Omar stomps into class one morning, slams his backpack down on the desk, and seethes like a career middle manager.
It's the first week of Ramadan and, although he's only eight, he's been fasting for a few days. Not all children fast during this important Muslim holiday, but it’s a chance for Omar to be measurably precocious, rather than just a smart ass. The kid's far behind in English, Math, and height, but he makes up for all of it with charm and despotic glee.
I’ve come to Dubai, and ultimately this classroom, to support my wife’s career. Since packing up our apartment in Oakland and boarding that very long flight for the United Arab Emirates, I’ve mostly earned my keep as a journalist. Now, during the sweltering summer of 2009, freelance work has slowed to a crawl and I’ve answered an online ad calling for English tutors. I am not, nor have I ever been a teacher, but I’m curious to find out if I can cut it. At first the hardest part is simply keeping Omar under control.
Feature Omar at the campus coffee shop, where I stupidly shell out $4.60 for coffee drinks each school day. Because this is Dubai, even Knowledge Village, a sort of educational office park development, is full of junk food. Off the top of my head there’s a Subway, a Burger King, and a Starbucks that, upon first glance, appears to be in the lobby of a Krispy Kreme. And that’s just a fraction of what’s on offer.
I can't leave Omar in class when it's time for my break, so I take him with me— how that constitutes a break, I’m not sure. Omar immediately climbs up on top of the counter, grabs a sucker, and asks:
"How much this one?" We need to work on his grammar.
"Four Dirhams, Sir," replies the thirtyish guest worker to the eight-year-old local. Work visas are tenuous here, and service industry folks generally seem afraid of the locals, even the kids. Dubai mixes all the socioeconomic tiers of the planet in one place, and the results are oddly consistent— for instance, fast food restaurants and cafés tend to be staffed by Pilipino workers. With jobs, housing, and visas all theoretically vulnerable, service workers are perhaps overly tolerant of misbehaving local kids.
"Maybe no Dirham?" Suggests Omar, in a voice that is imperious but also charismatic.
The woman eventually gives in, but when I intervene, paying full price for the sucker he no longer wants it, and I throw it in a desk drawer where it sits for weeks. He'll find it one day, while ransacking my desk in search of the pens I've hidden in an effort to end "drawing time."
Omar is a master negotiator, and like most practitioners of the trade, he's not satisfied getting what he wants, but must get what he wants on his terms. In one of many gross overestimations of my powers, he seems to think that I can control space and time:
"How many left in class?"
"About an hour," I reply, neglecting to correct him.
"How about ten minutes?" Omar suggests.
"Omar, I can't make your Mom come any sooner."
"OK. Fifteen minutes."
Now it's the fifth day of Ramadan, and the winking subtext of our banter has gone flat. Although fasting is the stereotypical excuse offered to explain erratic behavior during the holy month, I'm fairly certain Omar simply objects to having had to come to class at all. To be fair, we were supposed to be done by now, but his family, with little or no notice, postponed a week of classes and went to Abu Dhabi. As a result, Omar is stuck in an Arabian version of Summer School, and doggedly rebuts my lame attempts to play the Freddy Shoop role:
"Bromar, my man, how are you today?"
"I am not Bromar, I am Omar" he replies. Although incredulous at first, Omar eventually catches on, and we cultivate a game in which he perfects his mock outrage at my nicknaming attempts.
"OK, you call me Boss Man, and I'll call you Little Boss Man."
"I am not Little Boss Man."
I suggest this one-day during break, after we've both checked our hair in the mirrored wall of the elevator interior. This particular vanity is mostly theater, and I play it up, mussing and then repairing my coif, taking my sunglasses on and off, until he eventually does the same. To my secret delight, he does eventually call me Boss Man, but only when he's trying to wheel and deal with me, like a used car salesman invoking your given name too much.
"Omar... USA number 1!" I say, now content to simply wind him up.
"No. Is number five." My used car salesman is blossoming into a diplomat.
We have our schtick down by the time Ramadan rolls around and I'm flummoxed by Omar's grumpiness on this particular day. Omar has been my most challenging student to date, in part because he's my first real student. I've taught guitar lessons, and I've done a bit of tutoring for people switching from Windows to OS X, but I've never taught something as legitimately academic as the English Language. When things go poorly in the classroom, I'm momentarily stung anew by my utter lack of credentials or formal training. In fact, my mere employment in Dubai's huge educational money machine makes me skeptical of the machine itself and, paradoxically, less concerned about having to wing it every single day. And yet today, when I can't even get the kid to lift his head off the desk, I do wonder if I’m cut out for Knowledge Village.
