Banging on doors, yelling “Those Bastards”
Posted December 3, 2008on:
Following on from yesterday’s post, I should tell you that Rhonda and I were in Teheran in 1974 teaching English to Iranian soldiers. This was in the days of the Shah, and Iran was buying a fleet of attack helicopters from Bell Helicopter. Rather than teaching the Bell instructors Farsi, it was decided to teach the Iranian soldiers English, and Bell contracted to set up several schools. I was just finishing up a Masters in Linguistics with a specialization in Teaching English as a Foreign Language, and moving to Teheran to teach Iranian soldiers was my first venture outside of the U.S.
At the school, which was on an army base, there were forty teachers. Most of them, like Rhonda and me, were idealistic, bright-eyed young Americans on their first teaching assignments. About 400 soldiers, in training to be helicopter mechanics and pilots, would go through the school each year, and at the beginning of the year they were all given an entrance exam. The students with the top 12 scores went into the first class, the next 12 scores went into the second class, and so on. I got the last class — the lowest 12 out of 400!
These were not high-school grads from an industrialized country we are talking about here. The large majority of the Iranian population at the time was rural, and most of my students had come straight from tiny, mud-hut villages in the desert. Several of them were only semi-literate in Farsi, and I had 8 hours of teaching these same students 5 days a week for 12 weeks, to get them to be literate and fluent in English. It was an exhausting, incredibly frustrating first venture into my new career.
Although we didn’t know it yet, 1974 was close to the end of the Shah’s regime, and if I had been looking for signs of the coming explosion, I would have seen them. But I was far too busy being profoundly culture-shocked with life in Iran. At the orientation session for the school instructors, we were told that the Iranian Secret Police, Savak, was everywhere, and we were never to refer to the Shah in public by title or name. We were to choose a euphemism. The one which nearly everybody used was “Clark Kent.”
We were also told that at least one of our students would be a ringer — a Savak agent there to watch us. To avoid uncomfortable situations, we were to avoid teaching “controversial” words in our lessons. Words like “democracy,” or “elections.” (“Why don’t we have elections, teacher?”) Fortunately, my 18 year old soldier-students were much too interested in trying to get me to teach them words referring to female anatomy to care much about political science.
The school was made up of two long buildings lined up end to end. My class was at the end of one building, and the school office was at the nearest point in the next building. A dozen times a day I went back and forth to the office, and while using the main entrances of the buildings would have meant a trip of nearly a quarter of a mile, there were secondary doors next to my class and the office, so the trip was less than 50 yards.
One morning I arrived to find the school abuzz. In two days, the Empress would be visiting the school, and the army was doing it’s best to spruce-up the place, which included putting large potted plants at each of the entrances. A few hours later, while I gave my class a break, I headed to the nearby door to take the shortcut between the two buildings. It was locked. I realized immediately that the base authorities had decided that if they were going to go through the trouble and expense of putting potted plants at the main entrances, everyone was damn well going to use those main entrances. In frustration, I banged on the door and said, “Those bastards.” Several of my students who had come out of the classroom observed my mini-tantrum.
Remember now, these were the bottom 12 students out of 400. They never learned even the simplest word on less than 50 repetitions. These words, though, they learned on the first repetition. Within seconds, my entire class was running up and down the halls of the military language school, banging on doors and yelling, “Those bastards! Those bastards!”
“No,” I said desperately, “I didn’t say that. I didn’t mean it. Oh, god!”
Later that day I found out which of the students in my class was my spy. I should have known. Corporal Khojasteh was far and away the best student in the class, so I frequently used him to run errands for me. That afternoon I asked him to come with me to the office to help carry a projector. Forgetting about what had happened in the morning, I led him to the nearby door and tried it. It was still locked, and I muttered under my breath, “Damn, that’s stupid.” He fixed me with an earnest stare and said, “The major did that. Is the major stupid?”
“Let me rephrase that,” I babbled.
After that, I kept my eye on Corporal Khojasteh, and he did many things to confirm that he was, indeed, my personal informer.
If I told you that this was one of the high points of my career as a language teacher in Iran, perhaps you’ll understand just how difficult it was. And how unprepared I was for it.