Saturday, June 04, 2005

Losing the plot

Yesterday was another day of wreaking havoc in the classroom. I was not responsible. The students were responsible for their own havoc wreakage. I just sat there.

The first class went surprisingly well. This class underwent a sudden and positive change last week, and it seems to have stuck. This lulled me into a false sense of security. I thought I'd do all right, after that. I had things under control. (Ha.)

In fact the third and fourth classes went quite well, too.

The second class started off innocently enough, but in this class there are two particular students who have been 'problem students' (or perhaps I should say 'key students') from the start. This means that the behaviour of either or both of them could send the class either into spiraling heights of achievement or plummeting the dizzying depths of mayhem. Today those two students ended up sitting together.

I must have been out of my mind to let that happen. Come to think of it, I was out of my mind. I had taken cold medicine, then had three cups of coffee to counteract the sleepiness, and now and again swallowed a good wallop of codeine-based cough medicine. It was a devastating combination. I went through the day alternating between manic activity, coughing fits, and sudden, debilitating bouts of happy lethargy. I was a one woman Drug War.

Anyway, these two 'problem' students are similar in that wherever they happen to be, things happen. They are magnets for exciting moments. One of them, let's call her Risa, is a hilariously outspoken and impulsive person. Her level of English is pretty good compared to the rest of the class (which isn't saying much), and she loves to tease. She also has a very loud and joyful voice and very little self-discipline. She is funny and charming and impossible to get angry at. She just can't help herself. Something funny pops into her head and she just HAS TO ACT ON IT, RIGHT NOW, LOUDLY, and before I know it I have a happy riot on my hands.

The other problem student is a guy. Let's call him Koji. Koji's English level is very, very low, and the impression I'm getting is that he didn't ever get English, right from the start when he was in junior high school. Somehow it went straight over his head, and due to the Japanese school system, which promotes every student to the next level whether they have learned anything or not, everything just got more and more difficult until he came to the not unreasonable conclusion that he was stupid with languages. Rather than waste his energy trying something so clearly beyond him, he cultivated his talents as the class clown. He chose this role because people kept laughing at him anyway. It was a natural choice.

Koji is also an endearing sort of person. He always seems somewhat puzzled, as if he's not quite keeping up. He knows he's funny, but he isn't quite sure why. And it's true that he is at his funniest when he is not trying to be.

Koji told me, back at the beginning of semester, that he was hopeless at English. He didn't see the point of trying. He said he'd tried before and it just didn't work for him. He didn't really want to study English; it was too hard. But this is a required course, and he has to take it, and he has to acquire a certain number of language credits to graduate. He knows that. He begged me to go easy on him. He was very, very serious about this, and clearly frightened that English was going to cause him to fail in his university career.

I told him that as long as he made some effort he would pass. Nobody who makes an effort can get through any of my classes without learning something, and my standards aren't very high. I promised to help him.

At first he didn't try, but then I showed him how his grades weren't adding up and explained again that he'd get points for attempting to do the class activities (which actually means doing them, since they are not difficult). The numbers scared him, and after that he made a real effort to bend his mind to the tasks I set. I helped, as I'd said I would, and suddenly he started making some progress. This encouraged him and he became more determined. Unfortunately, it also made him funnier, because when he buckles down to his textbook and starts working on something he gets so earnest and serious he looks like a five year old trying to put Lego together. He almost grunts with the effort. Sometimes his tongue even appears in the corner of his mouth, he is concentrating so hard. And then someone laughs at him, and he looks up, surprised, and falls back into his role as class clown. People keep laughing at him because he has BEEN the class clown. Their laughter is not unkind, but they can't see him as a serious student.

Koji is persevering nonetheless, and his grades are getting better.

Today the class started off well. They did the 'free conversation' bit pretty well, considering they don't really have much language to work with. (This is a very low level class, full of the worst casualties of the 'English language education' system here.) But then, when I had them switching partners, Koji ended up with Risa as his last partner and therefore his partner for the rest of the class. Unfortunately, at that moment the codeine was winning out over the caffeine, and instead of moving them around again as I would normally do, I told myself Nah, never mind, they'll be fine, and anyway moving them is too much trouble.

I didn't know the meaning of the word trouble.

After the conversations I got them doing some activity in the textbook. They were doing all right, when suddenly - and I can't even begin to imagine what in the text inspired this - Koji and Risa were holding an arm wrestling competition. One moment they were plodding through something in the text, and the next they'd swept the desks clear and were locked in position, and the rest of the class had gathered around to watch. I sat there, bewildered and vaguely aghast, as the class started shouting and chanting and the two of them gripped hands, strained and went pink. I knew I should stop them, but the caffeine hasn't reasserted itself yet. Besides, I wanted to see how it turned out.

