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Dec 11, 2017
Hugh Dellar

Phrase of the day: cut your teeth

I usually try and avoid central London at this time of year. Streets like Tottenham Court Road are jam-packed at the best of times, but in the run-up to Christmas, they start to resemble the ninth circle of hell! Desperate dead-eyed shoppers elbow their way past each other, frantically searching for bargains; the pavements are so full that at any second the weakest person could end up muscled into the road – and under a passing bus. Add to this the seasonal hazard of pre-Christmas drinkers and you have a truly toxic brew. Unless your idea of fun involves dodging thirty drunk office workers in Santa costumes and novelty jumpers or wrestling your way past the hordes pouring in and out of the chain stores that are all blasting competing Christmas CDs at you, then it really is a place you’d want to steer clear of.

I mention all of this not just because I like moaning – although, being English, I do, of course, love a good moan . . . especially at this time of year! No, I mention it all because last Friday I broke my own golden rule and did actually venture into the West End – the area in the centre of the city where many of the main tourist attractions, shops and entertainment venues are.I was meeting an old friend for a drink and because we live in completely different parts of the city, we usually try to meet somewhere central. However, the dread I was feeling at having to face my demons and walk down Oxford Street melted away when I found myself walking down a little side street five minutes from the main drag, a street I’d not been down for many a long year! On passing one of the larger buildings there, I was suddenly hit by a wave of memories and emotions . . . for this was the site of the first language school I ever worked in, back in the early 1990s. Yes, THIS was where I cut my teeth!

My very first job in language teaching was at a private school called St. Giles and it was there that I got my first professional experience. I learned how to plan lessons, how to deal with difficult students – and colleagues (!), and I learned how to survive as a classroom practitioner. If you cut your teeth in a particular place,  doing a particular thing, at a particular time, you mean that’s where, how, or when you began your career and learned the basic skills that set you on your way. We may – as I found myself doing the other night – look back nostalgically and reminisce about the place where we cut our teeth. Musicians talking together will compare stories about the venues they cut their teeth in and the kind of music they cut their teeth playing; chefs will talk about the kitchens they cut their teeth in before setting up on their own; and footballers may dream of returning to the club they first cut their teeth at for one last season before they retire.

Of course, I don’t miss the wages I was earning back in the 1990s, or the boss who ran the old place with an iron fist, but I am grateful to the place for letting me get my foot in the door. And I do have fond memories of my time there. So many memories, in fact, that I barely noticed I was in central London until long after I’d got past the hell that is Oxford Street!

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  • Where did you cut your professional teeth? What were the most important things you learned there?
  • Have you cut your teeth in any other areas of your life – playing a sport or an instrument or doing a hobby of some kind? Where? When? Doing what?
  • Have you ever been anywhere that felt like the ninth circle of hell?
  • Can you think of other seasonal hazards? Which is the worst?
  • When was the last time you were hit by a wave of memories? Why?

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