teaching an English course for the chamber maids,’ the head hotel lady, Signora
Dini explained. But they won’t be allowed to attend until they’ve finished
making up the rooms. So, they’ll probably arrive one by one towards the end of
their shift. In the meantime, you can just follow Joy around. Try and teach her
as she works.’
I don’t know
what Joy had done in a past life to deserve such bad luck-or what I had
done for that matter. Nor were we allowed much time to think about it. Signora
Dini is a hurry-hurry Miss Rottenmier type, which I suppose you have to be when
your title is governante. Stiffly but quickly, she handed me two
graph-paper notebooks and a pair of company pens of the don’t-really-work
variety. Use these and this,’ she told me. By this’ she was referring to
Basic English’, whose pages were heavy with the pain of the present perfect
and where will’ claimed to be oh-so-very-different from its much snootier
sister shall’. I took the tome with
mounting dread. Follow her around while she cleans? When I had agreed to
teach an English course to eight employees at a five-star hotel, this was not
exactly what I had in mind.
Thankfully, Joy, turned out to be a joy to teach’-if that is what you
can call sitting on the rim of a bathtub as you make two hours of small talk
with someone who obviously has better things to do.
Joy is from Nigeria and moved to Italy during the millennium year. Eight years have not
succeeded in diminishing her expressive warmth. Only people whose skies know
nothing but sun can maintain such unassuming friendliness. She married an
Italian husband three years ago and was finally able to send for her children
who, until then, had stayed in Africa. My oldest son is called June and my second one is
called Happy’, she told me. I made her repeat the names twice to be sure I’d
heard right and checked that her firstborn wasn’t actually a daughter. No. They
were both boys. Nice,’ I nodded. You cannot tell a woman named Joy’ that
there is no such name as Happy’. Nor can you point out that June’ is only
used for girls in English. The lady was having a language class with her head
half-inside a toilet bowl. It was not really the time for technicalities. And
besides, I was feeling much too awkward to say anything as bookish as all that.
never given an English lesson in the loo, you may not be able to fathom it.
Suffice it to say, however, that it feels nowhere near the summit of one’s
professional successes. For while I’m
quite sure that steam on a shower stall serves as an excellent make-shift chalk
board, it’s best not to risk antagonizing the student. Squeaky clean’ is a profession
not an adjective and to some students, smudge marks on glass are much worse
than bad grades.
But, believe it or not, the bathroom part of Joy’s rounds were much
easier than the bedroom part-at least for me. I couldn’t shake that
I-feel-like-a-worm’ feeling which is apt to creep over anyone forced to sit in
a tiny crushed velvet chair while someone else changes the sheets on king-size
mattresses. And the logical argument, I’m doing my job and she’s doing hers’,
does nothing to soothe the worminess, by the way. My offer to help’ with dressing the beds was quickly
stifled, however. Although I’m quite diligent about sheet-changing at home, Joy
wasted no time pointing out that my skills are not currently up to five-star
par. Then-out of sheer pity-she allowed me to be in charge of the pillow cases.
As those were easy’, even for empathetic novices like me.
lesson to-gether was not altogether unprofitable. She would heap six sets of
sheets at a time onto the lap of an unfortunate bronze knight whose horse stood
frozen in the first floor’s hallway. And I would take them off one by one when
it was time to follow her into the next room. The knight’s load diminished with
each suite she finished, and my own heart was somehow equally unburdened as our
lesson progressed. Joy had two frequent linguistic habits that I couldn’t help
but look forward to hearing. Whenever I finished relaying some trivial piece of
personal information, she would look up from her work and ask, You mean it?’
as if the news I have two sisters’ somehow stretched the line between fiction
and fact. She would also finish off each of her own explanations with the even
more stirring emphatic question, You understand me, what I’m saying?’
I asked her getting-to-know-you questions and her answers proved an
age-old theory: people with limited vocabulary often say much more than those
who have the whole dictionary at their disposal. How did she like Italy? Had she made any
friends? What would she do, if she could do anything in the world?
>Italy’, she said, is a country
full of dust. Nigeria does not have dust, only
sand that is also everywhere.’ And her one friend moved to London last year, and left her
with none. But, that is okay, because I am friends with my husband.’ In
response to the what-would-you-do question, she laughed-a wonderful jangling
ha-ha-ha-just the way people are meant to laugh in this world. Then she screwed
up her face in thought. If I could do anything? I would learn to drive. I
can’t now. Driving is hard if you don’t know how to read.’ And then a
wistfulness that her features were not made for seized her expression and she
asked, One day, instead of cleaning, could you show me to read in English?
Because even reading in English would be good. You understand me, what I’m
Yes, Joy. I
swear I do.
None of the Basic English’ book got done that day and none of the other
maids ever finished their shifts and showed up. Good thing-it’s near impossible
to master a book like that with the vacuum running. But you can still teach-or
learn-the basic’ part no matter the noise. Even if you’re only apt for the
easy jobs. Even if the pens are faulty and there’s nothing in your notebook at
the end of the day. After all, some things shall never really matter. And
others-a few simple others-always will.