Embarrassing English (Saved By the Grunt)

Whoever it was that conceived of the word “tedious” must have spent some portion of his or her life as a teacher. Not to say that teaching is boring, often the contrary, but when you’re spending seemingly the same rainy December day leading the same roundtable discussion on the same hour-long topic hour after hopeless hour, I find it next to impossible not to ruminate on which wise Latin-speaking professor it was who formed the word.

I check the time on my mobile for the second time in what I imagine to have been five minutes but, like all those brought up in a religious household, with the faith that being the flawed human being I am I could have underestimated time’s passing. Faith fails me yet again as I see I’ve actually overestimated the time by a whole 3 minutes. That is to say, barely 2 minutes have slithered past and my brain has devolved into something sorely akin to the pumpkin flavored mush I had for breakfast this morning inside the bowl my skull has become.

The good news is that, being 5 o’clock, I have only one more hour left to wade through. This also happens to be the bad news as I’ve spent some truly endless hours in this room.

The sudden invasion to my ears of a Madonna pop tune pierces my thoughts before I register it as Stanislav’s ringtone. Stanislav is a meaty fellow with a penchant for grunting for no apparent reason every 12 minutes. These grunts serve as convenient time markers for me to either slow down or speed up the length of my lesson accordingly. By the fifth grunt, I know it’s time to start packing up.

I think I’ve never so badly wanted a man to grunt in all my life…

His presence as well as those of the five bodies on the other side of the table (Stas’ grunts tend to repel the other students for whatever reason) starts me into my now well-practiced spiel.

“Good afternoon everybody!” I manage in my most pseudo-enthused tone. “How are you all doing today?”

The looks shot back at me make me feel as if Charlton Heston has caught me molesting his cat on his front porch. Taken momentarily aback, I try a different tact. Name-calling.

“Anna, tell me one interesting thing you did this past weekend.”

Anna looks up with a rather perplexed expression, or I would think so, if she didn’t always look that way.

A tragically comic figure straight out of a Picasso painting, Anna’s lips and, indeed, her entire mouth, seem to be perpetually frozen in a kind of left-leaning grimace. At times I can’t tell whether she is putting it on or not, a product of either Chernobyl or of being eternally miserable.

Faced with her face, I address the question to the student beside her.

“I went to the gym for a few hours, went running and then drank a protein shake.”

That would be Roman. He’s living proof that regardless of whatever country of the world you’re in, guys like him do actually exist. The kind of guys who wear t-shirts two sizes too small just so their biceps take on an infected, tree trunk-like quality. The odd pairing of his high-pitched voice with his stony form would also suggest he’s heard of steroids before.

“Sounds like fun,” I lie. I have been gym free for over a year now and don’t miss it one bit. Although those protein shakes can be good…

Speaking of steroids I turn now to Elena, a hulk of a woman who easily surpasses six feet. I can’t help but think of the Northeastern United States when I see her as her unfailingly disheveled hair and clothes give her the appearance of a hurricane survivor.

I can’t seem to remember what Elena said…

Olga is next. She’s a doctor and a long-time student, both of which pay about as much here. Though I’d guess her to only be about 40, Olga wears her experience like a fur coat in winter, which is to say, quite snugly. She speaks rarely but profoundly.

Lastly there is Nastya. She’s somewhere around the corner from 20 and decidedly on a down-hill slope. Much like Roman, Nastya is living proof that whatever country of the world you are in, girls like her actually exist. Clad as usual in sweatpants that grip her ass so tight it’s a wonder they’re legal, Nastya wears enough mascara to fit in at a Brandon Lee revival and carries herself the way she’s always seen hot girls carry themselves in American films. The reality is quite different.

In Ukraine, it is believed that breaking a mirror brings you bad luck. It’s a bit like that whole debate about the chicken and the egg. Which came first… Only Nastya knows.

I check each off my class roster, names followed by such identifiers as “unusual sweaters,” “biceps,” “grunts,” and “crow.”

The topic today is embarrassing moments which, with a group like this, ought to be easy enough.

“What are some ways in which a person can be embarrassed?” I ask the cheery sextet.

“Peeing their pants.” Elena offers confidently.

“Yes,” I nod. “That would certainly qualify.”

She nods slowly, her face turning the color of the pomegranate on her sweater with its odd assortment of tropical fruits.

“Any other ways?”

“Blackmail.” Olga answers.

“Right. Do you think that blackmail has become a more serious problem thanks to the internet?”

“Oh, I hate blackmail!” Anna says emphatically. “I see them all the time in the metro now.”

Nastya and Olga break out laughing. Stanislav grunts.

“No no,” I say, fighting hard not to show my amusement. “Not black males, blackmail.”

Anna looks confused. Olga explains in Russian.

“She does have a point though.” Roman ventures, a vein on his forehead pulsating to an unheard song. “Immigrants are a problem.”

“Why is that, Roman?”

“Because our country is being taken over. Soon no one will even speak Russian, but only some Muslim language.”

The irony of Russian-born Roman bemoaning the idea of a diminished Russian-speaking population in Ukraine is amusing to me but I suppress the sarcastic remark bubbling behind my tongue and push out another question.

“And how exactly do you stop immigration?”

“By making them too scared to come here. Do something like Anders Brevik did.”

“You mean the guy who killed dozens of politically left-leaning Norwegians last July?”

“Yes,” Roman continues, not moved. “In my opinion, this man is a hero to his country.”

“Violence never solves anything,” Olga speaks up.

“In the Soviet Union there wasn’t a need for violence, immigration wasn’t a problem.” Roman replies.

“Emigration wasn’t either,” Olga rebuts. “You’re not old enough to remember the bread lines, the misery. I remember.”

The group falls silent, everyone shifting in their seats uncomfortably.

Stanislav grunts for the fifth time.

Further embarrassment averted.

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  1. Haha, this was an awesome summary of… let’s say… the past year or so :p I hope I get Stanislav in one of my classes this semester!

    We’re going to miss you!


    1. Thanks so much, Katherine! And yes, I miss you all as well! I’m still following your blogging adventures too though 😉


  2. hahaha that sounds like typical Ukrainian students. Luckily I do not have the privilege of hearing such ignorance since being black kept them for saying things like that to my face.


  3. Funny. Very. Loved it.

    Your description of teaching English in Ukraine kinda puts me off the idea, even though it has bounced around with me ever since I lived there for a year, four years ago.

    Your writing, however, inspires me. It makes me want to be a better writer.

    Thank you, sir. I will work on it.


    1. I really appreciate the compliment, Danny! That means a lot! Absolutely if you’ve got the desire, I’d urge you to give teaching a try. Not to mention it gives you plenty of inspiration for your writing! Good as well as bad 😉


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