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Home > Places

Living the Estonian dream

Kristi Luik

5 December 2003

Some of the jobs that I have wanted to have since the age of six:

singer in a ska band – age 20
flight attendant – age 12
police woman – age 7
a witch – age 14
diplomat – age 21
direct translator (one of those people with the headphones who vaguely guesses what heads of state might be saying at the U.N. or some such place) – age 28
first female president of the United States – age 10
veterinarian – age 14-24
‘Fantine’ in the London cast of Les Miserable – age 16
a really, really expensive call-girl – age 15

Here’s a list of the jobs that, from the age of six, I knew I would never want to have:

waste control management
high school English teacher
slaughterhouse technician
So what am I these days? Of course I’m a high school English teacher. What else would I be?

My adversity to English teaching started back when I was a child. My mother was an English teacher. She was born in Estonia, grew up in post-war Germany then moved to California. She is a very traditional Eastern European woman with a strong accent and perfect, beautiful English grammar. She understands and embraces German philosophy, her favorite phrases being "that is not correct" and "that’s illegal!" And where did she wind up teaching? In the ghetto.

Once, when I was around nine or 10, she took me to class with her. I sat in the back, drew pictures and watched the woman struggle with heckling and crotch-grabbing. Finally, one boy with a ‘Crips’ rag on his head turned to me and said, “Hey! yo’ momma’s a real bitch.” I just shrugged.

From that moment on, I knew that teaching was shit.

Fast forward 20-odd years. I moved to Estonia and messed around for a long time until Daddy threatened to cut me off. I may be wrong, but I think that a lot of people move to foreign countries hoping to learn to speak strange dialects, eat only the finest exotic foods and wear hand-woven clothes. We all aspire to be interesting and cosmopolitan. And what do we all wind up doing? Being English teachers.

So I got a job at a high school teaching English to Estonians. On the whole, I believe teaching to be a noble profession that is undervalued. I would have like to have taught orphaned Russians or struggling Estonians who have been burdened by the yolk of the Soviet Union for 50 years and are trying to re-integrate themselves into the western world. But instead I got a job at the most expensive private school in Estonia where I teach nothing but the spoiled children of the Estonian nuveau riche.

The daughter of the Minister of Shopping always comes to class late and talks on her mobile phone about organizing raves. The kid of the CEO of one Estonia's biggest basket-weaving companies doodles penises, picks his nose and leaves class without asking, telling me (in English) that he "has to take a dump." Most of these kids spend most of their days in the Alps, Costa de Sol, wherever. I am just expected to teach them everything they will ever need to know about English in the two weeks of the year that they show up to class.

These kids have more money than God. They wear clothes straight out of fashion magazines, are given jet-skis for Christmas and are way above any form of education. Plus they’re so damn young. Perhaps that’s the root of our problems. If I just assumed myself to be inferior to these children, we might get along a little bit better. But they always fail to understand that I’m the bad-ass. I’m only thirty. I’ve hung out with rock stars. I know just as much about hip-hop as they do. I know all about piercings (although why anybody would want to poke a bunch of metal through their face is beyond me) and can use words like “tsil” (Estonian for ‘chill’). The other teachers just shrug and grade their papers. But I can’t, I just can’t.

I still desperately try to make them like me, though. Having been a horrid, ADD student back in high school, I understand a boring class better than anyone. I try to make my classes hip and current, something the kids can relate too. But, more often than not, it backfires. Just the other day, I divided the class in two and had them hold a debate on who was better, Madonna or Marilyn Manson. The class was humming along, everybody was having a good time speaking English and I was quite pleased. Then one girl, no older than fifteen, raises her hand and says (in perfect English):

“Yea, but Marilyn Manson had some of his ribs removed so that he could blow himself!”

“Right,” I said, clapping my hands. “That’s enough of that debate, kids. Good job. Now let’s see how many new words we can make out of the word HIPPOPOTAMUS, shall we?”

Plus I know nothing about grammar. It’s English, I speak it, case closed. The first year I was there I had to teach them ‘gerunds’ and ‘infinitives’. I took a look at the textbook about five minutes before class with a pounding hangover and figured I could wing it. I was wrong. I closed the textbook. "So class - who is better - Madonna or Marilyn Manson?"

In some ways I love the stupid job, though. It’s fun, energetic and never without a dull moment. But, as most women and some men should understand, it’s the most thankless job you will ever do. It’s like your cat giving birth to a bunch of kittens that you never wanted and can’t get rid of unless you drown them.

But the worst, the absolute worst feeling in the world is when you are standing in front of the class, struggling to maintain even a spark of interest, keeping the misbehaved morons from ruining everything while looking at a book full of grammar-babble and you happen to look up. The snottier ones will be talking into their mobiles but there will always be a couple of good-hearted kids who are sympathetic, who see you struggle and understand and try to smile supportively. That’s the worst. You know that they are thinking about all the things they want to do with their lives and who they want to be at thirty. And I know that they are thinking ‘I will NEVER be a teacher.’ And I can find solace in the fact that some of them will be.

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