout going away parties that long-term members of staff often get. Three of my closest friends came out for dinner and gave me a present. While they were very nice, it wasn’t the goodbye I wanted.
Last week I left the school again. I didn’t really want to have a going away party because I was having a PhD-related breakdown, but I did anyway.
And I’m very glad I did. An odd mix of people came. Some people I haven’t known very long and some who I met back in September 2006. And the goodbyes were good.
In a twist of life, and in a lovely symbol of circularity, one of the Boys I lived with two years ago has recently started working in the school, at my recommendation. I said goodbye to him at the party on Friday, hugging telling him I wouldn’t say anything. Having been at the receiving end of my overly dramatic goodbyes at the start of summer 2012 and again at the start of summer 2013, he understood. He said “I know. Too emosh”.
I was happy drunk on Friday. I had far too many pints. I was boundary-free Connor, doing what I do too often when drunk, offering free blow jobs to straight men. (There’s a want in me.) (I promise I’ll stop doing it soon.)
There were a lot of people out that night. And there were some lovely goodbyes. And I ended the night talking to two of the women who’d been there since 2006. Two women who are among my favourite people.
That was a good goodbye. It’s all good.