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"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

Teach English Doha Qatar.

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

In the summer of 2001 I boarded a near-empty Qatar Airways flight to Doha. Reuniting with my family who’d recently moved there for my father’s new job, it was my first time living abroad.

——

‘This is your classroom’’ said Jamla, switching on the light. It flickered dubiously for a few seconds before finally illuminating the room. But all it actually revealed was just the latest in a long string of anticlimaxes. 

Like everything else during my tour of The Language Institute, my classroom was less than inspiring. Dingy, run down and with a dank smell I couldn’t quite identify, I tried to picture it as a place of learning. I did my best to imagine it as a classroom my students could one day be excited about coming to. But really, it was a tough sell.

The Language Institute Doha.

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

Faded posters advertising French coastal towns adorned the peeling walls. Meanwhile, the three rows of elephantine wooden desks and chairs looked like they’d been transposed from a Dickensian orphanage. My own table, set in front of Planet Earth’s oldest blackboard, resembled a dusty old grand piano. When I set my books down on it and the whole thing slid to one side with a dull thud.

‘‘Someone will fix’’ said Jamla sternly, from behind her veil.

“I will be in my office Mr. Lie-ton. Enjoy your first day at L.T.I.’’. Turning on her heels, she swished out of the room, her black abaya trailing behind her. This was certainly going to be an adventure, no doubt about it. 

Teach English Doha Qatar.

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

Standing alone in my new surroundings, the fear truly began to kick in. In just under an hour I’d be giving my first class as an English teacher, only a few weeks after getting my TEFL certificate. Perhaps unsurprisingly, landing a job at this poor excuse of a school had been a piece of cake.

Since signing on the dotted line I’d received no training. Nor indeed anything resembling a brief. Furthermore, I hadn’t received a scrap of advice on what kind of cultural sensitivities I might face while teaching in an Islamic environment.

Baptism of Fire a short story from Qatar

As far as the curriculum went, I was to work from an outdated course book called Headway. Any supporting materials, Jamla informed me, could be obtained from L.T.I’s joke of a library. This was little more than a depressing chamber that for some unknown reason was always kept locked.

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

Short story Qatar

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

In order to get into the library you had to ask an old man called Mr. Ibrahim to open it. Thankfully he was always stationed right outside the door, where he sat seemingly rotting in a padded chair. Other than locking and unlocking that door, Mr. Ibrahim had no further responsibilities and in the six months I worked there I never once saw him do anything in that chair other than sit.

I often wondered if it ever occurred to him to read a book, do a crossword, learn a new skill, maybe even smile once in a while. If such thoughts ever manifested themselves, Mr. Ibrahim certainly never acted on them.

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

Come to think of it, doing stuff in that chair was no doubt forbidden by Jamla, L.T.I’s strict headmistress. She was a thoroughly cheerless woman who seemed to have modelled herself on Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It was all about the rules with Jamla, hence I quickly learned to steer clear of her and have as little contact as I could get away with.

Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Nurse Ratched : Not the cuddly type.

Once inside the library, it became rapidly clear there wasn’t actually anything worth guarding. There may have been hundreds of books, but most of them were in tatters, had pages missing or were just downright irrelevant. For every fifty titles such as The Art of Sewing or Historical Stamps of Oman, you might stumble across a book of grammar exercises or a vocab pack about transport. It was very slim pickings.

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

Baptism of Fire a short story from QatarMy first class at L.T.I. was an all male group of Qatari men. All of them were thirty somethings who held clerical jobs at QAPCO, Doha’s major petrochemical company. Ridiculously wealthy through old money, most of them held down part time jobs just to have something to do. The English lessons were part of their work contracts, a prerequisite for receiving their monthly salaries. Not that I was aware of any of this on that first day.

Short stories from Qatar Leighton Travels.

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

The first of my charges to arrive was Huzam, a fearsome looking man with the build of a heavyweight boxer. He neither greeted nor looked at me as he sauntered in fifteen minutes late. Slumping into one of the chairs, as far away from me as possible, he whipped out his mobile phone and began texting someone.

All the while I just sat watching him like an idiot. Soaking up as much negative silence as I could bear, I finally caved in and introduced myself before attempting some small talk. But Huzam was not in a communicative mood and all I got back were one word answers.

Leighton Travels travel reports short stories.

The next to arrive was Saleh, a fresh faced man with a friendly smile. ‘‘Teacher, nice to meet you’’ he said, shaking my hand. Dawdling over to Huzam, Saleh sat down while I attempted to get the class started with an introductory exercise.

No start until everyone here!’’ barked Huzam, his tone suggesting the matter was not up for discussion.

I was about to point out that we were already twenty minutes into a two hour session when my third pupil entered, a bespectacled, scholarly looking gentleman called Issa.

