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Slaying Dragons

‘Teenagers’; a word to strike fear into the heart of most EFL teachers, most certainly this one. Now, I admit, there’s a huge difference between the ages of 13 and 19, and between girls and boys. All life is there, somewhere, so let’s be more specific – I’m talking about young teenagers here, and usually boys. You know the kind. In between bouts of being mute, deaf and comatose, they are at best monosyllabic, unless of course they’re sniggering at something rude you’ve unwittingly said, in which case they turn into seven year old girls.

Teaching a pair of brothers (13 and 14) is like trying to nail jelly to a wall. As well as all of the above there is often a festering sibling rivalry, maybe even ‘hatred’, to be contended with.

However, any malicious thoughts they may hold for one another pale into insignificance alongside the degree to which they both detest your guts. You know that if your guard is let down for a nanosecond they’ll be picking over your corpse and rifling through your pockets before you can explain the difference between a schwer and a monothong.

Now, Pedro and Francesco come from a good middle-class family, and must appear to outsiders as ‘nice’ boys but I’d only been teaching them a fortnight and it had been a living hell. My nerves were already shredded.

I’d been talking about animals and had moved on to introduce vocabulary dealing with animal body parts – shells, claws, stripes, that sort of thing.

I was asking for examples of animals in each category and already Pedro was about to slit my throat, so offended and disgusted was he with my mere presence in his house. I imagined him coiled and ready to whip out the insect repellent the next time I so much as looked at him.

“So”, I said, gamely carrying on. “What about wings? Which animals have wings?” I pointed to a picture of a flying bird, resting my finger helpfully on one of the wings.

Thus far, we had covered ‘fur’ and ‘spots’ and on both occasions Pedro had offered up ‘cows’ as examples. I had accepted spotted cows but drew the line at cows having fur. I had upset him but I had to push on with the lesson regardless.

“Birds”, said Francesco.

“Yes”, I said. “Birds. Anything else?”

Pedro glared furiously and leaned forward before spitting out the word “parrots”. I could easily have let it go of course, congratulated him and moved on. He had at least not said ‘cows’ so we were making progress, but I felt a stirring of rebellion. “Well, a parrot is a bird, and we already have bird, so ...” My voice trailed off, realising much too late it had probably invited death, death within the next few minutes in all likelihood. Dismissing cows was bad enough, but cows and parrots was going too far.

In desperation I tapped on a photograph of a bat, an animal we had been discussing in the previous lesson.

“Bat”, said Francesco dutifully.

“Yes”, I said. “Bat. Bats have wings.” I flapped my arms to demonstrate.


I was about to move on to the next body part when Pedro spoke again.

“Unicorns”, he whispered, his voice barely audible, yet laced with a terrible menace.

“Unicorns?” I asked. “Erm, well they have a long horn on top of their heads ...” (another mistake – we hadn’t done ‘horns’ yet and my hand gestures were unlikely to go down well with two teenage lads) ... “so er, do they have wings?” I mumbled on.


“Ah yes unicorns. Of course, they have wings don’t they”, I finally, and cowardly answered myself. I wrote down ‘unicorns’ on our sheet of paper.

I attempted to move on but before I could, Pedro spoke again.

“Dragons”, he said.

He said it with such finality and flatness that it brooked no argument. It wasn’t up for discussion. And in fairness to him, dragons do have wings. I was almost impressed by his left field thinking. I wrote ‘dragons’ and offered no comment. I noticed my hand was shaking.

“Ok, which animals have scales?” I prompted, pointing to a picture of a very scaly snake.

“Snakes”, said Francesco.

“Yes”, I said. “Snakes. Anything else?”

After a few seconds I got ‘lizard’ and ‘fish’ from Francesco. Job done I thought and I glanced at the next body part, ‘gills’. This was better.

However, before I could say anything Pedro piped up again.

“Dragons”, he announced coldly.

He was still on the scales. Though we’d already had dragons there was nothing in the rules to say you couldn’t put an animal in two categories. And dragons do have scales. Again, I wrote it down. I made no comment.

“Gills”, I said. “What animals have gills?” I was only prepared to accept fish and then move it on. Cows, dragons and unicorns would not be permitted. Time was short.

“Fish”, said Francesco, pointing to a picture of a fish.

“Yes”, I said. “Fish.”

“Mermaids”, said Pedro.

I laughed. I think it was nerves, though snatching a quick glance at Pedro it was clear there was absolutely nothing in this whole sorry charade that could possibly warrant even the raising of a smile.

“Yep. Mermaids have gills”, I said. “How else would they breathe under water?”


“So, Pedro, do you see a lot of unicorns, dragons and mermaids in Alhendin?”

Continuing, awful silence, kind of like the silence I imagine must have pervaded the room (for a few seconds) when someone told Hitler in his Berlin bunker that the game was up in 1945. Silence full of the noise of impending death and mutilation. In this case, mine.

“Or cows”, I blundered on. “Do you see many cows here?” It was probably the most inane question I’ve ever asked anyone but my tongue and brain were no longer speaking to one another.

And then a remarkable thing happened. Pedro smiled.

“No”, he said. “There are no cows here.”

“Tentacles”, I said. “What animals have tentacles?”

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