The Journey series
This week’s Mustard Seed shares an event that put me in place.
Most teachers treasured their breaks and the seclusion of the staff lounge. I preferred to spend breaks with my students. We played basketball or ping pong and, on occasion, wrestled. Few of my students had any training so the coaching I received on my college team allowed me to prevail. I soon became known among the students as keshta geerman, champion wrestler.
Wrestling was very popular in Iran at the time due to Olympic gold medalist Gholamreza Takhti. He was not only a skilled athlete but a genuinely nice man who wore his fame well. My prowess on the mat earned me a loyal following. Students flocked around me wherever I went.
One day, another teacher warned me that I shouldn’t mix with the students as much as I did. When I asked why he told me, “It makes people watch. Don’t trust everyone.”
I asked an Iranian friend what the teacher meant and she told me that there were lots of Savak (Iran’s secret police) agents in the school. I reasoned that I wasn’t up to anything subversive so I carried on as usual.
Shortly later, three of my students invited me to go to a movie with them. They told me where to meet after school. I picked them up in my van and we drove a short distance to the theatre. The floor crunched as we made our way to our seats through the darkened theatre; it was covered in pistachio shells. We watched a black-and-white gangster film that had been dubbed to Farsi. My students tried to translate for me but the movie was so clichéd I needed no translation. The next day rumours spread through the school that I was actually fluent in Farsi.
When I returned home my van was missing. I recalled passing a police station during my shopping excursions so I went there to report my problem. The officer at the desk informed me they had taken my van to make sure no one stole it. He said it would be returned if I signed a paper which he slid toward me. It was written in Farsi. I asked him what it said and he told me it was a standard form to say my van had been returned in good condition. I asked if I could see my van first.
“No,” he said. “It will be returned to your house tomorrow.”
I asked how I could sign a paper declaring my van was in good condition when returned before seeing it returned. He told me the alternative could be worse. Then he warned me I shouldn’t see any students outside of the school. Under duress, I signed the form in a manner I could claim wasn’t my signature. The officer took the paper and shooed me away with flick of his hand.
The next day I spent my breaks in the staff lounge. I went home, found my van parked out front, and examined it. Everything had been rummaged through. I couldn’t detect any problems but I understood the message.
Next week: It Gets Worse.
In this week’s Mustard Seed I share my experience settling into my new routine.
Five days a week I taught my students and tended to my domestic chores. I did all the shopping because my house mates – three American men, retired RAF Colonel Ted, and his Moroccan boy Max – spoke no Farsi at all. I didn’t understand how anyone could live in a country for several years and not learn how to even say please or thank you in the native tongue. I chided them for it, but was happy to do their shopping in exchange for them paying my share of the expenses. Bargaining at the market was also a great way to immerse myself in the local culture.
Each weekend I would venture out in a different direction to see the sights. I visited an ancient village where people had lived in bee-hive like structures which were accessed via a hole in their top. Semi-precious gems were embedded in the sun-baked clay. The view inside resembled a galaxy of multi-coloured stars. I visited Masuleh, built on a mountainside, where the roofs of the houses in front served as yards and walkways for those behind.
Many towns had traditional local crafts. I watched tinsmiths craft copper pots over wood fires, weavers produce rugs on hand built looms, and embroiderers create tapestries as they sat in a sewing circle – paying more attention to their chatting than their work. In the small towns people cared only about their daily routine and the weekend Shanbeh bazaar(Saturday market).
In the cities there were murmurs of political unrest. There were many obvious contradictions. Some women wore western attire and heavy makeup, others were clad in chadors. One high fence might conceal a mansion with a lush, green lawn and an ornamental fountain while the next surrounded a cement-block shack with chickens foraging in a dirt yard. I saw a procession of six shiny, new, single-occupant Mercedes cars followed by a motorcycle bearing six people, a chicken, and a sheep.
These anomalies seemed to foment contempt. Several people told me that it is not charitable for a rich person to invite a beggar to dinner. Once the beggar sees what he doesn’t have he won’t be satisfied with what he does have. I got the sense most of them were beggars who had been to the banquet.
The Shah must also have felt the tension. It was rumoured that one in seven Iranians worked for Savak, the secret police force. I was cautioned several times not to say or do anything which might draw their attention. Apparently, befriending students was one such an activity.
