In the school, I learned English as foreign language.
To my shame, I forgot the name of my teacher; I only remember we were calling her “The Crow”, because she had a very round face, round big eyes, and when she had to blink, she always closed both eyes, waited quite a long time, and then opened them. She looked very british to me, for whatever reason (in fact, the first Brit I’ve ever shook hands I’ve met in person this Spring).
I doubt my teacher has met Brits either. She has graduated from a local university in my home town. And in the Soviet times, foreign visitors to my home town were if not outright not allowed, then at least “not welcomed”. So I think her exposure to British English was mostly watching some rare movies managed to pass through the censorship, or hearing some SW radio, and reading newspapers. Nevertheless, I believe her pronunciation was better than mine today, not to mention her Grammar.
Our English classes were conducted in a tiny classroom on the top floor. One of the lessons I can remember very well. It was -30 centigrade (-22 Fahrenheit) outside. Schools closed only at -35 and below in my home town, so we had classes. My mother has put on me a heavy-duty fur coat with at least an inch of hard-pressed fur, and felt boots, and fur cap. I’ve lost quite a lot of my flexibility grades; it felt as if I was in a spacesuit. Outside, I couldn’t see anything in the first couple of minutes, because the bright sun was reflected by the white new snow.
The windows in our class room were completely frozen, so the blinding light from outside was transformed into hundreds of light spots, creating some kind of festive mood. The English teacher entered the classroom, and we all have stood up.
“Good morning, pupil!” she said in English, squinting.
“Good morning, teacher” we replied, also in English.
This part was always the same during all six years of English in the school, as well as the part followed it:
“Who is on duty today?” asked the teacher. I stood up again and said:
“I’m on duty today”.
Every day a new pupil was “on duty”, and yes, short answers like “I am” were considered wrong for some reason.
“Who is absent today?” asked me the teacher. The long sentence rule obviously applied to her either. I’ve looked around, detected absentees, and reported:
“X is absent today.”
“Is he ill?”
Normally, we had no idea why anybody else has not appeared, but during this procedure, we were not supposed to give any other answer than affirmative one. Well, we didn’t have corresponding vocabulary anyways. So, I already wanted to say “Yes he is,” but remembered I’d already seen X in the school on that day, so that would be an outright lie. Besides, the funny happy light spots everywhere on the walls, and the contrast of the biting cold outside and the overheated small classroom have motivated me to rebel against this procedure, for the first time. So I have said:
“No, it isn’t.”
“No, he isn’t,” automatically corrected me the teacher and then paused, realizing what had just happened.
“What happened to him?” asked she in Russian.
“I dunno, I’d already seen him in the school today,” answered I also in Russian. She paused a little more, and then asked again, in English, looking into my eyes:
“So. IS. HE. ILL. ?.”
“Yes, he is” I replied.
And our usual lesson started.
But this small rebellion was a first step into our further special relationship. From that time on, she cared a bit more about me than about other pupil: she gave me more complex/advanced tasks and corrected me more thoroughly.
Also, this was the first time I’ve realized and truly believed there ARE other people, the foreigners, who don’t speak Russian, but speak English. And that English is not just some set of magic spells or gibberish that we’re forced to repeat on every lesson, but is really a language, allowing to communicate your own ideas in a similar way Russian does.
In our lessons, we had texts about John and Mary, pupil, who were normally doing something in London or visiting Moscow. I had no idea about both of these cities. But, while I thought I have realistic possibilities to visit Moscow some day, I could never imagine I’ll ever be in London. All the time in the school, and many years after the school, London was a very abstract term for me, similar to people who died before my birth or ancient things that are already destroyed.
So here I come, London, for real. Let’s get in touch.