Have you heard the philosophical riddle about “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?” If memory from my philosophy degree serves me correctly, it’s based on George Berkeley’s theory of subjective idealism and it raises all kinds of questions about the knowledge of reality. Esse est percipi – to be is to be perceived.
There is a more recent version of the riddle, which goes: “If a man says something in the middle of a forest, and no woman hears him, is he still wrong?” 🙂
I started thinking about this when I decided to write something about the summer course that Dede and I used to do in a village called Bugac in the middle of the Hungarian Plain. Almost exactly the geographical centre of Europe, in fact. The course was called Drama Plus and ran every summer from 1993 to 2002.
Bugac was reachable by train on a narrow-gauge railway, which took about two hours to trundle there from the nearest city, Kecskemét. Or there was a bus which left from outside the Farm Implements Museum at 6am and returned at about 11pm. Even so close to a city, it really did feel like the middle of nowhere.
Somehow we managed to persuade between 15 and 30 teachers a year to spend two weeks there, working together to find ways to make drama a core part of their teaching method. When we were rehearsing noisy sketches, especially after dark, I did wonder if anyone else out there beyond the trees could hear us…
I had done a British Council summer school in Kecskemét in 1992. One of the participants was a woman called Eva Berényi, who with her husband Gyuri owned a private language school called Coventry House (Kecskemét is twinned with Coventry).
At the end of the course, before I headed back to Budapest and my flight home, Eva persuaded me to drive with her into the nearby forest to look at a conference facility. It doesn’t take quite so long to get to Bugac by car, but it’s still a drive of nearly an hour.
What a conference facility it was! In the middle of a very basic farming village, here was a beautiful modern building with a thatched roof. Even on the hottest days of the year, it was cool and crisp inside. I immediately agreed to try to organise something for the following year with Eva and Gyuri. In the end, we continued to organise a course there for 10 years.
The British Council and the Soros Foundation were very generous with grants for the course. Soros in particular sponsored people from countries where opportunities to travel or to get training with native speakers were rare.
One year, we welcomed five teachers from Kyrgyzstan, one of whom, a man called Kerkebek, was actually a farmer as well as a teacher. His eyes lit up when he saw the Farm Implements Museum across the road, and he spent most of his free time there.
Kerkebek told us that on weekdays, he got up at 4am, tended to his cattle until midday and then travelled by horse and cart to the school where he worked. A journey of nearly an hour. He would work at the school until 7pm, then go back home by the same means of transport before spending another couple of hours with the cattle. He said he never got to bed before midnight.
I asked him if he ever fell asleep on his way to and from the school.
“Oh yes!” he said brightly. “But the horse knows her way home!”
In 1999, ten Mongolians arrived for the course three days late on Wednesday 11th August, which also happened to be the day of a spectacular total eclipse of the sun.
After meeting the other course participants who had already been together for three days, the Mongolians excused themselves and ran off to the kitchen to borrow some spoons and pans. Then they stood in the forest and beat the pans, a Mongolian custom designed to scare away evil spirits that emerge during solar eclipses. They then came back and sat in the conference room as if nothing had happened.
Some of the Mongolians later worked with Sue Mohamed, who was a brilliant and tireless adviser on the Mongolian English course project. You may remember that this project won an ELTon at the British Council Innovations Awards in March this year. Dede and I felt a vicarious sense of delight when the award was announced.
Anyway, back to musings about drama training in the middle of nowhere.
In the mornings, there were classes on using drama to pep up every aspect of a typical lesson – grammar, vocabulary, pronunication etc etc – and in the afternoons of the first week, we rehearsed a series of English Teaching Theatre sketches, which they performed on Friday afternoon.
On Monday of the second week, we filmed them making a news programme, with Bugac as the backdrop of all the stories (Daring raid on village shop, oldest Bugac resident celebrates 100th birthday etc etc).
On the last day of the course, the second Friday, the participants put on The People’s Show, which they had to devise and stage themselves in what little free time they had.
The only touristy thing we did was to visit the ranch even deeper into the middle of the puszta (plain) where frankly bonkers young men rode five horses at a time round in circles at high speed (see picture above). It’s a wow experience if you ever get the chance. One year a teacher fell in love with one of the horsemen, but that’s another story….
My favourite part of the course was the first Friday morning. The teachers were told throughout the week that nothing had been planned from 9am to midday on Friday. When they turned up, the chairs were in a circle and Dede and I were sitting there waiting for something to happen.
It was during these Friday morning sessions that I witnessed some of the best teaching I have ever seen. I also learned more about what it means to be a non-NEST, particularly one who has never had a chance to visit an English-speaking country, and who until the 1990s may never have met a native speaker face to face.
What did I learn about the non-NEST experience? I’ll tell you next time… 🙂