Next week: Consequences.
In this week’s Mustard Seed I share some of the things I learned from my students.
I taught English to sixteen to eighteen year-old Iranian naval students. In their first level there was a lesson about food. The book posed the question, "Do you like rice?"
The response given was, "Yes, I do. I do like rice."
Ask anyone beyond that level whether they like rice and they'd respond, "Yes, I do. I do like rice."
Pressing for thoughtful responses rather than rote answers from their text. I said, "Come on. You eat rice three times a day, seven days a week. Do you really still like it?"
One term I taught a second level group. All the students were new to me except Mahmoud, who was in my previous first level class. I asked each in turn whether they like rice and, sure enough, each responded, "Yes, I do. I do like rice."
After asking all the other students, I asked Mahmoud, "How about you? Do you like rice?"
"No," he replied with a broad smile. "I hate it! I like girls."
That set the tone for the rest of the term. "See," I said, "the rest of you were reciting a lesson. Mahmoud answered the question."
I encouraged my students to review their lessons before coming to class paying particular attention to the vocabulary list. Rather than just read back and forth, I'd describe a scene appropriate for the day's lesson and assign roles. Teenage boys become very creative when encouraged. We had lots of fun and the boys learned much more than they otherwise would have.
My classes were very popular. Students from other classes would come to ask me questions during breaks. My students did well in their exams because they were interested in the classes. The school administrators decided that I would be a good teacher for the naughty students.
At the start of the next term a lieutenant came to my class. "These boys are all very bad," he said. "If any of them misbehave in class, send them to my office and I will beat them."
I also had a note with my attendance book saying one of the students must get seventy percent on his term exam or he would be kicked out of school. I looked at Rasoul's transcript – seventeen percent.
That lunch hour I asked the opinion of Rasoul's teacher from the previous term. He said Rasoul was respected in his home town because his father was the mayor. Here, he opined, Rasoul became class clown because he was too stupid to earn the respect he was used to.
As I assessed my class over the next few days I found most boys did respect Rasoul. Rasoul wasn't prepared for each day's vocabulary, but he picked the words up fairly quickly and participated well by midday. His low score on his quizzes didn't match his class activity. I reasoned Rasoul wasn't doing well because he couldn't read or write English. The course was conversational English but the text and exams were written.
I appointed Rasoul class president. I asked him to stay in during the next break to discuss his position. With the other boys away, I confronted Rasoul about his reading and writing. He confirmed my suspicions. We began private lessons during breaks.
Rasoul's attitude changed. He exercised his authority well. With tutoring, he scored sixty-seven percent on the final exam. I spoke to the academic director about Rasoul's progress but he insisted sixty-seven percent is not seventy percent. I pleaded Rasoul's case but the director suggested Rassoul probably cheated. I assured him that I had paid attention to Rasoul as I envidulated the exam and was sure he hadn't cheated. The director finally relented and allowed Rasoul to retake the exam with a different envidulator. Rasoul repeated his sixty-seven percent score. It still wasn't seventy percent. I stressed that Rasoul surpassed several of his classmates who were allowed to stay, yet he was still expelled and sent home in shame.
I survived my disappointment. I was assigned another class of bad boys. I preferred to think of them as more active students.
Next week: Murmurs.
In this week’s Mustard Seed my sister heads back home and I head back to school.
Throughout our travels we sent many letters and postcards home describing our adventures. Uncle David's Bandar Pahlavi address was the first opportunity for us to receive return correspondence. There were several letters waiting upon our arrival, one was from our mother.
Mom was so alarmed by our adventures that she sent airfare for my sister to return home. I prefer to think she believed I was resourceful enough to fend for myself, but I rather think she felt I deserved my fate for dragging my sister into all of our adventures.
My sister was more than ready to comply. Even if the offer had been extended to me, there was the matter of our van and the Iranian auto import taxes. Uncle David was due to leave three days hence for two weeks' working in CEDA's Tehran office. He would arranged for Hilda's journey home from there. Aunt Louise and cousin Ianine would travel with him to Tehran and return to Canada. Our younger cousins, Christopher and Jennifer, would remain with us under our care. With her return home assured – and planning in Uncle David's hands rather than mine – my sister relaxed.
