Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Alien ear-cleaning

Today I was halfway through a lesson when I noticed that my lesson plan wasn't long enough. For some reason the students were behaving themselves extremely well, and were getting through the lesson a lot quicker than they usually do. I didn't want to start a new unit in the textbook, because what they needed now was revision of what they'd learned rather than a lot of new material. Instead I borrowed the story-writing idea I'd used in different classes last week and devised a blueprint on the spot for the students to write a story that would use the language they'd learned today. I ended it the same way: with the lines, _(name)_ has a terrible secret. S/he....., and told them to end it by telling me the terrible secret. The picture in the text I used to bounce the story off consisted of two people walking down a street, photographed from the waist down, no faces, so all you could see was legs and shopping bags. I told them to choose one pair of legs and imagine what the person was like.

Most of the students finished in just the right amount of time for me to collect the stories and end the class with five minutes to spare. However, one student, a very serious girl, had taken to this idea with a vengeance. She was still writing when the bell went.

What made this odd is that this particular student, while always very well-behaved (worryingly so, sometimes), is something of a plodder. Or at least I'd mentally labelled her that way. She is the sort of girl who always sits right in the front, looking serious, and listens with great attention, writing down everything. She tackles every task with great determination and thoroughness, first wanting to know in minute detail exactly what I want, and then doing it exactly as I say with no deviation at all. The results are usually adequate without being especially good. She tries very, very hard, and apparently has no sense of humour or sense of naughtiness, and never shows any emotion except anxiety.

But for some reason, today's activity wound her up to the extent that she became not just determined but positively inspired. Something set her off. She asked the usual questions at the beginning, wanting to know if they should write something for every point I'd written on the board, and should she write her name at the top? and what sort of paper did I want it on, should she start now? and so on, and then got to work. After a few minutes her writing got faster, and then she stopped and raised her hand. I went over to her.

She wanted to know the words to use in English to express the act of cleaning the ears. I thought about it, and couldn't think of any special word we use for this. I told her 'cleaning his ears' would be fine. She thanked me. I wandered off. Then I suddenly thought that perhaps she meant cleaning the inside of ears rather than the outside, in which case we'd say 'cleaning out his ears'. I went back and explained this to her. She listened carefully, nodded, thanked me (she always takes care to thank me), took a note, and positively dove back into her writing without giving any hint about which expression she wanted. I paused and tried to read over her shoulder, but her hand and hair were covering the page. I wondered what ear cleaning had to do with anything.

A little while later she surfaced again with another vocabulary question. This one was less unusual, and I can't remember what she asked. There were a few more like this. But for her last question she wanted to know the word for people who ride in UFOs.

"Aliens," I told her.

"Thank you," she said, and plunged back into her writing. I noticed she had filled most of a page with her careful round handwriting. By now the majority of the other students had finished, having petered out at about quarter of a page, so I collected the papers to correct later, and told them they could go. A few minutes later the bell rang. The plodder, not plodding at all, was still writing furiously, her nose so close to the page she looked as though she was trying to physically enter her own story. I started packing up my things, and she looked up, wild-eyed and panic-stricken at the thought that she was causing trouble by being too slow.

"Do I have to hand it in today?" she asked, holding out the paper. "I haven't finished." I noticed she was now halfway down the other side of the page.

"Do you want to finish it at home?" I asked her.

"Is it OK?" she said, looking anxiously at the pile of papers on my desk.

"Of course it's OK," I said. By now I was really, really curious and wanted to read her story right away (ear-cleaning aliens?) but clearly she had more to write and I didn't want to stop her. Her face cleared. "Thank you!" she said, gripping her paper.

I smiled. "I think you enjoy writing stories," I told her. "You seem to be very good at it."

She looked stunned, and stared down at the paper. Then she looked up at me again.

"Oh!" she said. She sounded startled at the idea. She pushed her hair out of her face and stared at me, finally understanding that I really wasn't concerned about her taking longer than the others, and that I was praising her. Then she suddenly grinned hugely, and I reeled.

I'd never seen her smile before. It was extraordinary. She is always so ... mousy. She doesn't wear fancy clothes or makeup, like most of my female students do. She always seems to be struggling to be a good student, crunched down on herself, frowning and looking serious and worried, with her hair flopping over her face, gripping her pencil like it's trying to escape. She seems to find everything hard work.

But today she was transformed. She'd hit a sweet spot, and got into the flow, and then right there at the end of class she produced that big, happy, open smile, and... well, I suddenly saw that this serious little plodder is unexpectedly, genuinely, jaw-droppingly drop-dead beautiful. If she pulled her hair back, lifted her chin and smiled more often, the world would be at her feet. As it is I'm probably going to be spending the rest of semester neglecting the rest of the class in my efforts to elicit another smile from her.


tinyhands said...

*sigh* Your stories make me want to give up what I have here (not much, by the way) and be a teacher too.

Went I came back from a week in Japan 2 years ago my eyes were open to the rest of the world. This tiny seed of moving to a COMPLETELY foreign country was planted that maybe someday I'd have a real adventure. But I was married, had a house, secure job, basically everything I could want. Until this year: I got divorced, lost the job, gave up the house, and spent 3 weeks in China renewing my love affair with the Orient. I'm still too chicken to drop out of school, sell my townhome, and kiss my parents & sister goodbye...but maybe someday.

Badaunt said...

Most of what I do is not like this, I should add. At that particular university I have five classes, and this is the first hint of a breakthrough I've had all year, from any student there.

Well, there was one other, but then that student stopped coming to class and I was never told why, so I'll have to fail her.

I generally only write about the good stuff. Don't be too envious!