Laramie L. Bahr has been the American teacher of Bolyai Secondary Grammar School in Salgótarján for 2 years now. A world traveler, an ex-soldier who had seen the hell of Iraque, Aphganistan and Kosovo, a bar manager, a writer and a graphic, and an English teacher… A Modern Odysseus.
He was interviewed by his fellow-teacher, Márta Turóczi.
Where were you born? What is your family background?
I was born on November 30, 1967 in Springfield, Illinois. My childhood was somewhat unusual as my father left when I was a mere 6 months old and my mother was very ill for much of her life. Because of this I split my time between living with her in Chicago and with my grandmother in Springfield, which also was home to a multitude of aunts, uncles and cousins.
When I was about 7 my mother remarried and though I was given the option to live with her full time I chose to continue splitting that time as my cousins Jay and Audra were like brother and sister to me, the only ones I had.
My grandmother was an extremely strong individual in that she had a very dynamic personality and was the glue that held our family together and very close. Her home was always filled with people coming and going, mostly for the food she was constantly making, but also as a social focal point for the family. Any and all holidays were always celebrated at her house, as well as any gatherings for birthdays, funerals, et al.
You seem to do a lot of writing and drawing. Even your book has been published titled “Old Soldiers”. Do you have any artistic skills?
In Chicago my mother was a professional artist, a painter and illustrator, primarily of equestrian artwork (horses). This is a talent I inherited from her but have only practiced as primarily a hobby. I always wanted to be able to sing but have literally no talent for it – I can pretty much draw anything though. My real talent is in writing and this is something I have pursued, but not as much as I should have. I intend to correct this. My stepfather, Bob, owned a chain of movie theaters and I went to work for him as a teenager. I really enjoyed this period of my life as I love film and was able to see most movies for free.
How did you become a soldier?
At the age of 19 I decided to join the Illinois Army National Guard, and went off to Basic Training and Advanced Training as a Military Policeman. The National Guard is where you do your training, then go home to train for one weekend a month and be available for any deployments as necessary. It was as a member of the Guard that I experienced my first deployments, first to Panama in support of Operation Just Cause in December 1989, which was to remove their dictator from power, then to Desert Storm in January 1991 to liberate Kuwait from Iraq. I also got married the first time just before leaving for this deployment. In the deserts of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq I truly learned the meaning of camaraderie, friendship, sacrifice, loss, heroism. While many people around the world join a military and label themselves soldiers not one of them really knows how they will react until the first time someone shoots at them and that first bullet zips past their head. I have seen some crazy reactions, from crying, freezing, people soiling themselves, to simply running in circles. As for me, I am almost embarrassed to say I found it exhilarating. It was an adrenalin rush to me. One hasn’t really lived until they have faced and cheated death.
Why did you move to Europe?
After Desert Storm I worked for my uncle in night clubs until I eventually decided to join the regular Army and moved to Germany as my first duty station. It was here that I found a real love for (the old continent) Europe, it’s variety of people, cultures, languages, and mostly free ways of thinking. I also deployed again, this time to Bosnia in support of Operation IFOR, or Implementation Force, which was to help protect the people of that nation from aggression at the hands of other Balkans. This Balkan war and bloodshed was incomprehensible and non-sense. Who is against who, and why to kill your own neighbor?
You have strong Turkish links. Why is that?
Soon after the Balkan deployment I was stationed in Izmir, Turkey, a place, like most people, I had no idea about. What I found was a country, city and people I truly fell in love with.
At first my time in Turkey was supposed to only be a 2 year tour, but almost immediately after arriving and seeing it I extended that another year, then later was recognized as the Allied Command Soldier of the Year, was given my choice of places to go, and chose to remain in Turkey for another tour. In total I spent nearly 7 years in Izmir, had learned the language well, integrated myself into the culture, and became an enişte (brother in law) in fact as well as name, as I married a Turkish girl.
While in Turkey, I deployed a couple more times, once to Croatia, again to support the Bosnians, and once to Kosovo in 1999, to protect them from the genocide campaign the Serbians were subjecting them to. This last one will always stick with me as I have never been shot at more than in Kosovo and Macedonia. Soon after this last deployment and sadly, the Army decided I had spent enough time in Turkey and I was off to recruiting command in Sacramento, California.
I suppose you took your wife with you as well.
Yes. It was here, in California, that my son, Ethan, was born, and though I had never aspired to having children it was easily the best thing that ever happened to me. He’s an amazing young man now, and I am immensely proud of him.
After having a son did you consider to settling down and having a civilian profession?
After 3 years in recruiting I left the Army and again worked for my uncle in a night club as General Manager. Though the money was fantastic and the work was enjoyable I watched the news and could not help but feel guilt, over the young men and women fighting, and dying, in Iraq and Afghanistan. I felt that they were not well trained enough, and especially not led well enough. They needed experienced Non-commissioned officers to help keep them alive, and I was one. This led me to leave my high paying, cushy job of suits, pretty girls, and far too much alcohol to once again brave the fire of combat.