Normally, when Omar fixates on some deficiency of logic in the workbook, or simply refuses to work, we turn to the white board, where he draws blocky SUVs with seemingly dripping exhaust pipes that turn out to be machine guns. A few weeks in, when I discover his insane love of lions. I draw several for him; lions giving the thumbs up while riding BMX bicycles off launch ramps, flying over the heads of other lions who look on in awe, lions eating ice cream cones. And so on.
This morning I can tell that none of that is going to work. So I simply pick up one of his books and read to myself, opting not to spar with the Manny Pacquiao of teacher-student combat. It takes at least half an hour, but it works, and he eventually requests his single favorite assignment, perhaps the only one this willful child has ever completed in entirety; Animal Quiz Show.
Years ago, I read an article about how Blue's Clues was developed to be stickier than, say, Sesame Street, by use of simple repetition. I may have this wrong, as my memory has a creative bent, but Blue's Clues was designed to be a superior learning tool, in large part because it repeats the same episode five days a week. Apparently bludgeoning repetition works well for kids.
In place of a Masters in Education, I have this article that I read years ago and at least partly remember. I seize on this little chunk of knowledge, and it becomes the rationale for allowing Omar to repeat Animal Quiz Show, sometimes as much as five times per session. Omar has long ago memorized every answer, so one day when his Father shows up to sit in on the last few minutes of class, Omar appears to have become an English speaking dynamo. In reality, he's my accomplice in duping his father, as he nails each answer with feigned earnestness, furrowing his brow in mock concentration but never overacting.
Later, on a subsequent visit, Omar's father, an exceedingly kind person and genuinely concerned parent of the sort you would hope to encounter on any continent, informs me that he's forgotten my Ramadan gift in the car, but when his wife comes to pick up Omar for the final class later that week she'll have my new English language edition of the Koran with her.
The nature of the gift is not entirely unexpected. Omar’s dad wears the long beard of a pious Muslim, and Omar has asked a few culturally curious questions that suggest a religious home life— questions like:
"How do you pray?" Which I wasn't quite sure how to answer, so I showed him a few poses which I've never actually struck, but that describe a sort of TV version of American prayer.
And: "You eat pig?" To which I respond, "Oh yeah, pig, cat, dog, canary, gila monster, whatever you got." Then I explained what a gila monster is.
I was surprised when the gift did arrive, as it turned out not to be for me at all, at least not directly. "For your wife," explained Omar's Mom, handing me a giant gift bag that contained a cylinder full of musky Arab perfume, a scarf, a sequined dress from India that we gave to a co-worker of my wife’s (who loved it) and a tiny, pink, telephone-shaped bedside clock that looks like it might have belonged to an anachronistic Marie Antoinette. There may have been some other stuff in there too, but there weren't any religious texts. I'm not sure what happened to the Koran, which I'd been looking forward to thumbing through if not actually reading, but it was very kind nonetheless.
I found Omar's family as charming and thoroughly enjoyable as they were unpredictable. I'd fallen sideways into teaching, and by this point I'd given up on actually meeting any Emiratis. One morning, later in the Summer, Omar's Mom dropped off Omar with his six-year-old brother Salim, simply asking, "you don't mind, do you?" I didn't really, although Salim had already been prohibited from auditing the class— the first day had proved far too chaotic with both brothers running around the classroom glomming all the dry erase markers. Omar wound up being decently focused on Animal Quiz Show that day, while Salim drew monkeys on the board, so it worked out all right, animals always seem to help.
As a tutor, I had no idea what I was doing. The pay was not great, and the success of the student was ultimately up to them anyway— and yet I felt a little guilty that I wasn’t able to better serve Omar. He’s a mess, or at least he was, but he has a lot of heart. I like to think that, although Omar basically refused to do the work, our constant teasing, negotiating, and declarations of disbelief in each other's behavior all comprised an education of sorts. It was, at the very least, all conducted in English.
is the Executive Editor of Know Journal.