Friday, 4 July 2008

The World's Most Boring Man

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).

"Yes, absolutely."

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."


Carole said...

That is a great ending to a very amusing tale. I hate it when I try to prove people wrong and it backfires. Funny, Funny.

Tabitha said...

Oh no! LOL!! So did you end up teaching him again the next semester? Or did you manage to get out of it?

Wow, I can't imagine trying to teach someone who just won't talk. I'd have probably filled up the time with useless exercises. I mean, if he's not gonna talk, then he's gonna work! :)

Carolie said...

WONDERFUL story, Mary! And the ending was perfect, and unexpected. I would have been like you, insisting that somehow, he could be drawn out of his shell. It's still so astonishing to me when I meet someone who truly does not speak (very different from having nothing to say...I often have nothing to say, but go on and on and on anyway!)

Thank you for another delightful slice of life!

Angela said...

ROTF! What a great story! Can you imagine his poor wife? You got him for two hours, but her...WOW. I hope she's a talker all right.

Charles Gramlich said...

Oh that ending makes it. Requesting you again next year. Sounds like a Frazier episode where a little tiny thing snowballs out of control.

A Paperback Writer said...

I feel for you!
I would far rather teach a rowdy kid than a sullen one. Of course, this was an adult, so he may not have been sulking -- in fact, he probably wasn't, since he enjoyed working with you. (Or rather, watching you work with him.) Maybe the people you should have pitied were his wife and family! maybe he was like that all the time!
When I get sulky kids, I'm usually able to ignore them until they get over whatever it is because I normally have 35-45 other hormone-ridden bodies screaming for attention. However, a kid who acts like a lump of mashed potatoes every single time s/he's in my room will eventually find him/herself taking time out in other rooms because I loathe laziness and apathy.
I don't think Mr. N. had either one.
So, tell the end: did you EVER get the man talking?

Travis Erwin said...

I admire anyone who can teach anybody. I don't have the patience for it.

Gorilla Bananas said...

Could he have been some kind of religious mystic? He reminds me of the film character Bartleby.

Jacqui said...

Not talking = not something I am good with. I get nervous and blather to fill the silence.

I was feeling bad for him too, so I'm glad at least HE felt like it was a success. Did you teach him the next semester, though?!

Brenda said...

Great story...Did you ever just ask him why he was so quiet? Maybe he was just waiting for his teachers to give him permission to talk...

Maybe he was really chatty and the cat was happy when Wednesdays came around so the cat could get a break from all his talking...grin...

Lilfix (blueboards)

Kim Ayres said...

Superb story Mary, and the end line makes it :)

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- Oh, me too! I'm always doing this, and you'd think I would learn! Even I think it is funny now. But then -- oh, the horror!

Tabitha -- I sure did end up teaching him again, and I was not happy about it. When I finally left this school and moved down to Tokyo, it took me ages to feel the same way about Wednesdays.

I can't remember how I filled the next semester's worth of classes, but I do remember bringing in a lot of communicative grammar exercises.

Carolie -- I was so determined! And yet it was a fool's errand. There was no way I was going to get this man to talk. Like you, I see not talking as even more difficult than, say, a tightrope act. You know those horrible torture scenes where one guy says to another "We have ways of making you talk?" With me it would be "We have ways of making you shut up."

Angela -- Mrs Nakazawa must have known what she was getting into! I believe that she and he must have had someone matchmake for them. Otherwise how in the world would they manage to get together in the first place?

Charles -- The fact that he wanted me again just amazed me! But it is possible he just felt the devil you know is better than the one you don't. And I might have been more amusing than the others in that I was so determined to make him talk.

APW -- No, I never managed to get this man talking. To this day, I wonder how his family coped. I would love to have been a fly on the wall just to see how he and his wife managed to communicate, given his interesting make-up.

Sulky kids used to amuse me and I found them a challenge. Especially when they let their sulky guard down occasionally and showed a little eagerness. Granted, I never had many adolescents to teach, and the sulky ones were fairly rare. If I had a lot of them, I suspect I'd find them a lot less charming.

Travis -- Until I met Mr Nakazawa, I fondly thought that I could teach anybody. I'm reasonably patient, but with him I discovered my limits.

GB -- Is this the Bartleby as in Bartleby S Scrivener? The rather misanthropic inscrutable fellow who kept saying "I would prefer not to?" I'll have to look this up. Mr Nakazawa didn't seem like much of a mystic, but you never know. And yet when it came talking, boy, he really preferred not to.

Jacqui -- Believe me, I did just what you would have done: I chattered nervously to fill all the awkward silence. He seemed very pleased with my monologue. And yes, I did end up having a whole new semester of him. I think I weaseled out and brought in a lot of tapes and grammar exercises.

Brenda -- Thank you for commenting on my blog!

No, I never did ask him. He would probably have just smiled and acted all mystified or amused. But what a nice thought -- that he really opened up to his cat. You never know -- if only the cat could tell us!

