Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Importance of Boarding Schools: Teaching English with the Moonies in Bulgaria (1991)

It has all started out so promisingly. Summer holidays as a student were about as good as it got, a chance to work abroad, travel and broaden horizons. The highlight for me was 1991, my first summer at Manchester University, and I was looking for something to fill in August; I had already arranged a course with homestay in Moscow to improve my Russian, and a month in Munich to earn some money before starting my second year.

Do You Love Jesus?

Walking out from a rare lecture attendance in search of my daily kebab, I saw a flyer on a notice board which caught my eye. Want to Teach English in Eastern Europe this Summer? Full training provided, volunteer positions in Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary, accommodation and small renumeration included. It sounded perfect – a month in Bulgaria or Hungary would be ideal. I took note of the address, some outfit called the Unification Church, devoured my kebab, bought some mints and headed to their nearby office.

“Do you love Jesus?” asked Tobias, a blond German youth, with closely cropped hair – friendly enough, but with a faraway presence, as though he was not totally with us. It was the fourth question of the ‘interview’ and a decidedly odd one I thought.

“I haven’t really thought about it. I am not that into religion. Is it important to teach English?”

“It is ok, we will give you some information about our church, and then you will see.”
Crikey, I pondered as I left with my best friend Alex, who was also looking for a summer jaunt, that was a bit weird. Three days later, we both received letters to inform us we had been accepted to teach in Bulgaria, pending an interview with the head office in Lancaster Gate in Central London – expenses would be paid.

Entering the World of Reverend Moon

We had assumed that the Unification Church was just a bunch of do-gooders, who had some funding to spread the Gospel in the heathen Communist hinterland, and so it was quite a shock to enter the very smart building and climb the stairs to our interview, to be confronted by a large picture of Reverend Moon. Moonies! The Brain Washers! We looked at each other in silence, our heartbeats increasing rapidly.

Margaret was a charming middle-aged Moroccan Moonie, extremely affable, and she put us at ease with her background about the teaching programme, its goals, and the practicalities of the job and accommodation. We would be teaching in the same town, a remote place called Kardzhali, not far from the Greek and Turkish borders, to a range of ages from a local school. It would be the first time foreign teachers had taught in the town, and we would get a flat to share, and a fee of fifty pounds a week. It sounded perfect.

“Are you interested in learning more about our Church?”

“Not really,” Alex answered bravely. And that was that, no brainwashing whatsoever. What were we so worried about?

We celebrated with an expensive pint round the corner. Bulgaria for a month teaching English, it promised to be an exciting summer. We were both surprised and relieved at the lack of brainwashing.

“Maybe they wait until we get to Eastern Europe before brainwashing us,” ventured Alex over a second pint. We debated over pints three and four, before the money ran out, and concluded that we were sane individuals and we had each other; we could not be brainwashed against our will.

In Search of Teacher Training

After an eventful month in Moscow, I was reunited with Alex in Sofia and we headed to Kardjali on the bus the next day, with Jenny, a cheery Moonie from the Home Counties, who lived with her French Moonie husband near Wembley (the Reverend had chosen them as life partners) and their three children. She was full of advice on life in Bulgaria and what to be careful about in Kardzhali – this was her third visit to the country and she was to be our friendly chaperone.

The brainwashing threat having diminished, the bigger issue for me was the promised teacher training. After numerous assurances that all would be provided, as the bus pulled into Kardzali, a dusty, forgotten Soviet-style backwater town, with a seemingly large Turkish ethic mix, the thorny issue of teacher training had yet to be addressed. All would be provided the next day, promised Jenny.

The apartment was more than adequate - there was electricity, water, the toilet worked and there was a fridge for beer, as well as a balcony where we would sit on the occasional evening we were home and look out at other couples on their Communist balconies. It wasn’t a pretty town, but it wasn’t ugly either, and we were both grateful to experience life in rural Bulgaria at a special time in its history; while the Iron Curtain had come down, the Soviet Union was still alive (indeed the August coup took place while we were there).

“Which part of England are you from?” asked a pretty brunette in her forties the next morning, as we were introduced to three teachers at the school. “I lived in Leeds for a year and adored it. We are so grateful you have come and the kids can’t wait to meet you. They have never seen foreigners before.” Her English was perfect and the welcome was warm. While the school was understandably not in the best physical shape, it was no worse than inner-city Britain. Tina, as we learned she was called, was full of information about our schedule (we would teach three classes a day, two hours each), and presumably she would be the source of the much-anticipated training.

Bulgarian Classrooms Have Children in Them

“Come this way, Paul, and I will show you the rooms where you will be teaching. Alex, have a look at this schedule and I will be back in a minute.”

It seemed strange that we did not go together, but I thought no more of it. Until we reached the classroom.

The walk along the corridor was full of friendly chat about reminisces from her days in Yorkshire, and I had a feeling I was going to like my time in southern Bulgaria. She motioned left and we entered the first classroom, which was conspicuous by its eighteen teenage students looking at me in curious silence as I entered.

“I am pleased to introduce Paul from Manchester,” announced Tina in English. “He will be your teacher for the month and I know you will have fun. Paul, do you want to say a few words?” Eighteen pairs of Bulgarian teenage eyes trained expectantly on me, eagerly awaiting their first live foreign communication.


“I will leave you in Paul’s hands now. Enjoy the course.” And with that, a deft sidestep to the left and a closing classroom door, I was alone. With eighteen Bulgarian teenagers.

Not only that, but eighteen Bulgarian teenagers whose expectations of a world-beating English language course was about to be shattered when they realised they had been fed an Englishman with no training or experience as a teacher. Those eyes were really expectant.

