Saturday, July 23, 2005

Last day (long)

Today was the last day of semester for me. I didn't just teach the last classes, I used them to tell the students what their grades were. After work I filled in the grading forms and submitted them. This means I have finished my teaching work until September, and it's about time, too. The air conditioning was really struggling today in the older classrooms.

The second class today was the lowest of eight classes at that time in the economics faculty. I spent most of the semester teaching them the simple present tense, but had to use the text as well, as it is required of us. The students were loud, naughty, and funny. (This is the class that includes Koji and Risa of the eyelash curling incident.) I have been bullying them all semester, because if I don't, things get out of control so fast I might as well just give up. They have been learning, though, and I realised today how much they'd improved.

But also, amazingly, NOBODY in that class failed. Some barely scraped through, but Risa got an A, and Koji, astonishingly (to him as well as to me) edged his way into getting a B by doing spectacularly well in the final test. (I've been telling him all semester he could do it, and he did, bless his cotton socks. He told me he will get an A in the second semester.)

Anyway, I told them at the beginning of class that according to my computer, which had eaten all their numbers (for class work, homework, tests, etc) and spat out results, almost everybody had passed, but there were a couple hovering on the edge of F and C, and quite a few between C and B, or B and A, and that if they used English ALL CLASS they might push themselves over that magic line.

I didn't tell them who was in this position.

They were brilliant. I wish I could use this tactic more often. I think they were all convinced they were the F/C students. Appallingly bad English (but not nearly as bad as it used to be) floated around the classroom at volumes ranging from loud to ear-splitting as they demonstrated just how much they deserved the extra few points. As they were doing the activity I'd given them I worked on the grades, adding on the points. After about an hour, during which they used English non-stop with great enthusiasm, I stopped them and announced that everybody had passed, and did they want me to read out the results to the whole class, or should I tell them privately as they left, one by one?

They opted for the public announcement. (I should have known.)

I prepared myself to shout, straightened my papers, and called the first student's name.

"You got B," I announced.

The class erupted into loud cheers and applause. The B student laughed happily and acknowledged his fans with an elaborate bow, and was whistled at.

Somewhat taken aback, I went on to the next student.

"C," I said. "You NEARLY failed, but you made up the points today."

More cheering, hoots and catcalls, and the student took a bow, grinning and wiping the metaphorical sweat from his brow.

The next student got an A, and shrieked with glee. The rest of the class applauded wildly and stamped their feet. Their enthusiasm was catching, so I elaborated a little.

"You got a perfect score on the last test," I told her. "Well done!"

Everybody applauded her again and she grinned from ear to ear.

It went on like that. One of the A students got booed laughingly by his friends, who assured me that he didn't deserve it, it should have been a B. I had to set them straight and tell them why it was an A.

"He did WONDERFUL homework," I said. "Did you see his homework? And didn't you notice how his English improved? You'll be left behind if you're not careful!""

The student in question stood up slowly, with enormous dignity. He looked down his nose at his friends, and took a deep breath. Then he threw his head back, shook his fist in the air, and shouted, "I'M THE GREATEST!"

His friends decided to applaud him after all, and everybody joined in.

And on it went.

It took over half an hour to get through the roll. I've never had that much fun announcing grades before. The very best was reserved for the last student, though. To understand why, I'll need to give you a little background.

Naoki is a very small guy. These are all 18-year-olds, and some of them are hulking great lads, and others look like children still. Naoki is one of the latter. He looks about 14.

When this class met for the first time, I put him down (mentally) as a nerd. He was very serious, and very nervous, and very shy. He had lots of questions for me and really, really wanted to do well. He sat alone, and didn't seem to know anybody in the class. Actually not many students do have friends at first - it's their first semester at university and they come from all over the place. In my classes I have students working together a lot, though. I assign them to random pairs or groups, and they make friends quickly.

The other distinguishing thing about Naoki, besides his small size and his nerdiness, is his voice. Naoki has an amazing voice. It is very penetrating, but it is falsetto. In fact he sounds exactly like Terry Jones as Brian's mum in Life of Brian. When I first heard him I thought it was nervousness making him squawk when he used English, and because he was a good student I didn't hear him use Japanese for a while so didn't realize that was his normal voice. When he's excited he flaps his hands around a bit, looks ever so slightly camp, and his squawk gets louder, higher, and shriller.