Koji won, but it wasn't easy. Risa is only a wisp of a girl but she held out for a lot longer than anybody expected her to. It was an exciting match. I am ashamed to admit I applauded (and laughed) just as much as anybody else.

I congratulated Koji, then told everybody to calm down and get back to their study. My laughing had brought on another coughing fit, so I ducked down under my desk and swallowed another capful of cough medicine.

"Sorry! Sorry!" cried Risa, still flushed with exertion and excitement. She knew it was all her fault, and it was. She was genuinely contrite. (She is always genuinely contrite. She doesn't know what comes over her.)

She picked up her bag, which she'd knocked over in the fight, and Koji helped her to pick up some things that had fallen out. One of these things was an eyelash curler. He held it up and gaped, mystified.

"What IS this?" he asked.


Risa is apparently a great believer in 'show, don't tell.' Quick as a flash she grabbed the curler, lunged across the desk, gripped Koji's head firmly, and applied the curler. It all happened too fast for Koji to react or resist. He froze as the metal contraption grabbed his stubby eyelashes and his eyelid peeled back. The one bulging eye made him look horrified.

"HAAA... HAAA... HAAA..." he gasped. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"

"I'm curling your eyelashes," Risa explained confidently.

The class erupted again, and again everybody gathered around to watch.

This time things went totally out of my control. I didn't have a voice yesterday. I had a croak, and it was no match for thirty-three excited students cheering on an eyelash curling demonstration. They all pressed forward to get a better view of Koji's beauty treatment. Koji sat there, frozen in position.

Risa finally released his eyelashes, and he blinked. He put one finger up to test how his eyelashes felt. He compared the curled and uncurled sides. Everybody tried to get closer to see whether it had worked.

"But they don't seem any different," he said, bewildered. "They're the same!"

Risa frowned and peered closely. "I think it's because you need mascara as well," she announced, and started rummaging through her bag.

"NOW WAIT A MINUTE!" shouted Koji, pushing back his chair. Several other students pushed it forward again and grabbed his shoulders to stop him from escaping. The rest pressed closer to get a better view of what was promising to be an interesting show. They were laughing, hooting, shouting encouragement, and making helpful suggestions about eye shadow and lipstick. Koji squirmed and looked half scared, half interested.

At this point I realised what might happen to my reputation if anybody happened to pass my classroom and glance in. I wiped the silly grin off my face, stood up, and banged on my desk with the blackboard eraser. A small eruption of chalk dust enveloped me.

There was a sudden silence, and heads swivelled. I glared as sternly as I could and tapped my textbook.

"Sorry!" cried Risa. "Very, VERY sorry!"

"Page fifteen," I reminded them.

It would have worked, too. It really would have. You could see them all remembering where they were and what they were supposed to be doing. They ducked their heads apologetically. There was an abashed silence. They were all ready to go back to their desks and get back to work. I'm sure they would have.

Except that right then, with spectacular timing, somebody farted.

The best teacher on the planet could not hope to compete with that sort of entertainment. I didn't even try. I sat down, rested my chin in my hands and let the codeine take over as the class exploded. Waves of accusations, counter-accusations, denials and laughter washed over me. Even the good students, the ones I can usually count on to behave themselves, were helpless to resist the hilarity that swept the room. Students staggered around the room banging into desks and chairs, doubled over, holding their sides and gasping. The entire class rocked with mirth.

My life had descended into uncontrollable farce, and there was nothing I could do about it.

* * *

Some days you lose the plot, and it's better to just let it go. In fact I recommend it. Letting it go felt good.

(I just don't recommend doing it too often, that's all. And make sure you have a good supply of drugs handy.)

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Silver Moon said...

HI- I'm here from Blog Explosion.
Teaching is challenging. I've taught different subjects including ESL.

I began a writing blog, testing out some poetry and other forms. Hope you stop by. Also, hope you feel much better! I see below that you had a cold. :(

melinama said...

hee hee hee!
at least you can laugh!

I read guys in lipstick mascara etc are very popular now in Korea, they call them flower men or something, it doesn't indicate homosexuality evidently, the girls just dig it.

The Village Idiot said...

That was an awesome post.
"I was a one woman Drug War" and "Except that right then, with spectacular timing, somebody farted." were laugh out loud moments!

You must be an awesome teacher!

Andy N. said...

Thank you, BadAunt.
I needed that.

Lone Ranger said...

Thanks for the laugh. When I lived in Japan, I taught English to celebrities. I never knew whether they were learning or were just very good actors.

Megan said...

My God, you made me laugh so hard I snorted. Could that fart have come at a better time? I think not! What can I say, I'm a girl who always goes for a good fart joke (so long as I'm not in the war path).

Lippy said...

Oh Bad Aunt - this is one of your funniest posts ever! I could just see the whole lot of them cracking up completely. Bet they think that was one of their best ever classes.