Sorry for late’’ he said quietly, selecting a desk away from the other two. ‘‘Traffic very bad’’. Adjusting his headdress, Issa pulled a string of wooden beads from his robe, closed his eyes and sat massaging them silently through his long fingers.

Worry beads.

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

Writing my name on the blackboard, I reintroduced myself before explaining the rules of a warm-up game designed to break the ice and produce some getting to know you language. 

‘‘Teacher, why are you so young?’’ asked Huzam with a suspicious glare. ‘‘Teacher should be older’’.

Ignoring the sinking feeling that had lodged itself deep into the pit of my stomach, I pushed on, asking Saleh to kick things off with a few sentences on why he wanted to learn English. 

‘‘I am Saleh, I am 33 years. I am working in QAPCO’’. Shooting Huzam a cheeky glance, Saleh grinned a silly grin before turning back to me.

‘‘Teacher… I don’t want learn English! I must, or lose money’’.

With no idea how to respond, I just sat for a bit in the ensuing silence weighing up my next move. ‘‘Issa….’’ I prodded, standing up from my desk, ‘‘is it the same for you? Do you want to learn English? Or not really?’’. 

‘‘I don’t care’’ he said, matter-of-factly. Then let out a long sigh, before opening his eyes and setting the beads down on the table. ‘‘English is ok. My English is ok, don’t really need better’’. He raised a hand, motioning slowly around the classroom. ‘‘But I like it here… more quiet than office’’.

Teach English Doha Qatar.

From left to right: Saleh, Issa and Huzam.

We struggled on like this for another ten minutes or so until, suddenly, the air was filled with the high-pitched shrieks of Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. As a result, Huzam, Saleh and Issa sprang out of their chairs and, in the blink of an eye, I had been abandoned. They could have literally left puffs of cartoon smoke in their wake.

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

Baptism of Fire a short story from Qatar

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

Opening a window, I stood listening as the call continued to boom out across L.T.I’s inner courtyard. The sound was coming from a cluster of huddled loudspeakers. Everywhere students streamed out of classrooms, hurrying towards the school’s small mosque. It was over half an hour before my guys returned and when they did they were even less interested in the lesson than before.

‘‘Book boring. Let’s stop’’.

‘‘Teacher, do you religion?’’

‘‘Why womens in America dress like whore?’’

Finally, after what seemed like an age, the class dragged to an end and I felt a sweeping wave of relief wash over me as they filed out. However, with only a ten minute break before my next class, there wasn’t much time to reflect. The second group was a whole different kettle of fish! These guys were an elementary class that could barely string a sentence together.

Thus the two hours crept painstakingly by in droplets of one word answers, vacant expressions and a comically loud fart that echoed around the room as if it were stuck in a pinball machine. I eventually got to know them really well. Moreover, by the end of the year they had even improved. But my god was that first class tough!

Teach English in Doha Qatar.

With my L.T.I. elementary class, 2001.

Baptism of Fire, a short story from Qatar.

‘‘How was your first day?’’ came a friendly voice from across the room. Recovering in L.T.I’s shabby teacher’s room, I’d collapsed into an old armchair like some kind of trauma victim. The voice belonged to a dark haired English girl called Emma. We hadn’t been formerly introduced, though I knew she was my colleague.

Apparently I looked so fried that an answer to her question wasn’t deemed necessary. ‘‘Ha … I know the feeling’’ she said. ‘‘I remember my first day here. Don’t worry, it WILL get better’’.

My first day as an English teacher had certainly been a baptism of fire. Little did I know it then but Emma was right, things would improve. And as we sat there chatting, I was also unaware that I’d just met someone who would turn out to be one of the great friends of my life.

‘Baptism Of Fire’ is the fourth chapter of my short story series The Qatar Collection.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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32 Comments

  • Michelle B.

    What a great story! I loved it all, especially the picture of your students and the ‘‘Why womens in America dress like whore?’’ part. Did you offer them a valid reason (I am curious, too, and I’m an American woman haha!).

    March 17, 2021 - 12:55 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Michelle, appreciate you getting in touch. You know, I don’t recall what my answer was to ‘that’ question, I just remember being stunned by it. Thanks for reading!

      March 17, 2021 - 5:05 am Reply
  • Lookoom

    My sympathies, it was certainly not an easy day.

    March 17, 2021 - 1:02 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks, solidarity!

      March 17, 2021 - 5:06 am Reply
  • Memo

    It’s amazing how the quality of schools can vary so much. My first two were gems and then I went to China. We had no library but then for my job I didn’t need one. I was NOT supposed to teach. That was all handled by the native teachers who taught to the state tests. I was just supposed to talk on any topic of my choosing (as long as it was interesting) and then ask simple questions about what the students had heard. Quit at the end of my contract and learned to ask better questions when applying for jobs.