So you put all this together in one package, and you have the perfect bullying victim, right? That's what I thought, anyway, and decided to keep an eye on him. I have seen that sort of thing happen before.

But Naoki made one friend early on, a large, gentle, friendly guy who was struggling a bit with the class. Naoki helped him, and they stuck together. That was good. I didn't worry about him so much, although he still spent a lot of time looking anxious so I kept any eye on him. He's a very, very serious boy.

I had reckoned without his personality, though. This kid is remarkable. He has all these handicaps - the size, the voice, and general nerdiness and lack of cool - but he has a personality that is about ten sizes bigger than he is.

And Naoki loves to learn.

He doesn't just love to learn, he is PASSIONATE about learning. It overwhelms everything else as far as he's concerned. And he thinks that everybody is like that, and so if someone asks him to explain something he gets and they don't, he does, with care and concentration and total focus on imparting his understanding in the best way possible. His shyness vanishes, his enthusiasm is infectious, and the effect on his questioners is electric.

I saw this first in class, when he would explain to his partner (or group) something I'd said, and everybody would somehow go quiet (rare in this class) and his squawk would rise above the general chaos, and everybody would end up listening carefully. But whenever I noticed him doing it he would notice me watching, and stop, apologising for disturbing my class. Telling him to carry on didn't work, because he'd get embarrassed when he noticed he was taking over the teacher role. He has a very strict sense of what is proper, and in class I am the teacher, not him.

But by the second half of semester he had gathered a following. Our class is just before lunch, and I noticed that he was staying behind with his large friend to explain problems from their economics classes. Then a couple of guys who were late to leave one day noticed it too, and lingered, and listened, and asked questions, and by the next week they'd become a regular study group, which kept growing, until it was seven or eight guys. When everybody left after my class, this lot would start preparing for their lunchtime class with Naoki. They took out textbooks, notes and so on, and Naoki would hand out copies he'd made, find his whiteboard markers (he brings his own), and off he'd go, in his Brian's mum squawk, totally unselfconscious, totally in charge.

And the MOST amazing thing about this is that his loyal bunch of followers, aside from his large friend, are the most cool and intimidating in-crowd of the class. These guys are the ones who have piercings, dyed hair in the latest styles, wear sunglasses inside, slouch and sneer at everything, and are generally too cool to smile. These guys are the coolest dudes you could imagine, but when Naoki gets going, squawking enthusiastically about how to calculate GNP or whatever, they listen intently and respectfully, ask questions, smile, laugh, and generally forget to be cool. When their questions show they don't get it, he gets agitated and starts flapping his hands and squeaking, "No, NO! It's NOT like THAT, that's not right, you have to go back to here and see? It's like THIS..." - and when he does this, which in a Monty Python film would have you rolling in the aisles, the cool dudes listen carefully, nod, and ask respectful questions to make sure they've really understood. And when they get it right he sighs and looks happy and goes onto the next thing, and his voice goes back down an octave to its normal squawk.

I know all this because I find excuses to stay and watch, pretending to be sorting out my notes. It's FASCINATING. They ignore me completely.

And in case you were wondering, there is no patronising involved in the way these cool dudes treat Naoki. They have all caught the learning bug. You can see it. He is making their study exciting, and they love it. I have never seen anything like this at a university here. These students are REALLY LEARNING, and not just the week before exams like most of them do. These guys have been going half the semester and are hooked.

(I told some colleagues about Naoki, and one of them managed to contrive to 'just happen to pass' the classroom and peek in, unseen. This was not easy, as it is on the sixth floor and at the end of a corridor, but he wanted to see what I meant. When he came downstairs he said to me, amazed, "He sounds like he's been castrated!")

All clear now? Back to the grades announcement. (You thought I'd never get there, didn't you?)

So, by the end of semester Naoki had gathered this little group of fans, but he was still tense and anxious during class, and asked lots of questions, and studied really hard, and is still shy when he is not teaching. He has made amazing progress, so that his score was not just an A, it was the highest score in the class. And his name is at the end of the roll, so he'd been waiting a long time.

I called his name, and he looked as though he would jump out his skin from nerves.

