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The imam, the stripper, the ex-con, and me

"Don't you get tired of teaching the same old things to the same old people?" Not everyone puts it quite so bluntly, but in one shape or another it's a question that surfaces every now and again once your classroom career has entered the "veteran" stage.

"Every one the same, every one different," is the cliche I tend to come back with. As with most cliches, it's founded on an inner core of truth. In some ways students are "all the same": same needs, same moans, same triumphs.

But the other side of the coin (cliche number two) is true as well. In my line of work you meet a fascinatingly diverse group of people, who all too often refuse to fall into "types".

Jake was a case in point. I remember our first meeting vividly, because he had just come off his lorry-driving shift and turned up for interview in his overalls. He had left school at 15 without a sniff of a GCSE, but it quickly became clear that he knew far more things about far more subjects than I did.

I enquired if he was reading anything interesting at the moment. He told me how he would sit reading Chomsky, Camus and Keynes in his cab as his lorry was being unloaded, and I signed him up there and then.

Dorinda, on the other hand, didn't really register until well into her course. She was bright and wrote well, but hardly uttered a syllable in class. Then she wrote an autobiographical piece about going to Belgium to dance in a club in Antwerp. Dancing in this instance did not involve the waltz or even a rumbustious street dance, but pirouetting around half-naked in front of a crowd of leering men.

There was a second "chapter" involving making films which I will draw a veil over. Just as Jake worked in transport, Dorinda had worked - and continued to work to pay her way through college - in the sex industry. Towards the end of her course I asked her why she didn't speak much in class. She replied that it was because she didn't think she had anything of importance to say.

There were five years between Jake and Dorinda's tenures in the classroom, but sometimes memorable characters come in pairs. Recently I had an imam and an armed robber in the same basic English class. As far as I could tell, they got on well enough, though what they talked about once they had run through the two uses of the apostrophe and the three of the comma, I never knew.

The ex-con didn't last. In my experience, former prisoners rarely do. Why this should be I don't know, although it may be something to do with them expecting too much to happen for them too quickly once they take the decision to "get education".

The imam didn't make it to the end of the course either. He gave up when he worked out how much it would cost to do two years at college and then three at university. It seemed he had decided that, in this case, God probably wouldn't provide.

The most unlikely of the lot was the multi-millionairess. As I teach in an inner-city area, most of my students tend to come from the other end of the income bracket. Their addresses reflect this: things like Clem Attlee Tower or Nelson Mandela House.

Marion's house also had a name, but in her case it was more of a mansion, and she owned the whole thing. Ironically she was very unhappy, the reasons for which she would tell me at some length during tutorials. Like the ex-con, the stripper, the imam and the lorry driver, she was hoping that education would turn her life around.

When she finished her course it occurred to me that she might want to reward her tutor's patience with a little token of her esteem - some trifle like a Mercedes, for instance. Sadly, I didn't even get a card.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

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