- Learn song! Enkhma said, smiling at me with sunglasses on.
- Learn a song, I said, correcting her. We want to learn a song.
- Yeah, she said, pulling her ear buds out and grinning.
We want. We want to learn a song, I corrected her.
- Yeah, we want.
Throughout the month of March and April, my first year English students at the National University of Mongolia have been examining songs by the Beatles. I proposed the idea at the start of the semester, asking them if they recognized any of the four men cast in bronze near the statue near the State Department store.
-What statue? Solongo asked, looking up from a text message she was typing. Solongo was the youngest in the class at 16 and the best English speaker.
- Quit texting, I replied, chuckling at how many times in a single day I had to remind my students that they shouldn’t text (or take calls) during class. "You know, the statue near the fountain, across the street from Ikh Delguur."
- Oh, the Beatles. Boring bagsha, she said, cocking her head at me and smiling.
- It won’t be boring, I promise. We’ll learn new words and old songs.
- Can we learn a Pitbull song? Deegii asked, a tall girl with straight hair who frequently sat next to Solongo.
- Never. Deegii crossed her arms and pretended to pout.
- Black Eyed Peas… Chinsana piped in from the back. "Imma be, Imma be…"
- Too easy. Listen, have I ever taught you a boring song? I ask, smirking at them.
Months later and the class had successfully learned Across the Universe by the Beatles, a tough song with a complex topic and abstract language (words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup, the slither while they pass, they slip away across the universe). We sang the song together while I played guitar, listened to several different versions, and now the class would request for me to play it from time to time.
- Teacher, nothing’s gonna change my world…
"Not if you let it," I usually answered, not sure the best philosophical way to combat one of John Lennon’s most powerful lines as spoken through the mouth of a seventeen year old Mongolian girl forty years later.
My students have become somewhat of an extension of me (if that is even possible). They speak like me. Example: I get a text message asking for a letter of recommendation. I say yes, and the follow up text says, "You da best." (I must have said this in a text at some point, regardless; it’s definitely something I say from time to time). They voluntarily help me when I have problems, ranging from medical to speaking to my landlady for me over the phone when there is a problem with my apartment. I imagine this must sound interesting to my landlady, a sixty-five year old woman from the Gobi who gets random calls from Mongolian girls speaking on behalf of me. They wave at me from across the street, they tease me for having not been married yet and they cheer me up when I’m missing home. My students remain a constant reminder to me that the ever blossoming surge of global youth shows no sign of slowing down, a fact scary to some, natural to others, and a combination of both to a handful of rightfully weary adults.
Teaching English through the United States Fulbright Program has developed my character in a way I never thought possible. Besides the reward of being a teacher and watching students improve, my public speaking abilities as well as my concept of my own language have increased. I suddenly find myself listening to people speaking English for the sole sake of hearing English idiosyncrasies and regional differences. The Fulbright ETA position has opened my world in a way I never thought possible. It has provided me heaps of inspiration for my novels and has placed me in the presence of great teachers and interesting students, all within the borders of an exciting country that is growing exponentially. For me, my Fulbright ETA experience has been as much of a learning experience as it has been a teaching experience.
Cooper Baltis was born in Austin, Texas. After playing music in the Austin music scene for a number of years, he attended St. Edward’s University and received a degree in history. He has taught English in India and studied the Tibetan language in Nepal. Cooper has written four books, one of which is available on Amazon.com. He hopes to stay in Mongolia another year teaching English before enrolling in a creative writing MFA program in New York or London.