FROM my desk I watched the students filing into my classroom that opening day of the semester. Two slim Japanese girls were the first arrivals. At the door they paused, peered inside, then, giggling a little, entered. The dark-moustached man behind them strode in imperiously. A tall blonde woman walked in, switching her long hair over her shoulder. She sat down across the room from the others and gazed out the window. A swarthy man in starched white turban was next. A round-faced dark-skinned man with round black-rimmed glasses beamed at me and said ``Good morning'' as he took a seat. A man with gray around the temples came in quietly, acknowledging my presence with a slight, rather courtly bow.
Communication Skills 101, the course was. It covered both speech and written composition, and was required of all students at the university. I had taught it and similar courses many times before, had listened to countless speeches, and graded countless compositions. But this class, Section 62F, was different. The F indicated it was reserved for foreign students.
``We have to do something about all these people coming in from other countries,'' the dean had decreed. ``They just don't fit in regular Communication Skills classes.'' I had taught French briefly, and English to a few foreign students' wives. My friend Gladys, like me a graduate student, had taught speech, and had had a few foreign students in her classes. Thus we were selected to teach the two F sections of Communication Skills.
I wondered how that group of 25 that seated itself before me were all going to fit together in Section 62F. As I called on them one by one to introduce themselves I found that only two were 18-year-old freshmen for whom the course was planned. The turbaned man and a companion were teaching assistants in mathematics, and their department chairman had required them to enroll.
``Their pronunciation is terrible. No one can understand them,'' he had told me on the telephone. The two men looked unhappy. ``We've spoken English all our lives,'' one of them protested, ``the way they do in India. If we talk like you when we go home, everyone will laugh.''
An Arab and a Korean man were more eager to take the course. They were fellow interns at the hospital. ``I no understand him. He no understand me. Bad for medicine.'' the Korean explained.
One girl, after her neighbor introduced herself, got up and moved across the room, where she seemed to be crying softly. After class I asked her what the trouble was. ``I'm Greek. I don't sit with Turks,'' she said.
Later in the day I compared notes with Gladys. ``My class is impossible!'' I said. ``The students range in age from 18 to about 50, and have about eight different native languages. Some can read English but can't speak it. Some speak, but can't understand. And the way they write!''
``It's the same with mine,'' said Gladys. ``And that textbook the department ordered for us to use, it's awful. The students just fill in blanks in sentences.''
``That's no way to learn a language,'' I declared. ``Anyone could write a better book than that!''
Gladys looked thoughtful for a moment. Then a gleam came in her eye. ``Well, why don't we write one?'' she said.
``Me, write a book?'' I laughed.
Somehow we got through that semester. When we weren't teaching or studying for our graduate courses, we wrote exercises and thought up assignments for our F sections, and Gladys kept talking about that book we were going to produce. ``It will be such fun to do it! And when we leave here and have real jobs, it's `publish or perish' you know.''
The next fall she went back to her job in a western university, and I went to Holland for a year to teach English. Letters from her came regularly. ``Do you have any good ideas for our book?'' When I returned to the United States she telephoned. ``Come out here during your Christmas vacation so we can plan our book.''
When we got together during the holidays Gladys was full of good ideas. Her enthusiasm was contagious. The book got bigger and bigger, and since we were now at opposite sides of the continent, so did the phone bills.
One day in September I got a phone call from Gladys. Her tone was ecstatic. ``Did you get the letter that I got today?'' she asked.
I ran out to get the mail.
We were invited to Evanston, Illinois, where a branch of a major publishing company was located, to discuss with the editor our plans for the book.
A young assistant editor was assigned to supervise our project, and when we began working with him we soon realized how long writing a book can take. Nearly every time we used the pronoun which he wanted that, and when we used that he wanted which.
Some of the illustrative passages that we wrote as a basis for grammar and pronunciation practice were too long to suit him, and some of our favorites he didn't like at all.
Some passages related the experiences of a young teaching assistant with his girlfriend or his recalcitrant students. In a fit of frustration we renamed this character after the young editor. He was not amused.
When four years had passed since we began our project I took a job at another university. ``I see you haven't published anything,'' the department head said, disapprovingly. ``We don't give tenure without publication.''
We had checked our galleys, read page proofs for our book, but for months no word had come from our editor. ``I've been trying,'' I told the chairman.
When I had been on my new job about a month a book salesman appeared in my office and inquired for my office mate. ``I have a wonderful new book for her class of foreign students that I wanted to show her.''
A wonderful new book in English for foreign students? After all our labors someone had beaten us to it. Now maybe ours would never sell, that is, if it ever got published. I was curious, though, to see our competition. ``I have a class for foreign students too. May I see your book?'' I asked.
THE salesman drew the volumes from his briefcase and laid them on the desk before me. My eyes widened. ``Why, that's ... '' I started to exclaim, but he had already begun his spiel.
``The authors have tried out the exercises in their own classes. I know these books will fit your needs. Shall I send you an examination copy of each volume?'' he got out his order pad.
``Yes, indeed. In fact, I'd like more than one. You see I....''
``Wonderful!'' His pen was poised above his paper. ``Now what did you say your name was?''
A pause. How could I tell him gently? ``It's....'' Hesitatingly, I said it.
``Oh yes,'' he said briskly, and began to write. Then suddenly his pen stopped. He looked at the cover of the book, then at me, then at the book again. ``They told me to watch out for this,'' he said, covering his face.
Later in the day I called the editor. ``How do you like the appearance of your new books?'' he asked before I could say anything. ``I assume you got the copies that we sent?''
``I didn't get them. But a salesman who tried to sell them to me today made them sound awfully good.''