Lesson Planning on the Fly

“Ok,” I started uncertainly. “My name is Paul and I am from Manchester. Can anyone tell me something about Manchester?” which produced the most amazing reaction, eighteen heads shaking and nodding in equal number. It took me a while to understand they were all saying yes; Bulgarians shake their head when they mean yes, and the more progressive of them had adopted the Western way.

Manchester United became the Royal Family became British food and the two hours flew by and I had made new friends. Most of them were seventeen and keen to talk – I had as much to learn from them as they did from us.

“Who wants to meet for a drink later?” A mixture of eighteen nods and shakes. This was going to be a surreal summer.

Surreal indeed, and the daily routine revolved was remarkably simple: two hours with 10 year-olds from 0800, two hours with 13 year-olds from 1000 and then a large break for lunch, when the temperature soared to 40 degrees, before my favourite class of the day, my 17 year-olds, a class usually followed by a long night in the pub; with a beer just 3p a half-litre, it was hardly magnanimous of us to pick up the entire tab.

Days passed, and Alex and I had found our favourite lunchtime haunt, a fairly non-descript bar with a pleasant terrace, where we could people watch, read books and do the occasional marking. It was thirsty work, but we managed to keep our consumption down to three to four beers before the last class of the day.

Until one very hot day.

The Hot Afternoon Recess

I don’t recall if we both had bad days, perhaps it was even hotter than usual, but the first beer was quickly followed by the second and third, so that when Jenny chanced upon us at just gone half three, we were already three sheets to the wind. She tried a jovial line about drinking before teaching, but it was lost on us. Alex made her excuses and said she was popping to the flat and would meet me there. As for me, much to Jenny’s horror, I was feeling the thirst and on the point of being late for class. Ordering a couple of take outs, I sprinted down the street with a couple of open half litres in my hands.

Arriving in the school playground a little flushed from the exertion and with the bottles in tow, I must have cut an eccentric sight even by our high standards. Alex, loyal colleague that she was, failed to show, having (I later found out) passed out on the sofa, with key to all books and cassettes in her pockets. I beckoned everyone to cram into my class and, with the lack of educational material available, I assembled my resources on my desk, namely two bottles of chilled lager.

Alex’s students had never seen me teach, and so were presumably quite expectant. I had no idea how many people were in front of me as I tripped and fell off the rostrum, I was totally pissed, but the show must go on. My lesson planning thus far (there never had been any training) was limited, and I tended to just open my mouth and a topic would appear. It was a tactic which never failed with such a willing audience, and I opened my mouth once again.


Absolute silence. My mind went blank and I had no idea what to talk about. In order to buy some thinking time, I theatrically reached for a beer and took a large mouthful, amid much laughter.

“Right. Enough of me coming up with topics. Your turn. Can someone suggest a topic for today’s class.” Silence. “Come on, someone?” A hand from the geeky bespectacled girl in row two. Oh no...

“Can you explain the British education system to us?” I stared. I winced.

“Anyone else?” Silence.

“The British education system it is then,” I determined, slurping another mouthful. “Where to start? Perhaps with my own experience, is that ok?” Nodded and shaken assent.

The Importance of Education

And that is about as much as I can remember, apart from little snippets. I do remember becoming an enthusiastic user of chalk and going off topic. One example remains with me still and I was ribbed mercilessly for the rest of my time in Bulgaria thereafter – uses of the word ‘joint’ which came up in conversation, or rather my drunken monologue.

“But before we go further, there are so many interesting uses of the word ‘joint’,” I declared, writing the word illegibly on the board. I went on to explain joint ventures, joints of beef, smoking a joint and wrecking a joint, enthusiastically apply chalk to blackboard at every opportunity.

“So where was I?” No idea how I had gone onto the topic.

“You were telling us about boarding schools.”

“Ah yes, but before I do, the phrasing ‘wrecking a joint’ is interesting. Wreck can be used as in shipwreck, wrecking is a type of dancing ...” More chalk and more uses of the word wreck.

“So where was I?”

“You were telling us about boarding schools.”

“Ok but before I do...” And so the class went on until the beer was consumed and I let the poor souls go.

A rather sheepish English teacher met my regulars the following afternoon. Not sure what to expect of me, they followed my every move.

“So yesterday,” I began, in faltering voice, “I was a little drunk.” Laughter.

“Really?” came a sarcastic voice from the back. “We did not notice.” Hmmm.

“And I think I spoke a bit too much.” More laughter, as it was explained to me that the only contribution anyone had made for more than two hours to remind me my topic was boarding schools, a subject I ultimately failed to address.

“And so today, we are going to do something different. I need to check how much you are understanding when I speak, so I am going to go round the class, and I want you each to tell me something that I told you yesterday. Let’s start with Maria.” My attempt to fill in my blacked out memory was crude, but it might just work.

An Education Scrutinised

“You got 12 ‘O’-levels.” What a bizarre thing to say, never mind remember. The worrying this is that is was true.

“Good. Next?”

“You got 4 ‘A’s, 5 ‘B’s and 3 ‘C’s.” This was back in the day when people listened to me, but I hadn’t expected such level of detail – hell, I didn’t remember talking about this at all. How dull must I have been?

“Well remembered. Next?”

“You got ‘A’s in Greek, Latin, French and English Language, ‘B’s in German, Physics, Maths, Religion and History, and ‘C’s in Chemistry, English Literature and Geography.” My heart was pounding now. What the hell had I been doing yesterday?

“Excellent attention to detail. Next?”

“When you were fifteen, you got 16% in your biology exam.” ENOUGH! My most closely guarded secret revealed to a group of teenage Bulgarians.

I put my hand in the air, my other hand on my chest and offered a heartfelt apology. I would never drink again. Before four.

“But let’s go to the pub now – I owe you all a drink.”


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