    March 17, 2021 - 1:45 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Well, you live and you learn, eh? I’ve had one or two of those experiences myself.

      March 17, 2021 - 5:11 am Reply
  • Lyssy In The City

    I feel fried for you haha. What an experience! I would be way too nervous to do that

    March 17, 2021 - 1:54 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha ha thanks for the sympathy. It definitely got better, as the next chapter hopefully shows!

      March 17, 2021 - 5:13 am Reply
  • Rebecca

    Ah, the struggles of your first day as a young, fresh-faced English teacher…I know that feeling! I felt similarly when I arrived at my high school in France when I was 22 to teach English…lots of awkwardness and forced introductions, all to have my students puzzled or otherwise indifferent to learning English. This experience appears to be universal, and hopefully, it got better for you!

    March 17, 2021 - 4:32 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Your descriptions sum up the TEFL experience well, especially with lower levels. Yes, it got better, as the next part hopefully shows. Glad this one resonated!

      March 17, 2021 - 5:17 am Reply
  • salsaworldtraveler

    Well done. Incredible that you survived that first day. Teaching must be in your blood. I hope that statement is not too far off base..

    March 17, 2021 - 5:01 am Reply
    • Leighton

      You’re not too far off base. That first day aside, I took to teaching well and had some really memorable jobs over the years. These days, I’ve grown really tired of it and the few online hours I do feel like a chore. But that’s probably true for anything when you’ve been doing it for the better part of twenty years. Thanks for reading!

      March 17, 2021 - 9:05 am Reply
  • WanderingCanadians

    First days are always awkward. At least it makes for a funny story! Glad it got better.

    March 17, 2021 - 11:47 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading!

      March 17, 2021 - 11:55 am Reply
  • Little Miss Traveller

    Another captivating read Leighton. I took the PGCE route into teaching which did have its moments but was clearly mundane compared to your TEFL !

    March 17, 2021 - 12:16 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha ha, mundane sounds not so bad. Thanks for following my Qatar stories, interesting to know you were a teacher. How long did you teach for?

      March 17, 2021 - 12:27 pm Reply
      • Little Miss Traveller

        About 18 years including my time as a college lecturer where I spent a term as a visiting teacher in Finland and fell in love with the country!

        March 17, 2021 - 1:00 pm
      • Leighton

        Fascinating! What did you teach? Finland had always intrigued me, though sadly I’ve never been.

        March 17, 2021 - 1:01 pm
      • Little Miss Traveller

        I’m sure you will get to Finland one day. Since my teaching there I’ve been back every year apart from the last two! I taught ICT so there should be no excuse for me not getting my SEO in order haha !

        March 17, 2021 - 1:07 pm
      • Leighton

        Ha ha indeed! Thanks for the insight into your background.

        March 17, 2021 - 1:10 pm
  • Monkey's Tale

    I’m not sure I would have been able to manage a day like that. Good for you and thanks for giving us the great story 🙂 Maggie

    March 17, 2021 - 5:49 pm Reply
  • Leighton

    Thanks Maggie!

    March 17, 2021 - 10:26 pm Reply
  • Mary Phillips

    OMG! Headway! I saw that before I read most of your story. God, Leighton, why did you go back the next day? I’m not sure I could have. It must have been meant to be that Emma was there. Can’t wait for another story.

    March 20, 2021 - 8:51 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Yes, good old Headway. What would I have done without it? Thanks for reading!

      March 20, 2021 - 8:52 am Reply
  • Pierre

    Genuinely funny story, but I bet it didn’t feel funny then! Great the way you portray characters very vividly: a talent

    March 20, 2021 - 10:33 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for the kind words Pierre.

      March 20, 2021 - 10:34 am Reply
  • Simon

    Good to see there are places in the world with more apathetic students than the UK. But it could have been worse in my first week as a teacher in the UK I had a chair thrown at me!

    March 20, 2021 - 9:15 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Yes, as depressing as that first lesson was I feel blessed that I didn’t have to physically defend myself.

      March 20, 2021 - 9:26 pm Reply
  • Beverley

    Loved this. Very funny. I wonder if Mr Ibrahim is still sitting there?

    March 20, 2021 - 9:27 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I imagine poor old Mr. Ibrahim must be dead by now, but you never know. He was certainly a hardy soul.

      March 20, 2021 - 9:39 pm Reply
  • InsideMySlingBag

    A really good post Leighton, the start of your teaching career has a lot of memories, some nice old pictures too!

    March 25, 2021 - 8:05 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers! Hope you enjoy the rest of the series.

      March 25, 2021 - 8:39 pm Reply

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