Every five weeks or so, tutors in our small English teaching department are required to write a report for each of their tutees. These are a royal pain in the arse (the reports, I mean) especially as summer approaches, classes get bigger and the name-to-face problem gets tougher. Chinese students try to make our lives easier by choosing an English nickname, but it doesn't always help. Next report is for Chen Shuyue. Is this the girl who calls herself Crystal or the boy called Potato? For there was indeed a Boy called Potato once - and a Berserker, and a Styrofoam. I am not making this up. The reports get more and more general and generic. They are mostly what you might call embassy-feed anyway. Some Saudi bureaucrat on Charles Street in London checks the name and grade, then consigns the file to darkness for the rest of time. I doubt if anybody gives a flying fuck what you write, so long as the numbers and percentages add up.

'X is an enthusiastic student who is always ready with questions to check his understanding' you over-write for the umpteenth time. Check that possessive adjective, just in case somebody actually does read this bilge: we don't want gender reassignment half way through. Willingness to ask questions is a thing we always praise, although it is not seen as a virtue by the Chinese, who'd probably feel more flattered if we wrote: 'X is an obedient student who never presumes to open his mouth in class.' I wish I could write that about Badi. Badi has nothing but questions and he drives my co-tutor and me up the wall. Yesterday as Sharon was going down the corridor to the ladies, I called after her: 'teacher, I have question!'

'Not now, Badi, I'm... (looks over shoulder) oh, bloody 'ell, it's you.'

'Teacher, I have question.' Badi, it is nine in the morning, the lesson starts at ten, and you will note that I am busy rearranging the classroom furniture.

'Teacher, I have question.' I am actually talking to Najla at the moment, Badi. She's just asked me something intelligent.'

'Teacher, I have question.' Lesson's over, Badi. I have a train to catch and I'm already cutting it fine.

'Teacher, I have question.' I'll be out in a moment Badi, just let me finish wiping my arse.

On Wednesday I corrected a minor but irritatingly frequent error:

*'The government must to pass a law.'

'No to,' I said. 'bare infinitive after a modal.' And please stop imagining that the bald assertion that 'goferment must to pass law' is a sufficient, stand-alone solution for your situation-problem-solution-evaluation essay.

'Teacher, I have question. When I can use to after a modal?'

You can't.

'Teacher, I have question. What situation I can use to after a modal?'

No such situation.

I think Badi asked me the same question five times that day. When I got home I found he'd sent me an e-mail:

'modal verb + to infinitive
the hot weather must to melt the ice
infinitive without to/modal verb
the hot weather must melt the ice
what is the difference? or is it right/wrong
second question...'

I replied curtly that I had already answered the question several times. Then I remembered the marginal modals dare, need, and ought, which we had not dealt with, the primary modals deemed sufficient unto the day. So although he'd been a right pain in the balls, he might possibly have had a point, assuming he'd actually once met a marginal modal. Even so...

On Thursday he wanted advice on tackling a reading passage from the brain-curdling IELTS test, or 'Tist Eyelets' as it is known in Saudi Arabia.

'I read first teckerst, or read first quistion?'

In this case, I'd read the questions first.

'Or maybe bitter I'm read number one quistion, then teckerst, then number two quistion, then teckerst, then number...'

Read the questions first, then you know what information you are looking for, and what you can ignore.

'Or, teacher, maybe read one paragraph, then first quistion, then second paragraph, then number two quistion, then therd...'


'Or maybe first scan teckerst, then read quistion.'

You can't scan the text unless you know what you are looking for.

'I think bitter reading first teckerst, then after look quistions.'

I didn't actually put a hand over his mouth, but assuming the manner of a headmaster of times now past, I spelled out an IELTS-busting procedure and a rationale for each step, to which he listened and murmured 'inch'allah' as the pearls cascaded from my lips. He stared intently at me. There was a long pause after my peroration. I took this as assent, and felt I might finally have got through to him.

'But teacher, I have question...'

By the end of the week, l had decided that all this was probably a wind-up from an attention seeker with a rather warped sense of humour. When you hear 'teacher, I have question' from a paying customer, you can't just say 'pull the other one' - you have to try to be helpful. The intense stare, I now reflect, may have betokened a kind of amused pity that anyone could be such a dupe. Fortunately the week after next he becomes someone else's problem, inch'allah.


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