We had a nice visit over the next three days, familiarizing ourselves with the area and meeting some of our uncle's coworkers. Uncle David lived in a small community of Canadian and American workers. Each family had a two-bedroom bungalow. It was nice to settle in one place for more than just a few nights – with indoor plumbing and a kitchen. As guests of our uncle we were welcome to attend all expat facilities.
In due time we bid farewell to Uncle David, Aunt Louise, and cousin Ianine. One of the amenities for expats was a weekly family movie night. That was our entertainment plan for the first day as our cousins' guardians. We got popcorn, found our seats, and the lights dimmed. Donald Sutherland played a detective and Jane Fonda played his mysterious neighbour. As the movie progressed it became apparent she was a prostitute. Fortunately, we caught on and were able to leave before any explicit scenes.
The next day Christopher asked why lots of men visited her but didn't stay very long. My sister avoided the issue by explaining he would understand when he was older. We decided it would be safer for me to read to them for their entertainment. We found a copy of The Hobbit. They listened intently and seemed to enjoy my reading even though I wasn't sure they understood.
It became our routine to eat dinner, clean up and snuggle on the couch; me in the middle with the book and a cousin on each side. After Bilbo Baggins returned safely to the Shire we dug out The Lord of the Rings.
I can't recall whether Uncle David returned from Tehran before or after Bilbo returned from the Misty Mountains. While he was gone I learned that many relatives of expat workers found employment teaching English to Iranian Naval cadets. One of the wives introduced me and I was hired to start at the beginning of the next term.
Uncle David returned with tickets for Hilda's trip back to Canada via Baku, Moscow, St Petersberg, Helsinki, London, and, finally, Vancouver. I was able to finish reading Lord of the Rings before moving to a rented house in Rasht that I shared with four other teachers.
Almost thirty years later Jennifer, the youngest of my cousins, told me she preferred my Gollum voice to Andy Serkis' rendering.
Next week: I Learn by Teaching.
In this week’s Mustard Seed my sister and I double back to Qazvin and head north to Bandar Pahlavi.
I negotiated two concessions from my sister when I agreed to go to Europe with her. First, we cross from North America to Europe by ship, and second, we visit our uncle in Iran. We were on our way to fulfil the second.
We knew Uncle David worked for CEDA in Bandar Pahlavi. We knew the address of his office and timed our arrival for working hours. Once in town we couldn’t read the Farsi street signs. We drove around until we found an official looking building with several cars sporting decals on their doors parked outside. Two men in uniform exited, furthering the evidence that this was the local police station. My sister waited in our van while I went in to seek directions to CEDA’s office and, presumably, our uncle.
I spoke to four officers who just looked back quizzically before one was finally able to decipher which language I was speaking. He called for an interpreter. The interpreter’s English was far from fluent. I told him I was there to visit my uncle and I wanted directions to CEDA where I was sure he’d be. He rapped his knuckles on his desk and looked very concerned. He got up, and stood behind me. He started parting my hair and examining my head. He left. I was left alone, confused, in that room for what seemed many agonizing hours.
Eventually, my equally confused uncle arrived with a co-worker who actually could translate. My uncle’s friend spoke with the officer then turned to me and asked, “When did David hit you?”
“What?” I asked.
“The officer says your uncle hit you on the head and you want to fight him.”
It turned out that we were not in a police station; we were in a tribunal office. People went there to air their grievances. If the matter was deemed trivial the complainant would be fined, if not, the offending party would be summoned and supervised floggings, wrestling matches, or boxing bouts would settle the issue. The officer had assumed I knew where I was and had translated my request into something appropriate for his office.
Once he realized I had no grievance with my uncle we were allowed to go. By the time I got back to my sister she was extremely worried. My explanation did little to assuage her. She was tiring of our frequent ordeals.
We followed my uncle to his home and had a warm reunion with my uncle, aunt, and three cousins. It turned out we arrived just a few days before my aunt and oldest cousin were to return to Canada. Our two younger cousins were overjoyed since, with our arrival, they now had a reprieve from spending their days under the care of a babysitter they didn’t care for.
Next week: Separate Ways.