Earnestly Important Follows the Disappointment

One of the first things I did when I started teaching British literature in Albania was disappoint my students.

I think they had expected me to arrive with boxes of books that they hadn’t read before. (The boxes would eventually arrive, but it took some time.) Instead, I had to try to put a different spin on the “approved” texts that survived from the Communist era. (Lots of George Bernard Shaw.)

At one point I was invited to a radio interview program and encouraged to read a couple poems. I chose Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death” (I don’t remember why but I’m sure the reason seemed pithy and wise at the time) and William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” because I felt it described the state Albania was in at the time as the old rules fell away and new rules came into existence: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” and later “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

The broadcast was well received and I found myself making copies of the Yeats poem for several students.

Somehow, I managed to acquire some copies of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” which I like to count as being the first blatantly non-political satirical play taught in Albania. (Can you prove it didn’t happen?)

I had to walk the students through some of the jokes, but was impressed at how many they got.

Then, the woman who ran the British Council library at the time (which was just down the hall from my classrooms) suggested I have my students perform a staged reading of excerpts from the play. I agreed and it grew to a reasonably well attended event.

The students rocked. They read with energy and had good timing on the jokes. One woman even managed to pull off Lady Bracknell’s “A hand-bag?” line with the proper amount of horror and contempt.

I didn’t yet realize that I wasn’t technically supposed to be helping out Britain–I didn’t yet realize the extent of the rivalry between TESOL and the British Council–but I heard about it soon after that. Then again, my entire Peace Corps experience was full of little political pitfalls such as that and I tended to walk right into them.

That night, however, was awesome.

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