“Si ti vu ma mere?”, she said in perfect French.
“You know that one?”, I asked
“Yes. I find on Youtube. I am playing so much. I love. It’s so beautiful”, she replied.
“Do you know what it means? In English”, I asked.
“Uhhh,,,” she pondered, “something about a mother?”
“If you see my mother”, I translated for her.
“Oh, that is nice. A song about mother”.
“It’s one of my absolute favourites. Sidney Bechet”, I said.
“I will learn to play it”.
“When you learn it, will you play it for me?”, I asked her.
“Yes. I play it for you”, she promised, with a beaming smile.
Her name was Kiko. She was from Japan, and she was my favourite student.
She came along when I was three months into my second career as an online teacher of English. I started late in life and it’s not something that I ever envisaged myself doing. In my mind, the word “teacher” always conjured up visions of a shabby and perennially frustrated manic depressives who really wanted to do something else with their lives but ended up as teachers because Plan “A” didn’t pan out.
At an intellectual level, I know that that is a lazy and inaccurate characterisation, though. Besides, who am I to gloat? My Plan “A” didn’t pan out either. In fact, I never really put it into effect.
See, I grew up with music. My father was a jazz fan and he bequeathed that appreciation onto me. I learned to play the trumpet and the guitar and played regularly in my school band. When I was 15, I started building my record collection which included all the jazz greats and even some of the jazz-not-so-greats.
At university, I formed a jazz trio called ‘The Know-Notes’ and we played student gigs regularly. I was elected as President of the University Jazz Club three years in a row. Mind you, there were only four members of said club, our trio and the girlfriend of the saxophonist, so I suppose you could say that I was a shoo-in for the post.
After leaving university, I got a temporary job working as a sales assistant in a department store; something to tide me over while I plotted The Know-Notes route to glittering jazz stardom. But then I met my wife. She was an archaeology student working a summer job. For the second time in my life, I fell in love. By the end of that summer, we moved in together and, on Christmas Even no less, she informed me that she was carrying our first child.
“I think we should get married”, she said.
We had a Spring wedding and our daughter was born the following August. We were still living in my crummy, one-bedroom apartment and we had to find something bigger and better in a hurry.
Meanwhile, the progress of The Know-Notes was, shall we say, less than stellar. We had only managed to secure one paid gig and that was at a nursing home facility as entertainment for the residents, most of whom fell asleep during our set. This was hardly the adulation we were seeking.
Shortly after that, our saxophonist, a geologist by training, was offered a job in the oil industry in Saudi Arabia with a salary that he simply could not refuse. Well, that was that. My ‘temporary’ job at the department store turned into a full-time job and, from there, into a career in retail management.
By the time our second child was born, I was a departmental assistant manager. The trumpet that my father bought for me on my 16th birthday was consigned to the attic to gather dust while I climbed the corporate ladder all the way up to Head Manager of the second largest shopping mall in the country.
After 27 years of ploughing away in the soil of the commercial eco-system, my dear wife was diagnosed with heart disease, more specifically coronary artery disease. I decided to take early retirement to stay at home and look after her. About a month after I retired, I returned home from a shopping trip to find her corpse on the floor of our bathroom. Myocardial infarction. I have never come to terms with losing her and I never will.
So, then I was all alone in the home that we built together, our children having long since flown the nest and with no job to occupy my time. I had to take stock. I needed to re-discover a sense of purpose; I needed something to do, to occupy both my mind and my time.
I had no idea where to start. Returning to the retail world was, I suppose, one option but I just didn’t have the strength for it anymore. I even retrieved my trumpet from the attic, dusted it off, played a few notes and briefly allowed myself to entertain the fantasy of finally becoming a professional jazz player. But that’s all it was – a fantasy. The naked truth is that while my enthusiasm for music was boundless, my talent was merely modest. My ambition had always far exceeded my grasp How on earth could I expect to make a living from this old trumpet now when I failed to do it as a young man?
But what else could I do? I browsed the web for ideas and inspiration.
