"John," he said, "let me shake your hand." (My first name is John but I only use it in dealings with officialdom, or when I don't want to reveal too much.) "A teacher!" he marvelled. "John, I respect you. Our nation needs people like you."
Florida needs teachers. According to the Orlando Sentinel, this year, Orange County alone has 9,600 vacancies. It's the same every year. Teachers can make more money in other fields, the paper says.
"John, what do you teach?" "English." The timeshare salesman salivated. A double whammy. An English teacher of English. This was culture spread on culture.
"Oh, your George Bernard Shaw!" He shook my hand. "Your Lord Gordon Byron! Childe Harold's Pilgrimage!" he said and quoted two lines as if he were back at high school.
From then on phrases like "a smart guy like you, John" and "not wishing to insult your intellect, John" prefaced everything he said. My self-respect was at its zenith. Next day, at a theme park, it reached its nadir. I couldn't even park the hire car.
It was at Universal Studios. I drove to the top of the car park then promptly drove out again. I had missed taking the crucial last slot and there was simply no turning back. I spent the next one-and-a-quarter hours with a car full of angry and weeping family - "Think of the rides we're missing"; "Oh, I don't believe this"; "How can anyone be so stupid"; "And we got up so early" - driving at high speed, hopelessly lost, up and down Interstate 4 before finding the entrance again and re-entering the car park. "Have a nice day," said the attendant. For the second time. Respect. What is this respect? Maybe I'm not so smart after all. Maybe the timeshare salesman was laughing up his sleeve at this eccentric Englishman and his Childe Harold's Pilgriage. How does a job earn public respect, or its lower form, bemused curiosity? How are jobs stereotyped? And why do teachers not want to be teachers in Florida? Is it the lack of money they'll earn - despite the respect they'll gain?
There was an interesting point with the timeshare salesman when I tried to set the record straight. "In Britain we teach American literature too," I said.
But he didn't want to know. It was John's English culture that enthralled him. "The Simpsons are an excellent introduction to post-modernism," I said, but he was unimpressed. The image of the English teacher of English must remain intact, as stereotypical as this, my portrayal of the timeshare salesman. The English teacher of English, on a par with your English vicar and his thinly sliced cucumber sandwiches: highbrow, eccentric, underpaid, goofy - but in spite of these things, or maybe because of these things, deserving respect.
Was the timeshare salesman really the highlight of my holiday in Orlando? Of course not. It was the moment when the lights snapped out in Disney World's Main Street and the night-time electrical parade began, when for a moment I left my cynical self behind and felt with Keats ("Oh, John! Your romantic poets!") when he wrote that a life of sensation was better than a life of thought. Keats must have visited Disney, too.
Or it was the ride in Universal Studios, when I'd finally parked, based on The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman. I recommend this ride to every teacher and to everyone who needs a boost of confidence. You're in a magic car, flying over New York, wearing a pair of 3D spectacles. And at that point I don't care what other people think of me, smart or stupid. I have all that matters: self-respect. I believe in what I'm seeing and doing. These 3D spectacles give me the added dimension that lets me see things as they really are. There's Spiderman himself, perched on the hood of my car. "John," he leans over and says, "you're a teacher. Let me shake your hand."
Richard Hoyes teaches at Farnham college, Surrey. Email: email@example.com