The brown parcel paper on the door

There were four English speaking parents in this class – two US Americans, one Irish and one Brit. We were all equally aghast at the sign saying How is your name? in big round letters hanging on the classroom door. It was put up so confidently as a model sentence to help the kids to learn good English that none of us could bring ourselves to point out that it was wrong. After all, we all make mistakes. We didn’t want to seem petty or churlish.

But it still hurt to look at, this first model sentence being presented to the kids so glaringly wrongly. Whatever success or failure we have in learning languages, most of us remember the first couple of lessons pretty unerringly. Qu’est-ce que c’est? isn’t the easiest expression in French, but it’s usually one of the first ones. Wouldn’t it be great to challenge the intrinsic desire many second language speakers have to translate directly word for word right from lesson one?

Eventually one of us did speak up. An American mother who had a good relationship to the class teacher and did a lot for the school. She was up in the classroom and mentioned in passing as they left the room that the English was actually What is your name?

“Oh no!” said the teacher apparently. “It’s right. Frau (colleague in the parallel class) wrote that and she’s spent time in England.”

Meaning?

That the couple of weeks or months a German student spends touring the UK qualifies her to know the English language better than native speakers born and bought up in other English speaking countries?

That the American’s English was in some way substandard?

That German teachers are infallible?

Maybe it was just an embarrassed reaction. It was an embarrassing situation.

But the words remained there uncorrected and over the years I came to believe in the German teacher infallibility law, as you will see if you read on.

The brown parcel paper stayed on the door for some time. One day I came in and saw that the word how had been corrected to what, but in a different handwriting.

I never asked who did it.

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