‘Teach English Online’ said the advert in big, bold type. Is that something I could do, I asked myself. Was I the right person to teach anybody anything?
The advert was for an online software platform that brings English teachers together with non-native speakers who want to learn English and provides a video and audio interface for real-time lessons. I spent a long time perusing the site and then slept on it.
I continued to sleep on it, chew on it, ruminate on it, walk on it and eat on it for a further month before deciding to take the plunge and sign up. At about the same time, I took an online teaching course to get myself up-to-speed and certified.
I discovered that it works very much like a taxi rank or, perhaps less salubriously, an escort service. You put up a profile with a biography and a picture and you wait for a student to choose you.
I waited a week for my maiden lesson with a medical student from Qatar. I felt as if I stuttered, stumbled and fluffed my way through the entire 60-minutes but I must have done or said something that chimed with her because she booked me again the following week.
It turned out that the Qatari woman, this brave pioneer, whose time and money I earnestly believed that I had wasted, gave me a glowing review. So other students followed: a publisher from Italy, a tax consultant from Poland, a lawyer from Brazil and a banker from South Korea.
By the second month in, I had myself a whole cadre of regular students who provided me with a much-missed sense of purpose and a renewed self-respect. Furthermore, I was actually beginning to enjoy it now, in stark contrast to my first few lessons which were characterised by my sweaty palms, lack of confidence and a sense of relief when the lesson ended without a major flub.
I found that this new career suited me in many ways. First of all, the extra money augmented my pension income, though not, it has to be said, by lavish amounts. Teaching English is not something you do if you plan to get rich. Still, it helped keep the lights on.
Secondly, it dispelled the loneliness that may have overwhelmed me had I not found that life-changing online advert. Every day, I connect with and converse with people from all four corners of the world, learn about them hear their stories and teach them as much as I can. It’s like having a busy social calendar and how many old widowers can say that?
Pretty much all of my students wanted to learn, or improve, their English skills for career advancement. At least, that was their stated reason and that was fine with me. I knew enough professional and business English to help them draft those important emails, write reports and follow the news broadcasts from the BBC or CNN. It wasn’t long before I had amassed an impressive stock of business English materials and lesson plans.
And then came Kiko. Kiko was from Japan and she told right off that she chose me because I had mentioned in my profile that I was a jazz fan. See, Kiko wanted to improve her English but, just as much, she wanted to learn and talk about jazz. As far as I could tell, she had some rather humdrum job in a bank, but her hobby was jazz music and learning to play the clarinet. She wanted to turn professional someday.
I told her in unequivocal terms that I was her man. I was captivated. She reminded me of me, only female. And a lot younger. And Japanese. As well as listening to jazz, I love talking jazz but my late wife, bless her memory, had little interest in music and my daughters would dutifully listen to waxing lyrical for about ten minutes before zoning out.
But now I had Kiko and Kiko had me. She booked a regular lesson once a week, always on a Friday and we spent the whole time talking about jazz. Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Ornette Coleman, Chet Baker, Charlie Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, Art Tatum and, of course, Sidney Bechet. Sometimes we would even search You Tube together for great jazz classics and listen to them during the lesson. For me, it couldn’t get better than that.
After a few weeks of teaching Kiko, I was transforming. I actually started singing in the shower and, sometimes, dancing in the shower too. My old vinyl record collection, by far my most cherished physical possession, was getting run out again, almost on a daily basis. For the first time in decades, I had begun to feel a little of that incommunicable magic that I felt when I was a teenager listening to records in my bedroom and dreaming of being a Blue Note signee.
My lesson with Kiko had become the highlight of my week and I couldn’t help noticing that her English was improving as well. Of course, in between the jazz appreciation, I was slipping in some actual teaching too; a bit of grammar, some vocabulary, a few phrasal verbs and a collocation or two. But the jazz talk was the main feature.