Kim -- It's funny now. But at the time, you cannot imagine my dismay and misery.

Katie Alender said...

Oh, Mary! I felt right there with you--I love a linguistic challenge. I can't actually believe that the Mary Witzl I know and admire failed to bring out the real Mr. Nakazawa!

I'm sure tomorrow you'll post about how the second semester was full of fun and insight. ;-)

Bernita said...

What one would call a very "self-contained" individual.
This is a lovely blog.

Barbara Martin said...

Very amusing. You had an impact on him you never thought would happen.

Excellent post, Mary.

Alice said...

LOL! So did you teach him the next semester or beg off?

In Kenya, the worst punishment I gave my students was to speak to me in English for an extended period. They'd rather be beaten because it was over quickly. Speaking in English was long and painful.

Mary Witzl said...

Katie -- Oh how I wish I could say that I did this -- that I found what it took to get Mr Nakazawa talking! I pictured being able to do this and everyone being in awe of my skill. But no, I never managed it.

I'm sorry to say that the second semester was full of grammar exercises and a surly teacher taking discreet peeks at her watch.

Bernita -- Thank you for visiting, and for that nice compliment. Yes, Mr Nakazawa was self-contained. Part of me wishes I could at least pretend to be this way occasionally, but I've never managed it.

Barbara -- Thank you, too. There were times I wondered if this man was just holding out on me for the fun of listening to my monologues -- and watching me squirm.

Alice -- I taught him! But I was meaner the second time around. I wish I could have done whatever you did with your Kenyan students. Were you able to get them to talk without any, um, devices? Because I don't think ANYthing would have induced this man to talk.

Danette Haworth said...

Mary! Excellent post with an ending I didn't see coming. I love your intro--little known celebrity: the most boring man in the world. Ha!

Kanani said...

Well, there are some people who aren't conversationalists, but very good listeners and observers. Apparently he though enough of your efforts and enthusiasm --which he didn't with the others, to decide you were the better teacher!

One has the feeling that some day when he is old, all these stories will come out of him as he talks to a small child.

marshymallow said...

;o) Actually, the most boring man in the world is Eric Olthwaite (from Ripping Yarns). But Mr. Nakazawa sounds like a close second. Or perhaps he just liked watching his teachers squirm.

Linda D. (sbk) said...

Wow, too funny! What a guy!

Mary, can you stop by and check out an email question I've left for you in the comments section of my blog? Thanks. ~~ Linda

JR's Thumbprints said...

I'd gladly trade one of my inmate students for Mr. N any day of the week.

Mary Witzl said...

Danette -- Thank you. I didn't see it coming either, and it sure took the wind out of my sails. I think I went home and cried.

Kanani -- What a great image: Mr N someday telling his grandkids "You know, I once learned English from a real motor-mouth. Boy, could she talk." And if they've inherited his non-talking ways, they will nod and wait. Forever.

One thing having Mr Nakazawa as a student taught me is that conversation has to involve an exchange. Although I love the sound of my own voice, I also love to listen. I got damn sick of talking around Mr Nakazawa, though he did seem to take in all my prattle.

MM -- I wonder if he did like seeing my squirm. He certainly had plenty of opportunities to do this. Now I'll have to go look up Eric Oithwaite. I'm so out of it. Hope he isn't some national celebrity that only I have never heard of!

Linda -- Thanks -- he really was quite a guy.

I will get over to your blog to check that out!

JR -- I haven't met your guys, but I'm betting they're a real handful and that I would find them close to impossible to teach. But there was a time when I would have taken you up on that offer.

marshymallow said...

No, he's not famous...

Ripping Yarns: The Testing of Eric Olthwaite

Carrie said...

OMG. You poor thing.

Gosh, I hope I am not as boring as Mr. Nakazawa...

problemchildbride said...

Ha! No good deed goes unpunished!

Jamie said...

A wonderful story, masterfully told. I might suggest this: the world's most entertained man! Everyone works so hard to fill the awkward silences, and the more they talk, the more he learns, and the more he is entertained.

Mary Witzl said...

Marshymallow -- Because I am so woefully internet-challenged, I could not check out that link you provided -- or rather, I could not find a summary. But I noticed Michael Palin's name, so I know it has to be good.

Carrie -- This is EXACTLY how I feel when I'm being too garrulous: I wonder if I'm just as boring as Mr Nakazawa, though in a rambling, verbose way? It is such a sobering thought it actually hushes me up -- for a few moments.

Sam -- I suspect that my desire to bring out Mr Nakazawa's sparkling personality was more of an egotistical thing on my part: where others had failed, I would succeed and all that. So shame on me, really, and it served me right.

Jamie -- Thank you for commenting!

What an interesting idea: that Mr Nakazawa was watching our antics and desperate bids to draw him out -- all the while chuckling to himself that he had provoked such ceaselessly entertaining responses.