Josh Michtom’s First Job: Helping Teach Argentinians English
The Billfold is proud to present an ongoing feature about First Jobs, primarily focused on what they paid then and for comparison’s sake what they pay now, but also everything about them from the hilarious to the terrible. Today’s subject: our very own Josh Michtom.
The early nineties was a particularly aspirational moment for the Argentine middle class. After the economic tumult and hyperinflation of the years immediately following the military dictatorship, when everyone was struggling just to get paid on time and afford staples, there was finally some breathing room. “Getting ahead in business” started to seem like a thing people could do. Naturally, all the exciting business opportunities concerned exports and foreign investment and that most marvelous of Spanish language neologisms, “el márketing,” so up-and-comers needed to learn English. That’s where Alice Eggeling Club came in.
Alice Eggeling Club was a private English school for adults that held evening classes and conversation groups several nights a week in a lovely pre-war apartment on Plaza del Congreso in Buenos Aires. The apartment belonged to Alice Eggeling herself, a tiny, wizened woman of Argentine and English parentage. While recent college graduates conducted classes in her living room, dining room, and kitchen, Alice drifted airily from room to room, offering pronunciation tips and quips while sipping tea. She was inarguably old, but indeterminately so, and spoke a clipped, closed-mouthed English that was not quite British, like American movie stars in the forties. Her operation was regimented, with carefully measured periods of time devoted to vocabulary, written worksheets, and social chats, during which tea, crackers, and drinkable yogurt were always served. While appearing affable and easygoing in front of students, Alice would chide the young teachers sharply later in the evening for perceived failures of linguistic rigor. Only one employee was inexplicably free from her critical routine: a fifteen-year-old American high school student (me).
I don’t remember how I was referred to the job, but four months into spending my junior year in a suburb of Buenos Aires on a yearlong student exchange, I became the lone teaching assistant at Alice Eggeling Club. Two days a week after school, I would take the local bus in the suburb where I lived to the commuter train station. From there, I would ride 40 minutes to Once, the bustling main station in Buenos Aires, take the subway a few stops to Congreso, and walk across the plaza to Alice’s building. From 4:30 to 8:30, I would clean up, run to the store for snacks, sit quietly in classes and wait to be asked for some example of how to use “a little bit” in a sentence, serve tea, and make idle chat with the students. I was paid 200,000 Australes a week, which seems amazing unless you know that there are 10,000 Australes in a dollar. It was a great job.
The joy of a given job often comes down not to the salary but the intangibles: coworkers, setting, commute, and the like. This is doubly so in our teenage years, when we have little hope of earning much more than minimum wage and little interest in the trappings of a real career. We want free food, opportunities for flirting, an aura of cool. Alice Eggeling Club provided me with all of these things.
Buenos Aires is a beautiful, exciting city. Castelar, the suburb where I lived, was not. Technically speaking, it wasn’t even a suburb of Buenos Aires, so much as a suburb of a larger suburb with the unfortunate name of Morón (really). I lived with a host family that kept me on a relatively short leash, principally so they could have me do a lot of chores and childcare, so I didn’t even get to be out and about in Castelar that often.
But somehow, the biweekly trips to Alice Eggeling Club were allowed, and to me, they were a heavenly escape. The commuter trains were ancient and rickety, with doors that frequently didn’t close, allowing teenagers like me to lean out perilously and watch the suburbs turn into city, feeling the breeze and looking (I imagined) cool. Every few minutes, a traveling salesman would come through, hawking newspapers or toy cars or ice cream with a loud, sing-song chant that I loved above all other things: “¡Helado helado helaaaaadooooooo! ¡Chocolate, vainilla, frutilla, helado!”
Once, the terminus of western lines, was a sprawling cavern of a building, filled with the screeching of train brakes, the shuffle of feet, and the chatter of small-time merchants and hustlers. To move with purpose through that space, confidently aware of pickpockets, able to order a coffee or pastry just as any other Argentine working man might, was the greatest pleasure a fifteen-year-old foreigner could know. If the train happened to run on time, I would allow myself the pleasure of browsing for things I didn’t really intend to buy, just to haggle the price down in the customary fashion and then walk off with a wave of my hand, saying, “Maybe next time.”
At Alice’s apartment, my first task was always to get money from her and go to the store at the corner for yogurt and crackers. The owners, a middle-aged couple, knew I was foreign but never asked me where I was from. They seemed to like me and always gave me pieces of sausage and cheese and sweets. Sometimes I would come in quietly and catch them bickering, as they often did, and when the husband noticed I was there, he would interrupt the quarrel of the moment to say, smiling, “And the foreign kid watches the whole thing.” Then the wife would laugh and take Alice’s money. I liked that routine.
