Past Imperfect

Before settling for job security, and spending the rest of my working life in the Civil Service, I spent nine years teaching “English as a Foreign Language” in London.  For most of this time, I was working at a language school just off Oxford Street, with occasional stints at a subsidiary school in Hampstead.  I found the work challenging and demanding at times, but I enjoyed it – and the hours simply flew by!  Part of the enjoyment I derived was due to working with such interesting colleagues.  Most of them were self-employed, “freelance” tutors, working on a part-time basis.  They made no bones about the fact that they were only doing the teaching for the money, and their lives really revolved around their “other” careers – as actors, artists, writers, composers, playwrights, dancers, theatre directors . . . .   Some of them went on to have highly successful careers: I can think of at least one well-known actor who appears regularly on our TV screens, and a highly-acclaimed film/TV director who – coincidently – was the director of last night’s episode of “Lewis” on ITV.

I was in my early thirties at the time; still youthful enough to have grandiose dreams of literary achievement, boosted by an over-inflated sense of self-confidence.  The problem was – unlike my colleagues, who were busily pursuing their artistic aspirations – all I was doing was day-dreaming about the books I was going to write, one day!  In my poem “Past Imperfect”, I look, wryly, back at this time.

Past Imperfect:

English is a foreign language.
So it sounds, to non-British ears.
Somehow, I fell into teaching it,
in London, in my prime, for nine years.

I specialised in simple grammar;
the tenses; centrality of time.
I taught it with audio and video,
with drills, simulations, with mime.

The Three Conditionals” were a favourite.
Complex-sounding, yet easy to teach.
Enjoyable for “Intermediates”,
but below that, out of their reach.

The work was sporadic, “risqué”.
My colleagues motley freelancers.
“Resting” actors, playwrights, composers,
musicians, directors, dancers.

Like them, I had dreams, in those days.
Vague visions of rising to fame.
Writing novels, histories, essays.
“The Literati” all knowing my name.

Unlike them, I did nothing about it.
Being lazy, committing the crime
I refused to permit to my students;
I ignored the centrality of time.

I failed to realise, in my callowness,
how fast life would turn; how transitional.
From “could do” to “could have done”.
From second, to third conditional.



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