Cool People I’ve Met Via TEFL: A Bosnian Businessman

I first met him on a Monday evening: the secretary general of a local consumer organization wearing a suit and tie. His level was pre-intermediate. He had relatives in the US and had been to a language school there while on a month-long trip, which I admire – as a relatively older and lower level learner with a high status job, he was still willing to do it.

One of our first roadblocks was that he didn’t want to write. Anything. Ever. He wanted to speak. This provided quite the challenge at his level. Sometimes I felt like our lessons dragged because he didn’t want to listen or read or fill gaps at all. (Ever.)

I spoke to my director, concerned that he was not satisfied or at the very least not learning. No, she said, he was perfectly satisfied, but if I wanted to teach him just once a week, someone else could take the other day. I readily agreed, but after one lesson, we were back to square one: his secretary had called. He had started with Katie and wanted to continue with Katie. Duly flattered, I agreed to teach him both days. There was a little eye-rolling, I’ll be honest, but this was probably one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever received.

Eventually, we reached quite an easy conversation point. We’d both studied sociology and seemed to think in a similar way – I figured out how to adapt material so he could mostly speak and make it challenging but not too difficult. We once spoke for half an hour about volcanoes. He described how he had prepared boza, a unique Bosnian drink made of corn products and yeast, during the war, as well as his business trip to Paris during the war for which he couldn’t be reimbursed because he couldn’t provide tickets from the Sarajevo tunnel and jeep ride.

After a year in Sarajevo, I left for Budapest, but returned the next year. He stopped his English studies when I left – but came back as a student when I came back as a teacher, this time requesting three classes a week. We compromised with two.

An odd thing happens with one to one students, for me, anyway: they often come to seem like friends, even though they are clearly paying for lessons and most often are people who I just wouldn’t really encounter otherwise. I spend three hours a week talking with this guy – who is my parents’ age and incidentally has a birthday today if I remember correctly – and while it would be pretty bizarre to come up with some context in which we would keep in touch, I feel at a bit of a loss that I probably won’t have any contact with him ever again. He did, however, leave me with a thoughtful gift by which I can remember him: two hardcover books, classic local literature, signed “with respect.”