One evening, while listening to Oscar Peterson’s ‘Night Train’ album, I found myself picturing Kiko here with me, revelling the music, basking in the evening and, perhaps, practising scales on her clarinet while I pour us each a glass of aromatic, fruity red whine and……and then I slapped myself. Literally. That’s ridiculous, ludicrous and off-the-scale inappropriate. This is a professional relationship. I am her teacher and she is my student. Ethics, dammit. Standards, for heaven’s sake. Besides, I am old enough to be her father and, besides again, she lives on the other side of the world and besides and besides and besides and besides. I banished all such notions from my mind. But they kept creeping back towards me like a stealthy, prowling cat.
It was soon Friday again.
“Hi teacher. I learned that song”.
“Hi, Kiko. Which song is that?”
“Si ti…..umm….Sidney Bechet song.”
“Shall I play for you?”
“Oh, I would love that. Yes, please Kiko.”
She giggled a little nervously before unsheathing her clarinet. She licked her lips and I saw the focus in her eyes and in the way she held herself. She started playing and it sounded so bloody good and then the video froze and went silent. This was not an uncommon problem which sometimes resolves itself if you just wait. But not this time. I checked my internet connection and it was working well, in full flow. So, I concluded that it must be her connection. What lousy timing!
I logged out and in again in the hope that it might help but no luck. The video was still frozen and, a moment later, it went dark altogether. I sent Kiko a message through the chat system.
“Try to log-in again”.
I waited for a response but none came. I thought that maybe her computer had crashed or her internet had gone down. I expected that she would send me a message. I made myself a coffee and waited. Nothing from Kiko and there was nothing more I could do except wait for her to get back on line.
I had two more lessons that day. That evening, I sent her another message.
“Kiko, you must have connection problems. We can resume lesson tomorrow if you like. Let me know.”
I made a light supper and retired to bed early to nurse my disappointment. The next morning, I got back online and as is my habit, opened my newsfeed. It was then that my guts dropped.
‘Japan earthquake: hundreds killed, thousands homeless’.
I pored over every word of the news reports. It occurred, I calculated, at exactly the time of our lesson last evening. No, it can’t be. Could it be? A wave of revulsion and horror welled up in my chest like an acid reflux.
I logged onto the platform to if she had replied to my messages but she had not. I sent another message.
“Kiko, are you okay? Please send me a message and let know”.
I waited for a response from her but, again, nothing. And hour went by, two hours, three hours. Still nothing. I told myself that it was merely a coincidence. Maybe her internet connection got cut off for some other reason. Yes, that was entirely plausible.
The weekend went by with no response from Kiko. I had other lessons and I took them with the most professional demeanour I could muster and, as I always endeavour to do, gave of my best. But, inside, I was crumbling.
I had no way to contact her except via the platform. I didn’t know her surname or even where she lived. She did mention the name of the place once but I couldn’t remember it for the life of me. I toyed with the idea of calling the Japanese embassy but what on earth would I ask them? I am seeking a woman called Kiko but I don’t know her surname or where she lives? But then it occurred to me that the company that runs the platform might help. They will never give me any student contact details, I know that, but I sent them an email anyway telling them what happened and asking them if they can contact her just to see if she is okay. I got an automated response but nothing more.
The week rolled by without a word from Kiko until the following Friday. At the allotted time for her lesson, I opened the platform and waited for her to appear. Nothing.
I try to stay positive. I imagine her in some temporary shelter without internet access and longing to return home, to any home, where she can resume her lessons with me and her proper life. I mean, it could be true, couldn’t it? Or perhaps the earthquake didn’t affect her at all and there’s some other reason why she can’t connect? Maybe. You never know. Nothing is proven.
So I wait and while I wait the old emptiness returns and still there’s no Kiko to banish it away. But, worse than the emptiness is the helplessness and not knowing. Come back, Kiko, come back.
It’s been three weeks now and still no reply from her. However, my heart did leap momentarily when an e-mail arrived from the platform company only to sink again when I realised it was another automated mail requesting user feedback. I gave them 5 stars and, in the comment box, I added the words:
“If you see Kiko, tell her I miss her”.
By David J.K. Carr