Charged €1,000 ($1,140) for damage to two rooms and the destruction of another family’s possessions, Mohammed giggled and explained, “No problem, I buy them.” Over the past 4 weeks, the boys who shared room 305, Mohammed, a 16-year-old Tehrani, and his kindred spirit, Vlad, a 17-year-old Muscovite, had built a tender friendship. (I have changed all names to protect the anonymity of the school, students and faculty.) They sought my acknowledgment in every way they could, both benignly by gifting me Haribo gummy bears, and also by provoking my anger by prank calling in the middle of the night. Eventually they settled on a new plea for attention: running water taps. What began with a running faucet culminated in the flooding of their hotel room and the one below it.
Camped in a four-star resort in a one-street Alpine village, the institute where Mohammed and Vlad were studying English caters unabashedly to the global 1 percent. Accommodations feature five-course meals, king-size beds and a choice of four saunas. With parents at the helms of Russian petroleum companies, Swiss banks and Brazilian multinationals, these students are both extraordinarily wealthy and remarkably maladjusted. Some -- like Vlad -- have the acute (and not inaccurate) sense they’ve been quarantined while their parents gallivant around the Mediterranean and elsewhere. Others, such as Mohammed, have been raised by fawning tutors who have inculcated them with a profound overestimation of their talents in language -- and everything else.
Financial necessity led me to the institute. My graduate stipend pays only enough to support me during the academic year, and I needed summer funding. My preparation to teach freshman writing at my university entailed a semester of intensive pedagogical training, replete with sample assignments, reading materials and instruction strategies. At the institute, I received a dated Oxford textbook (in which beepers were cited as new technology) and a stiff drink purchased for me by the director the night before I was to begin. With little sense of what to expect from this new pedagogical environment, I immediately began to develop a diagnostic to sort a cohort of students, some of whom would stay for a week, others two, and others the entire month, with new students enrolling each week. My class size ranged from 3 students (in the final week doldrums) to 15 at the height of the program.
With four hours of daily instruction to fill and no practical ELL (English language learners) experience, I relied on two fellow English instructors, who generously provided me with lessons and exercises. My lessons often failed. Once, I asked students to describe their home bedrooms. Each one took a turn speaking while the others drew illustrations based upon this description. This exercise, which I intended to hone locational vocabulary, failed because students didn’t know how to describe or depict “bedrooms” that occupied multiple rooms and, sometimes, entire floors. On another occasion, I asked students to create a brochure for a dream school. I intended for my students to apply educational vocabulary. Instead, they submitted descriptions of shopping malls, glutted with Gucci, Prada and Boss boutiques.
The same thing happened during extramural activities as well. The institute featured daily instructional excursions, about which students were encouraged to write copiously in weekly postcards to family. (The excursions were of such import that I was asked to allocate a weekly lesson to postcard writing.) We visited some of Western Europe’s most impressive cultural destinations, including Munich, Salzburg and St. Gallen. On an excursion to Brixen, Italy, students performed what was for me an all too familiar ritual: they retreated to a Starbucks to watch YouTube videos. Offered the choice to visit a castle or an outlet mall nearby, all but one voted to shop. Some students called the outlet their favorite destination of the month.
I loathed their lack of curiosity, but mostly I lurched between detachment and exasperation. I was far busier than I had anticipated, and after a 12-hour day I found it easy to dislike my students. I skipped group lunches for the relief of solitary walks and siphoned precious sleep time to study for my coming qualifying exams. My colleagues, many of whom were full-time students or high-school teachers, commiserated but could not relate. To them, the institute provided a lucrative means to a holiday that they not otherwise afford. They didn’t overthink it.
My detachment and exasperation gave way to defiance. If tutors or teachers wouldn’t correct student misbehaviors, I, as the graduate student with little to lose, would compel these students to acknowledge the humanity of those around them. As the institute’s tenderfoot, I was primarily responsible for the largest and most disruptive cohort, the Russian boys, who threatened me with retribution by their familial connections. (The Russian mob notwithstanding, I had a hard time taking that seriously.) I intervened at a dinner when Vlad mocked a gay student. I intervened when Mohammed poured his soda on the ground (because it was diet). I intervened when the Russians spoke Russian in English class and when the Brazilians wandered off on their own during excursions. Gradually, some students reluctantly changed behaviors.
Mohammed and Vlad, both of whom I had in class, changed most dramatically. After receiving failing grades on their first exams (perhaps the first F’s ever assigned at the institute), they began to worry -- and take notes. I used their camaraderie to cultivate a productive rivalry, awarding daily lesson “championships,” more choice of assignments and even the chance to teach units.
I also learned more about them. Vlad shared a photo of himself, his father, and a brand-new Mercedes-Benz -- the only photo of him with his dad. Mohammed’s father, on the other hand, applied so much pressure to his firstborn son that the young man suffers chronic health problems, including an eating disorder. Both of the boys of room 305 were boisterous, privileged and unaware. They were also children who were, despite their luxurious lives, unhappy.
I gradually realized I had misread my students. If Brixen was a hop away in a private jet, there could be nothing inherently special about it. Like the social media-addicted students I taught at home, these teens craved a sense of belonging, which they achieved by wearing the same labels, watching the same mass media and locating themselves via Starbucks and smartphones. When they didn’t feel they belonged, they behaved like puppies that hadn’t been housebroken: they broke rules, sneaked out and destroyed rooms. I sometimes felt I was succeeding in domesticating my cohort.
By the end of the program, Vlad and Mohammed visited my room to acknowledge me as their instructor (to prove they were doing homework) and mentor (to learn how to tie a tie). However, those very same students cheated on their final exam and flooded their hotel room. I couldn’t ascertain whether I was dealing with accident-prone pets or young sociopaths. Nor was I confident that I was a suitable trainer. The very transience and poverty that equipped me to confront their misbehaviors also formed a boundary against any kind of meaningful or lasting connection with these future plutocrats. It also made me doubt that I, their teacher, could change them.
For one of our final excursions, I took my students back to the outlet mall. It was the equivalent of letting the foxes into the Gucci henhouse, but given my exhaustion, I let them gorge. And they did. I brought a book and read on a lawn chair at Lafuma while the students maxed out their parental credit cards on what everyone agreed to call souvenirs. When it came time to leave, the van couldn’t accommodate the bags, so Mohammed and Vlad stacked Armani, Dior and Boss boxes high on their laps. For the next two hours, boxes tumbled across the backseats as we wove up serpentine roads to our town. By the time we arrived at the resort several hours later, it was dark and the boys were ecstatic to escape the van. They left behind their souvenirs.
At dinner, I asked Mohammed if he had found what he wanted. He shrugged and asked me what I bought. I told him I didn’t need anything. He looked at me as though he didn’t understand. He told me he would buy me a new suit on our next trip.
Will Fenton is director of the Writing Center at Fordham University Lincoln Center, a teaching fellow and a doctoral candidate of English at Fordham University, where he specializes in 19th-century American literature and the digital humanities.
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