Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Posts Tagged ‘English as a Foreign Language

puppet1For nearly all of my working life, I was seriously at the mercy of other people. And what wasn’t at the mercy of other people was, to an absurd degree, subject to luck (fate?).

Yes, I taught English as a Foreign Language for a couple of years, and in the classroom I had at least some control over the students. Not much, but some. But then I went into the business world, where any shred of control evaporated faster than the net worth of my retirement fund over the past six months.

Most of my career was spent in sales and sales support for large, multi-national computer services deals. We’re talking about contracts worth $100 million and up. The largest topped out in the billions. These types of deals often take two or more years to develop, and if it looks as though there is a chance that a deal will close, the lead members of the sales team will be dedicated full time.

But deals like this have an extremely low win rate. There are an infinite number of things that must all go right, and if any one of them goes wrong, two years of work go down the drain.

The Dutch shipping executive whom you’ve spent two years selling your deal to can’t convince his bosses? Pack your bags and fly to Zurich. Your client champion at the Swiss chocolate manufacturer just got fired? Lose a turn and move to Helsinki. The exchange rate of the Hungarian forint goes up against the Finnmark, and you’re bidding your Budapest solution center? Kiss your deal with the Finnish mobile phone manufacturer goodbye and fly to Turin. You were stupid enough to waste your time trying to sell to the Italian automobile manufacturer and you aren’t selling for IBM? Shame on you for being such a doofus. But there’s a deal in Germany that’s hot. You forgot to sell the deal to the janitor in the factory in Cologne? You’re not very good at this, are you? Maybe you should try opening up a Haagen Dasz franchise.

Every one of those things, and dozens of others like them, actually happened to me. OK, the one about the janitor I made up, but the principle is valid. There was always somebody or something that could kill my deal unexpectedly. Over 30 years, I figure that I closed about 10% of the deals I started. Of course, I didn’t spend two years on every deal. Lots of them went away much quicker. But even if the average was, say, a year, the math is still pretty discouraging. 30 year career, 10% hit rate, 1 year per – that’s 30 deals worked on, of which 27 disappeared into the ether. And that’s thousands of pages of great work done late at night that had to be fed into the shredder before I moved to the next opportunity. Discouraging? Hell, yes!

Why would companies employ me for 30 years with a win-rate like that? Because the profit on one successful billion dollar contract is enough to cover all the expenses for the lost deals and still pay for the corporate big shots’ fleet of private jets. That’s why.

The team working on the larger deals would be 200 people or more. I was reasonably high in the hierarchy, but there were still always lots of people above me. You know that expression about s*%$ rolling downhill? Just call me Mr. Brownface.

On one huge contract, I was responsible for writing the executive summary for the proposal. By the time that document was submitted, we were on Version 236d! The final days of writing that proposal were like the car-washing scene from “Cool Hand Luke.”

Boss 1: “Put a comma in here.”

Me: “Puttin’ it in here, Boss.”

Boss 2: “We don’t need this comma.”

Me: “Takin’ it out here, Boss.”

Boss 1: “I thought I told you to put a comma here.”

Me: “Puttin’ it back in, Boss.”

Boss 2: “What’s that comma doing in the Warden’s document?”

Me: “Takin’ it out here, Boss.”

Are you getting the point? I was definitely NOT IN CHARGE.

Finally, I decided to quit it all and start doing something where I am in

Deus Ex Machina

Don as a deity, controlling the scene

complete control. As a playwright, I’m like the deity who’s suspended from the contraption in the corner of the stage in a Greek play. I’ve got a character who’s a 90 years old man and he’s decided he’s going to become the heavyweight boxing champion of the world? But that doesn’t work for the play? Poof! He’s a 17 year old girl, and he (she) is pregnant. What a feeling of POWER!

So after all those years of being a flea on the great stallion of life, I am finally

Large And In Charge

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, you’ll have to excuse me. I’ve got to go mail off copies of my new book, Ups & Downs to a hundred reviewers. Maybe one of them will actually read it. Then, I’m going to send copies of my latest play, “Shakespeare Incorporated” to 75 theaters. My hit rate on those is about 1%.

don-iranFollowing on from yesterday’s post, I should tell you that Rhonda and I were iran1in 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.