By Collin R. Vogt
TW // Depression
I moved halfway around the world to learn how to teach.
I had always believed that teaching of any sort was the domain of non-doers, or worse, those who couldn’t do. So naturally, as someone who wanted to do, I didn’t want to teach.
However, for someone who wanted to do, I hadn’t been doing anything. I’d been laser(ish)-focused on graduating. I thought after that everything would come easy. Apparently, though, a degree in Entrepreneurship sounded fake.
My lack of doing anything was seeding a cancerous shame in me. Shame necessitates hate for the source of the shame. Therefore, I hated myself. And I was ashamed of that. This ouroboros of reasoning was all the more sinister for its persuasiveness. I was so assured of this that I believed it was natural, a necessary state of mankind. I told myself that my eyes were “open”, and all the ‘happy’ people were merely delusional. My catatonia was clearly preferable.
My therapist told me that this was just a setback.
She imagines life to be a wheel, where we’re always moving forward but sometimes we’re up and sometimes we’re down. A nice analogy, but for the perpetual being-run-over-ness. But maybe she doesn’t mean that kind of wheel. See? My mind was always poisoning things.
Fortunately for me, whenever things get this bad, my brain flips a switch and I decide to change things up. I became fixated on replicating the exact conditions of the last time I was happy, which had been in Prague. So, one day I searched ‘how to move to Prague’.
The number one answer? Teach English.
Depressed as I was, I still had to laugh at that.
Three months to the day after that search, I found myself working for an ESL company in Prague, and as happy as I could recall being in years. The great thing about depression? When you find a way to be happy again, you really drink it in.
Yes, there are good things about depression.
On this auspicious anniversary, I was meeting one of my favourite students, Petr. We were around the same age, though he was doing much better for himself than I had been.
Comparison is the thief of joy, I reminded myself.
My current mantra.
Comparisons aside, being an authority on something gave me a feeling of self-worth. I had value; I was needed.
Petr arrived, homework in hand. This was why he was one of my favourites; he actually did his homework. He might have done it five minutes before the lesson, but still better than most.
‘Collin,’ he said. ‘Jak se máš?’
‘Dobře,’ I said.
‘Aha, good!’ he said.
He loved giving me little tips on my Czech from time to time. His most recent was that I should say ‘dobře’ instead of ‘dobrý’. Adverbs and adjectives, you see.
‘Hey, I have to ask you something about English.’
‘That’s why I’m here.’
‘Yes, but not for me, for my student.’
‘I have a student.’
‘Yes, I teach English for fun.’
My face knotted.
‘Petr, how have we never talked about this?’
‘I never thought about it, I guess.’
I was flabbergasted.
What a bizarre loop this was. A student asking a student asking a teacher who was also a student of something else. God was laughing at me. Gently. But still . . .
Anyways,’ he continued, ‘she asked me a question and I wasn’t sure, so I told her I’d ask my teacher.’
‘I’m all ears.’
‘What does that mean?’ he asked. ‘All ears?’
‘Ha. Sorry. It means I’m listening. I’m listening so much that I’m a collection of ears.’
‘That’s a good one. I’ll have to remember that. Anyways, we were talking about relative pronouns. She asked if ‘that’ and ‘which’ were the same. I said yes, but that I’d have to check. So, yes or no?’
‘Yeah, they’re pretty much interchangeable. You can even say “that which”. That’ll make your head spin.’
He laid his head in his hands.
‘Oh, what the hell,’ he said.
‘I’ve been learning English for ten years. And there’s still stuff I don’t know.’
‘There’s always more to know, you know.’
‘I know. That’s why I love it and hate it.’
‘Ah, you don’t hate it.’
‘Yeah, I know,’ he said with a mournful smile, evidently pondering his predicament as a man in love with a subject that he’d never fully possess.
And yet, there was something in his frustration that niggled at my mind. I suspected it was my inferiority as a teacher. Could I ever teach him everything? Even I didn’t know everything, and I was supposed to be the authority here.
Remember, you are the expert in the room!
I’d heard that about a thousand times. It was what my company told its teachers to prevent us from freaking out in a classroom, and it actually worked, at least for me. Either it was true, or I was just believing things more readily these days.
In the room. That had two meanings. I was not an objective expert. Just a local one.
Another thought: does anyone ever really feel like an expert? Or was that a suspicion of my imposter-syndrome-riddled ego?
This thought lingered there for days, my unconscious worrying at it like your tongue does a sore tooth.
I thought of all the teachers I’d ever had. Frauds! How dare they label themselves as experts when they were really just students? My yoga instructors, guitar teachers, therapists, professors, my own mother, for Christ’s sake. Was she a fraud? Were they all just inadequate students of some greater, prior master, and the human race descending into pure ignorance? Second law of thermodynamics, anyone?
But I remembered something my mother once told me: you learn when you teach.
Teaching is both self-serving and selfless.
So, perhaps teaching and learning were not different things at all, but different points on the same spectrum. I was here to learn to teach. How do you learn something? By doing.
Ironic. I’d learned to do by teaching.
I guess life really is a wheel.
Collin Vogt is a Master of Creative Writing, Editing and Publishing student at the University of Melbourne and an aspiring world traveller. He met his wife while living in Prague as an English teacher, and together they returned to her native Australia so he could pursue his dream of being a writer.
Cover image and all other images provided by Collin Vogt.