I once taught a little-known celebrity: the most boring man in the world.
I'd heard about Mr Nakazawa from three other teachers who had taught him, and they all concurred as to his world-class ranking. Mr Nakazawa's superiors wanted to send him abroad and were keen for him to improve his English skills, so they were forking out big money for weekly private lessons. And one lesson lasted two hours.
Every one of Mr Nakazawa's former teachers swore they'd do anything but another one-on-one session with him. They'd teach at the awful polytechnic college where the kids were so thick you couldn't even joke about it afterwards because you felt too mean; they'd take on the chatty group of bar hostesses whose class met in a pub where the air was blue with smoke; they'd do the 7 a.m. slot at the car manufacturing plant an hour away by bullet train. Anything but that deadly two-hour session with Mr Nakazawa.
When I first heard these teachers holding forth, I felt sorry for Mr Nakazawa. I also doubted that he was as boring as they all seemed to think he was. Two of his former teachers struck me as a little superficial; they were fine teachers, but as people they did not particularly impress me. The third was a funny, quirky man, but he could be very snide and cutting. I told them that there had to be something that Mr Nakazawa was interested in; something that made him interesting.
One snorted and the other two rolled their eyes.
"Just what is it that makes him so boring?" I asked.
"He never has anything to say for himself," answered the first.
"And he has absolutely no interests or hobbies or any kind of personality," said the second.
"Plus he's just dead boring," said the third.
I was young and stupid and disinclined to go with the flow. "I bet I could find something he'd like to talk about."
The three traded amused looks.
"Maybe you could," the kindest one said.
A few months later, the boss told me my new schedule included Mr Nakazawa's private lesson. I was excited: finally I would have a chance to show everyone that Mr Nakazawa had an entirely different side! An astutely observational, wittily spoken side that only I could expose.
Mr Nakazawa looked much like every other Japanese engineer I'd met: quiet, polite, well-groomed, and just entering middle age. I asked him what he wanted to achieve in the class, and his answer was hardly a surprise. He wanted spoken fluency in English so that when he went to the States or the U.K., he could converse.
On our first lesson, he was awfully quiet, but I told myself it was early days. For our next class, I would get together an arsenal of conversational tools: photographs from our school's extensive picture file that tended to start conversations like kindling catches fire; conversation games, fun vocabulary-increasing exercises, short, pithy newspaper articles about controversial subjects -- a whole array of possibilities to improve Mr Nakazawa's spoken English. I could hardly wait to start.
"Shall I keep writing in my journal?" he asked. "Miss Kathy assigned me a journal." (I never weaned him of this Miss + first name habit, but then I hardly ever weaned any of my students of this).
I figured we would use his journal entries to kick start our classes. Talking about his week and what he had been doing would help him warm up.
On our second meeting, Mr Nakazawa brought his journal to class. It contained an entire week's entries, but I will give you a brief (lucky you) sample:
Monday -- Went to work. Five minutes late. Lunch of oyakodonburi (chicken and egg dish). Home. Watched video Pretty Lady.
Tuesday -- Went to work. On time. Lunch of o-soba (buckwheat noodles). Home. Watched video and played with cat.
Wednesday -- Went to work. One minute late. Lunch of ramen. Home. Watched video of Beverley Hills Cop. Played with cat.
You get the picture.
I immediately seized on the slim straws this presented. "Wow, how did you like Beverley Hills Cop?"
Mr Nakazawa smiled pleasantly. "Very funny."
"Yes, it was, wasn't it?" I garbled. "I couldn't believe how funny the dialogue in that movie was! I was so impressed with how spontaneous it seemed, how true to life!"
"And isn't Eddie Murphy just hilarious?"
"Wasn't his ad-libbing fantastic? I don't know if you've heard about this, but they say that he made a lot of it up on the spot!"
We then discussed his cat -- "Very cute. White." -- And his family -- "Wife, one daughter who is 11, one son who is 8." And his job -- "Very busy." And his co-workers -- "Very busy." We discussed his flat -- "Very small." And his car -- "Nissan."
Please don't imagine that I didn't try. I tied myself in knots exerting myself during these sessions. I didn't let him get away with these simple descriptions of his cat, his family, his job, and so on. "And...?" I would prod meaningfully. "Tell me a little more about that." Mr Nakazawa took 'a little more' all too literally, so I found a whole range of other conversational prods. "Please elaborate," "Don't stop there!" and "Do go on!" But he didn't go on. I suspect he couldn't. And in the end, I was stumped. I had met my conversational opposite. There isn't enough time in the day for me to say all I want to say. Mr Nakazawa took conversational minimalism to an entirely new plane.
At first I worried that he simply didn't understand. That his listening comprehension wasn't up to scratch and he was covering this with a show of indifference. But I tested this and no, he really did understand. He seemed pleased with the lessons, mildly amused by the comment-provoking photographs I showed him; he read the controversial articles I brought -- and had absolutely no opinion whatsoever.
Lessons that took hours in other classes took minutes with Mr Nakazawa. The less he talked, the more inclined I was to fill in the silence. Throughout our lessons, Mr Nakazawa sat placidly. He smiled on occasion; he even laughed once or twice. But he did not talk. I think I could have brought in cattle prods and a bullwhip and not gotten a peep out of him.
"He's just a typical Japanese male," said a friend of mine from a different school. But I taught plenty of typical Japanese men and I knew that Mr Nakazawa was different. Next to him, all the other taciturn males I'd taught were chatty and long-winded. Next to him, the most closemouthed workaholic drudges were loquacious logomaniacs.
By the time our first month was up, I found that I was counting the sessions we had left. I began to dread Wednesdays -- the day he came to our school -- with a white-hot passion. I used to bring chewing gum to our class just to jar my senses that extra bit -- and possibly provoke a response from Mr Nakazawa (ostentatious gum-chewing bothers a lot of Japanese people). I wore my weirdest, most bizarre clothing and parted my hair on the other side. I put on wacky jewelry and high heels. None of it helped.
I have never, ever suppressed so many yawns in all my life. I began to pity Mrs Nakazawa from the bottom of my heart.
Mercifully, the day of our last lesson finally came. By this time, I had exhausted every possible resource and had grown desperate. Thank God I would not have to ad-lib anymore! Thank God I would be free of my weekly trials of trying to get this deadly boring man to talk!
In the teachers' room, I had to admit to my colleagues that they had been right and I had been wrong: we had all failed Mr Nakazawa, or perhaps he had failed himself. Or perhaps he just didn't want to talk and nobody had failed anybody. But who cared? What mattered was that I was finally free!
Before I left that evening, the boss congratulated me. "Mr Nakazawa was quite taken with you, you know. He requested you for next semester too."
Friday, 4 July 2008
I once taught a little-known celebrity: the most boring man in the world.