When You’ve Got Nothing Left To Say

When I started teaching, I thought that one-on-one classes with adults would be a breeze. They should be. You should be able to tailor the class to the demands of one person, you should be able to go off on tangents whenever the student doesn’t seem to mind, and you can surely just have a bit of a natter if you get through all the lesson material before time’s up. I had thought one-on-one classes would be simple to plan – do an exercise from the book, have a bit of a chat, allow the student to choose the direction of the conversation and go with it. I was sure the first lesson, at least, would be easy to fill because we could just get to know each other. Unfortunately, one of my first one-on-one classes was with Mr Kojima.

Mr Kojima worked for some sort of chemical company. He was a slightly tubby man, and always attended class in his company uniform – a green all-in-one jump-suit ensemble. He could laugh at anything, Mr Kojima, but by that I don’t mean he had a great sense of humour or anything; I just mean that he had a nervous laugh and that he would break into a pitch of high-pitched giggles after absolutely anything he said. If truth be told, he was a bit of a tit.

It wasn’t that we had a clear clash of personalities or anything. For all I know he was quite fond of me, but I just remember having to spend an hour a week with this painfully, painfully dull man whose laugh began to grate on me so much that I sometimes wondered if I could get away with stabbing a student in the eye with a pencil. He was single and only a few years older than I was, so I had thought that we were bound to be able to find something in common to talk about. But there was nothing. Absolutely nothing.

I tried to get him to tell me about his job and his family, but when I asked him to tell me a little about himself, he said, ‘My name is Kojima,’ and then laughed so frighteningly that I thought perhaps Kojima meant cock-gobbler in Japanese. I pushed for a little more information and discovered that he worked for a chemical company – that was apparently hilarious – and that his hobby was fishing. Again, an absolute hoot! Unfortunately, fishing was all that Mr Kojima had any interest in, and having pleasant conversation on other topics was nigh on impossible. Apart from fishing, the only things that he appeared to derive pleasure from were one-word answers and, of course, laughing at things that weren’t remotely funny.

I tried and I tried to get a good chat going. I’d never fished in my life, but I posed questions about the best places to go fishing – rivers and the sea, oddly enough – and asked him to tell me what he usually caught. I didn’t teach him much English, because the only things he seemed eager to know were the English names of the fish he liked to catch. He kept telling me the Japanese name of the fish as if that would somehow help my brain to guess the English. I had to confess that even in English, fish names weren’t my specialist subject, but that just encouraged him to stand up and draw elaborate pictures of fish on the whiteboard and then look at me expectantly, as if only an absolute fool wouldn’t know what a sturgeon or a flounder or what-have-you looked like when depicted by a cackling maniac.

As he drew, I pushed out my bottom lip and frowned pensively as if his drawings were helping to jog my memory but perhaps just a few more details were required. Then I let him draw more and more details because it was helping kill time and when he couldn’t add any more scales or fins to the pictures I just told him they were halibut and mackerel. Well! They might have been! I think you get them in Japan.

I had to teach Mr Kojima every week and I’ve still no idea how I managed to get through each lesson. Once, I was teaching him and I’d just got him to describe his fishing rod to me and we still had ten minutes of class to go and I heard myself ask desperately, ‘So, have you got any other rods?’ and I just thought, ‘That’s it! That has to be the last possible thing I am able to come up with to ask this man,’ but somehow each week came and went and we made it through. I used to pray he’d be absent or have to work late or fall ill, but my spirits would sink as I heard his boring footsteps clumping along the hall to my classroom. I came to detest those footsteps.

He had an awful habit of arriving five or ten minutes early, but instead of waiting politely in the waiting room as most other students did, he would merrily stroll into my classroom, plonk himself down and have a chuckle. The hour was hard enough to fill as it was, but his arrival ten minutes early meant I had to waste ten-minutes of idle chit-chat that could have been more productively used to waste the first ten minutes of the lesson proper. I began hiding in another classroom until the exact lesson’s starting time so as not to have to speak to him for one second more than was strictly necessary.

After about a year and a half, I was overjoyed that due to schedule changes I was able to pass him on to a newly arrived teacher at our school. I happened to be in the room next door as they were having their first lesson. ‘I’m not sure,’ I heard the teacher say. ‘A salmon?’

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