I honestly don’t want to relate the details of this, my last stint in the Army as this ultimately became a dark period of my life that led to a great deal of pain, both physical and emotional, as well as horrific injuries and 3 major surgeries. Suffice it to say it’s a time I will never forget, though I have often tried.
What happened after you got injured?
After exiting the Army again, and for the final time, I fell into depression and a routine of doing nothing productive for a few long years. Until one day, I decided I had had enough and that if I didn’t drastically change my life I was going to die, and soon. I scoured the internet until I found a volunteer program in Moldova to teach English, bought a one-way ticket to Europe, and haven’t looked back since.
It was in Moldova I truly began to heal my body and soul. Though I was physically unable to exercise with the intensity I had prior to my injuries and illness I discovered a form of yoga (DDP) and soon began to see drastic improvements both physically and emotionally. I also discovered a true love for teaching, something I had done a great deal of as a soldier, but not on the same level. I remained in Moldova for two years until a job offer for Hungary caught my eye. I get many job offers weekly and most I never even consider, but for reasons I honestly can’t explain this one appealed to me and within days of an online interview I was off to Kisvárda, Hungary.
How did you come to Salgótarján?
Now Kisvárda was nothing like I expected and I would be lying if I said I liked it. Still, I had visited Budapest a couple of times and found another city I truly loved, so when the school year ended and they asked me to remain working for the Central European Teaching Program (CETP), I told them if they could get me at least close to Budapest I would stay. Thus, I find myself here, in Salgotarján, a mere hour and a half or so from Budapest. I really enjoy this city, though I was initially staying in one of those old Soviet towers – those eyesores that dominate the skyline of your otherwise beautiful town, but was lucky enough (by the hard work of the school staff) to get another, far more comfortable accommodation, though the climb up the hill to get to it is a pain.
Now you are teaching English at the Bolyai János Bilingual Secondary Grammar School. What do you think about it?
Now that we’ve caught up my eventful, and often strange life, let’s talk about what should be the most important aspect of my presence here – teaching English. First of all I like teaching at Bolyai School. My fellow teachers are kind and co-operative, and the students are mostly smart and creative. They speak quite good English. My philosophy and style of teaching would be considered unorthodox (a fancy word for ‘different’) by most, as I am most decidedly not like other teachers. First, my appearance is more like a biker than a teacher, and second because I believe that having fun, both as a teacher and a student, is key to learning. One of my most important aspects is the concept of respect, and with this in mind I always treat my students as adults, until they behave otherwise. To be fair, they are high school students, so behaving like an adult is often hard for them. It’s okay, I have patience in great supply.
Would you talk about your teaching method?
The real difference in the way I teach English is that I don’t preach perfection. I believe, and with my own experience in learning a second language, that mistakes are an important part of learning a language and students remember and learn from those mistakes far better than their successes. It is a tendency in Europe that the traditional English classes they attend are taught exactly the same as their math, science, history, and other courses – that is they are graded based on how few mistakes they make – I encourage them to leave this attitude while in my class and concentrate instead on communicating. Often a language student can become paralyzed by their fear of speaking incorrectly, whether it be the wrong word or phrase, or poor pronunciation, and as a result they end up unable to communicate. By disregarding the rules and throwing grammar out the window, and instead just saying what it is they want to say, they can find a freedom and confidence that will ultimately lead them to a better grasp of the language. In other words, learning the rules and grammar of a language in some classes, and learning how to actually speak , naturally, in the language, is a good combination.
What do your students think about your method?
At first they are bewildered and shocked, but for the most part they love it. Let’s face it, English is the global language, whether anyone likes it or not, and the ability to speak, read, and write English opens so many doors for students it’s truly beyond count. To that end I practice getting students to engage in conversation, often to their dismay and even resentment, but just getting them to speak is the goal. As a conversation teacher I use language and slang that many would consider wrong, or even inappropriate, but I believe that it’s not only good, but necessary. Kids hear and read this language through videos, music, magazines, film, in video games, and more on a daily basis and they need to know what those words and phrases actually mean and when to use them and, most importantly, when not to. I do teach that it’s better not to use many of them at all, but if and when they find themselves in an English speaking nation or situation they are going to have those terms used on them or at them. They need to know if the person or persons speaking are angry, being insulting, or it’s simply just the way they talk. Most especially there are words that they should never, ever say, and those words can change from country to country and even amongst different groups of people. Trust me when I tell you, and from experience, that this knowledge can and will save them a lot of problems later on.
What do your fellow teachers think about your method?
I was advised once, while in Kisvárda, by another teacher to ignore the students who aren’t interested in learning and concentrate on the others instead. This is something I cannot, will not, do. I believe I can reach and connect with every student, and though I haven’t found the keys to all of them yet, I know that I never will unless I keep trying. If you are one of these students, just know you and I will find a way for you to learn, and to have fun while doing it.