(The Good), the Bad, and the Funky: a trip down memory lane

I’ve been spending the past few weeks browsing through textbooks, as we’re planning to replace some of them for the upcoming school year in my department. However, every time I open a new one, I’m immediately transported back to my own experience as an EFL student during my childhood and teenage years. And this has been making my job rather miserable…

“First Things First” is indeed a sound, straightforward and rather assertive title for the first textbook in your life as a student of English as a foreign language. That was probably in the late 70s or early 80s. Unfortunately, the language school I was attending decided to change it after a couple of months, so I basically remember nothing about my first experience with a textbook. First times are not always special.

“Look, Listen and Learn 1” looked like a cut above “First Things First”, but despite the promising verbs and all the action in the title, you were in fact considered a rather passive agent all throughout. “Look!” “LISTEN!” To be fair, there was a little bit of action and the book kept us busy by having us count how many chocolates, sweets, lollipops and biscuits Sandy and Sue had, or how much jam, milk or butter there was in their fridge (or how little there was left.) I always felt a bit sorry for these kids’ diet, but I do remember ending the lessons feeling hungry and rushing home to explore our fridge! The oral production was limited to learning dialogues between Sue and Sandy by heart, and performing them in front of the class. Why did those chocolates in the jar disappear so quickly day after day, Sue? And what were you doing with all the flour, Sandy? Why were “flour” and “flower” pronounced the same way, anyway?

At the same time, in primary school we started working with one of the funkiest textbooks ever: “Step In”. I’m pretty sure we did several levels, and I think it was only targeted to a Spanish audience. I only remember one of the books, all of which revolved around dialogues between four main characters: Hank Solo, Paul McCartney, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. “Are you Olivia Newton-John?” “No, I’m not. My name’s Paul McCartney”.

Perhaps they were trying to convey post-postmodernist messages we were not getting at that time. Production here was again mainly oral and at least there was some role playing – as long as you were fine with being one of those four characters (and didn’t think much about the world outside the book, ha!) Amusing and certainly very 80s.

High-tech “Follow Me 1” came with VHS tapes, which was the coolest thing the method had to offer. Watching the teacher insert the tape into the video player and press the play button every day was an act of technological innovation with truly mesmerising consequences. I only recall that, plus people wearing suits and dresses (Francis Matthews being the head of the clan), and the same group of people wearing all kinds of cheesy costumes and singing bizarre songs about virtually anything you can think of. (Yes, you can make a song with the lyrics “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10” or “I have got one flower. I have got two flowers”.)

Who does not remember Arthur and Mary from “Starting Out” and “Getting On”? The most clichéd story ever (remember I’d already been introduced to advanced deconstruction with McCartney and the gang, so I guess I already knew better!), it also featured Bruce (the guy Mary loved) and Sheila (Mary’s bestie, in love with Arthur, and a little bit overweight, of course.) But it was heavy-smoker landlady Mrs Harrison that was the true spirit of the series. Apart from smoking cigarettes while doing the washing-up or buying at the supermarket, she was a role model to follow amid the mediocre characters around her. I always thought she was a woman Francis Matthews would have liked to meet, and she’d have definitely kept Sue and Sandy under control. She would have even been the perfect female partner for Olivia Newton-John among all those guys! I also learnt that feeding the metre was one of the worst things you could do if you lived in the UK, and I found inserting coins inside your home to get central heating the most exotic thing ever (and yes, I reread that page several times.) I’ve always looked at my coins in a different way after that.

After “Getting On” and “Follow Me 2” (which was a step back – I mean, if you’re getting on, why do you need to go back to following anyone?), “Headway Upper-Intermediate” at least promised to keep us walking towards some fascinating, much sought-after arcadia (there was no CEFR, so goals were rather vague, and no obsession with getting certified). However, I was probably in my mid-teens, and the articles were more adult-oriented, so I really missed Olivia, John, Mrs. Harrison, and all the jam and lemonade that Sandy and Sue gulped down on a daily basis. Even if I never got to play the role of Hank Solo making popcorn at a school party.

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