"Last one," I said. "Naoki Tanaka!" I paused. "You got an A - " (he grinned and looked both relieved and pleased) " - AND it was the highest mark in class."

The class EXPLODED.

I'd thought the applause and cheering were loud before, but this was something else. It went on and on and ON. Then it evolved into a chant:


The whole class was ecstatic. They rose to their feet. They stamped and clapped their hands in time to the chant, which got louder and louder until Naoki finally stood up and took a bow, to thunderous applause. He stumbled and sat down again quickly, and made flappy brushing movements with his hands.

"Oh! oh! STOP it! Don't be silly!" he squeaked, and I've never heard his voice so high. He'd gone bright red and his eyes glistened.

But the applause continued. Everybody wanted to congratulate him. He sat there, looking stunned. He'd been happy to hear his results, but the reaction of the class overwhelmed him. Somehow, somewhere along the way, without him (or me) being aware of it, he had become the most popular and well-loved student in the class. It was the most uncomplicated, generous outburst of happiness you could imagine. Hell, I was almost in tears myself.

After I dismissed the class Naoki sat there for a bit longer, staring down at his desk. His large friend waited patiently beside him. Finally Naoki took a deep breath and raised his head to look around. His usual bunch were preparing their books and notes, and when he saw them he jumped into action, a little more jittery than usual. He grabbed his pens and went straight to the whiteboard, where he wrote up a complicated formula of some sort. Then he turned around and faltered for a moment when he saw all those cool dudes looking at him and waiting, their faces earnest and expectant. They had cheered louder than anybody, and he knew it.

One of them asked a question, perhaps to help him over his awkwardness.

"Oh!" he squeaked. "I almost forgot!" He darted to his bag and took out some papers. "I made some copies at the library. Here, these will help."

Koji and a couple of his friends were hovering in the doorway, halted on their way out. They frowned and listened. Nobody seemed to mind when they moved back into the room and slowly sat down, not taking their eyes off Naoki, still frowning with concentration and puzzlement.

Naoki handed out the copies, still talking. He saw the new guys and apologised for not having enough copies. They shook their heads dumbly, and Naoki continued with his explanation. As he talked, his voice descended the scale to the usual castrated squawk, and the new guys pulled out paper and pens and started taking notes.

By the time I left the room Naoki had relaxed into his familiar role. His audience was rapt. They were firing questions at him and making suggestions and arguing, and he was in heaven because they were all learning, and that's what it's all about, isn't it?

I wish my classes were like that.

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Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story! You told it so well that my eyes were tearing up too.


melinama said...

He's going to be a great teacher some day. Or a great something. I love it when this happens (or something like it). On my recent trip, one of the youngest kids (14), who arrived wearing a hat he never took off and only mumbled at the floor, turned out to be an incredibly competent "roadie" with everything you could ever need (knife and tools, folding rule, duct tape, etc), an ability to fix anything or start anything or find anything that was lost, and he also had a great dry sense of humor. He was everybody's favorite by the end, and had taken to wearing a sarong (sometimes wrapped around his body, sometimes around his head like Lawrence of Arabia).

Andy N. said...

Ms Aunt, that is quite a story. Being all to well familiar with Python (wot's a penguin doing on the tely?), the imagery is overflowing. You are such a good writer, and obviously a great teacher, just by the way you can not only 'read' your students, but write of them as well. I feel I'd be able to spot Naoki in a crowded market, as well as Risha, and almost wish I could know them better - you've made them so real.

"If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride", but I wish there were more people like you in this world, which despairately needs those who have vision, understanding, wisdom and compassion. Thanks for sharing your 'small bit' with us. It is hard to tell just how much even our small acts may affect the world. Keep up the 'good work'.

Lippy said...

Good heavens, woman! I was almost in tears myself while reading this story. You've got a wonderful talent for writing that is thoroughly engrossing. How marvellous of you to not only spot Naoki's natural brilliance, but to provide the ecology for it to flourish in. And isn't it wonderful that despite surface 'differences', this young man has the personality and charisma to not only banish such things into oblivion, but to rise far, far above them. I'm sure he'll go far in life - he sounds like a very special person.

myles said...

This story grabbed me by the balls. I wish I was there to see that!