My Most Useful Teaching Moment

Inflation made the value of the currency change at least every week. Every week a bus token cost more. I have still one piece of Nicaraguan paper money with three zeroes added on, printed officially by the national bank. The electric grid was unstable. It wasn't unusual for the lights to go out in the middle of class. Our room didn't have any windows. There would be certain days when we didn't have running water. Water service was rotated by neighborhood. The night before the water wasgoing to be cut off, we would fill up barrels with water. The plumbing wasn't so great to begin with. You weren't supposed to flush anything, even toilet paper. There was a wastebasket next to each toilet for you to drop your used paper. And you'd need to provide your own toilet paper. This was in the capital city. It had buses that worked, though they were always filled beyond capacity and it was ordinary for young boys to hang from the outside of the bus. There were pay phones, or at least places where there had been pay phones, but every part of the apparatus had been stripped. I could never figure out where I was or how to get anywhere. The street names were informal and most were hand-written signs, named after the local resident who had died with the revolution. My address was something like: three blocks north of the Esso station, a block from where the baobab tree used to be. There were cabs, but for some reason a driver would not turn around. You had to be going in the same direction as the cab.

I was teaching English to government health workers, lab technicians with the equivalent of a master's degree and nearly starvation wages. There weren't any photocopying machines. I'd brought my own exercises with me and just went by feel. Everyone was at a different level. The previous teacher, I'd been told, had drilled them on verbs. I'd been told in a way that made me feel I should do the same. So I did some time, or I would help them translate English instructions that came with a machine or instrument, or ask them what they had trouble understanding. They asked me how to pronounce "grocery" and weren't satisfied because they expected a three-syllable British pronunciation. I taught the most advanced student the term, I have a time conflict, then wondered if that was idiomatic enough. He grew very attached to that sentence.

One day I went to the bathroom at work, and started to toss my used paper in the trash. In the wastebasket I saw something there that looked familiar; it was an exercise from a few days before. I said to myself, At least I know that that handout was useful.