Back at the Club, I would wipe down the tables, put water on for tea, and set out the crackers and yogurt. Around this time, the three teachers would arrive. They were Argentines in their twenties, recently out of college, and this was a second job for all of them. Two of them had never been out of the country, having learned English entirely in school. They had fascinating nowhere accents: slightly British, slightly robotic. The third had gone to University of Michigan for two years and talked like an American. They all seemed to hate speaking English and would do it only when Alice was around, because she insisted. They busied themselves with preparing handouts and activities, which sometimes included listening to popular songs selected by Alice for their didactic value. During my tenure, this meant that the teachers and I were always cuing up Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” on the tape deck. It was a singularly bad choice, being both difficult to understand and almost devoid of complete sentences, but Alice thought it was perfect.
I loved being party to the teachers’ grumbling, which started up whenever Alice left the room. At fifteen, there was no greater accomplishment than being treated like an equal by twenty-somethings, and as someone who wanted desperately to belong culturally and linguistically, I thrilled at sharing their foul-mouthed Spanish complaints about the job – being firmly in the camp of the Argentine employees rather than the tyrannical, quasi-British boss. (The Falklands War was still a relatively recent memory at this point; stores were still doing a brisk business in “Malvinas Argentinas” t-shirts.)
The students, usually between six and ten of them, trickled in around 5:00. They were lower-middle class office workers with upper-middle class ambitions, in their thirties mostly. They took the task of learning English seriously and worked hard at it, which is what made my unique role possible: the teachers were serious and grumpy; Alice was deadly serious and high-minded; the students were serious but tired and a little anxious. As the one true native speaker in the bunch, and as a teenager from whom nothing too grand could be expected, I got to be outside of all that. I could make jokes and it was OK, because I was, presumably, offering a window into authentic American interactions in English. I could speak Spanish, usually against the rules, to offer some profane, slangy explanation of an idiomatic expression, because I was, again presumably, bringing to bear a more profound degree of meaning. I could correct Alice and the teachers because … well, I don’t know why anyone tolerated that, but they did. Basically, I got paid to drink tea and be myself.
The students called me “el pibe” (the kid) and they loved it when I spoke Spanish. I had arrived in Argentina with thoroughly non-functional high school Spanish and spent the first two months nearly mute, depending on my classmates’ good nature as I stood around the schoolyard trying to follow the gymnastics of adolescent conversation. Then one day, something happened in my head, and when one of the boys in my class made fun of me in some typical, unremarkable way, I said, “andate a la concha de la puta madre que te parió,” which is the very dirty way that a fifteen-year-old from Buenos Aires would customarily respond to a minor insult. Through the inscrutable magic of human cognition, I had suddenly started talking like an Argentine longshoreman. The students at Alice Eggeling Club loved this and couldn’t get over it. I was like their own Triumph, the Comic Insult Dog. Was I a novelty? Sure. But it can be fun to be a novelty.
The best part of the job, naturally, was having a crush on one of the teachers. (A fifteen-year-old boy can scarcely be in a room with two women under forty without crushing on one of them.) Bettina, the one who had gone to UM, was 23 and, to my eyes, perfect: smart, self-possessed, pretty, and, well, 23. Although the other two were always cordial, she actually seemed to make overtures of friendship – just enough, in fact, to allow my fevered, adolescent brain to think, “of course not! but maybe!” Unlike the other two, who were Buenos Aires born and bred, Bettina had grown up in the distant, rural province of Salta and had only moved to the capital for college. As such, she shared my newcomer’s interest in many of the city’s attractions, and amazingly, offered to go places with me around town after work. This was, of course, wonderful and terrible, because it caused my imagined chances with her to tilt slightly away from “of course not!” and slightly toward “but maybe.” Luckily, my host family had a more clear-eyed assessment of my chances, and didn’t object to my being out a little late in Buenos Aires, as long as I was with her. That moved the needle even closer to “but maybe,” which is probably what made me think it was a plausible move to try to kiss her one night when we were sitting on a park bench talking. I have no idea what made her think it was a good move to kiss me back, let alone to allow our relationship to become romantic thereafter. But, well, she did. Alice Eggeling Club for the win.
What would this job look like 21 years later? The pay, about $2.50/hour, was roughly 150% of Argentine minimum wage at the time. To match the 1993 purchasing power of $2.50 (taking Argentine inflation into account), you’d need to earn $20.30/hour today. 150% of the current minimum wage in Argentina is only $5.61/hour. But! Adolescent freedom, improbable romance, and a sense of belonging in a foreign land are damn near priceless.
Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags.