“Unaccustomed as I am…”

I’d never considered myself someone who was particularly good at standing up in front of a large group of people and talking, although it was something I had to get used to while teaching English in Italy, and I’m generally ok as long as I have some idea what I’m talking about. Talking last night to a friend who’s a member of Toastmasters reminded me of an experience I had during that period in Genoa.

Most of my teaching schedule was taken up with individuals and small groups who came to the school where I worked for lunchtime or evening classes, but occasionally the school would offer us work “outside”, and one day they proposed that I go to a nearby college and speak to a group of students about English poetry, as a supplement to their English language course. They already had a text book, so the idea was that I’d just sit with a small group of them and read and discuss the poem. Once you get to a certain level of language learning lessons essentially become long conversations anyway, with occasional interruptions to clarify points of grammar or vocabulary, so no real preparation seemed necessary.


I arrived and found the relevant room. The first shock: This was not a seminar room for a small group of people to sit and have a discussion around a table – this was a lecture hall with dozens of rows of seats all facing a desk and a blackboard. Then the teacher responsible arrived, and it emerged that this was not a small discussion group at all – this was an occasion for about 100 students to sit and listen to me talk at them for about an hour.

Panic. I grabbed a spare copy of their textbook and frantically flicked through it so as to find something to talk about. Finally – salvation! Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” –  a poem I knew well from my own school days. I scribbled a few notes as the Italian teenagers filed into the room, took a deep breath, and started. I read the entire poem, as slowly as I dared, and then started a line-by-line analysis. Were they bored? I didn’t care. I just wanted to manage to keep talking until it was over and then get the hell out. I tried to make it a little more appealing and less dry by dropping in some contemporary references which might bring it to life a little for them, and accentuating the sexual jealousy aspects. I even managed to coax a few responses when I posed questions or asked them for their own interpretations. At the end, having exhausted all possible aspects, I filled the last ten minutes with another snail’s pace read-through.

Somehow the hour passed, and I was actually pretty pleased with my performance. The students filed out again, and the teacher came up to me and told me how interesting she had found it.

Then another group of about 100 students filed in, and I had to do the whole thing all over again. I managed to pretty much repeat my entire improvised lecture, with a few minor variations. Again the teacher thanked me, and I returned to my school, where I informed the administration that things had gone very well thank you, and could they please find someone else to do it from now on as I had no intention of going back.