Monday, January 23, 2006

My name is Emily

Today in my very small class of five students, four Chinese and one Vietnamese, I asked them what they wanted to do in the last class, next week. They said they wanted to have a party.

I thought about it. I usually discourage the idea of having a party on the last day, because I have too many classes and having several parties every day for a week at the end of semester would be too tiring and chaotic.

But this is a very small class, and a special one. Partly this is because of our shared experience of being foreigners here. There is also a feeling of conspiracy in the classroom, because they are very aware that they are not like most of my other students, who don't really want to learn. This makes us like a secret cabal of learners in the stronghold of an institution dedicated to non-learning.

"Do your other students want to learn?" they often want to know, and are sure that they don't, no matter how much I fudge my answer. ("Well some of them do..." I say, which is true.) But mine is not their only class at the university, and they know what it's like. They know they are special. There used to be a sixth student in this class, also Chinese, who was absent a lot, and after several warnings I told her she would fail if she missed another class. The next week, when she failed to turn up, the other students told me,

"She is not serious. She does not want to learn. We want to learn," and looked SMUG. Only one of these five ever missed a class, and that was because her grandmother died.

I decided to have the party.

I didn't stop being teacher, though.

"If we have a party, you have to give farewell speeches," I told them. "Write them today. I'll check them, and then you can memorize them for next week."

Four of them thought this was a wonderful idea, but one was dismayed. She is the lowest level student, and also the youngest (at 21 or 22 - the others are in their late twenties). She had no English at all when she joined the class. She didn't even know the alphabet. The others have been helping her enormously, and two of them sit either side of her providing support when she doesn't understand and cuddling her when she gets discouraged. She has learned a lot, but of course her level is lower than the others (which is not high) and she feels inadequate. She was convinced she could not do a speech.

She sat huddled, staring at me with tragic eyes, with her two friends' arms over her shoulders. She looked like a chick blessed with two mother hens instead of one.

"You can do it," I said. "Just a SHORT speech."

"Yes, you can!" said the others encouragingly.

She picked up her pen and stared at her notebook. The others started writing. After a while, she did, too.

A speech, she wrote, and stared at the words. Then she added an question mark.

A speech?

She thought for a moment.

I can't do it, she wrote, painstakingly, and stared at the page with a forlorn expression. She put her pen down and sighed. She thought and thought and thought. Then she looked over at the writing of one of the others and read it slowly, frowning with concentration. When she got to the end her face lit up.

"I understand!" she said, and laughed in surprise. Her friend gave her a pat on the head and went back to writing.

She picked up her pen again.

But I can do it, she wrote. She grabbed her electronic dictionary and hunted for the right word. Copying from the screen, she wrote carefully,

It is a miracle.

She thought some more, and added something to the beginning,

I think in this class my English became good.

Then she got inspired. She remembered 'I like.'

I like English. I like this class. I like my teacher.

She stared at the ceiling, and down again at her paper, and continued,

I like coming here. I like my English name.

She nudged one of her friends and asked how to say something. Her friend whispered in her ear, and she wrote,

My teacher gave me my name.

She added,

I like my classmates' English names, too.

She paused and hummed a line from a song, and wrote it down,

I don't want to say goodbye.

She finally added,

I am happy.

She put her pen down.

"I did a speech!" she said triumphantly.

And she was right. She did. She spent the rest of class time practicing it. I am looking forward to hearing it (again) next week.

Here is her speech in its entirety:

I think in this class my English became good. A speech? I can't do a speech. But I can do a speech! It is a miracle.

I like English. I like this class. I like my teacher. I like coming here. I like my English name. My teacher gave me my name. I like my classmates' names, too. I don't want to say goodbye. I am happy.

The English names thing is interesting. I don't use English names with my Japanese students, although I know some teachers do. I don't want to force foreign names on them, and once read something written by a Japanese student who had been in a class where the students were all given English names, and who hated it. But when I started teaching Chinese students I discovered that they generally have English names already and want to use them - and if they don't have an English name, they want one.

Usually they choose movie star names, but the student in the above story wanted me to give her a name that suited her. I had to think very hard about this, as I didn't know her well at that time. I looked at her and wrote all the names I could think of, repeating each one, trying them out, and discarding most because they didn't seem right for her. In the end I gave her a short list. After repeating them all carefully to see how they sounded, she chose 'Emily.'

After that, every time someone called her Emily she would smile blissfully and murmur softly to herself, "Emily. My name is Emily." Then she would sit up straight and say, "Yes?" I don't know why her English name made her so happy, but it did. And sometimes, when she was finding things particularly difficult, I called her name just to see her smile, and to hear her say it:

"My name is Emily."


Mike said...

Nice post.

Gordon said...


Tear to a glass eye that. I can see why it's so rewarding.

Anonymous said...

That was very sweet. (",)


Cheryl said...

Beautiful. I hope she felt beautiful or magical or something.
Fingers crossed for the party!

kenju said...

They are so lucky to have you for their teacher, and I think they know it, expecially Emily. She really deserves an A for effort.

Lippy said...

Awww... that was so sweet. You really do get some gems from your classes, don't you!

Wiccachicky said...

That is awesome that she could do the farewell speech! I know for Asian students especially speeches can be a difficult process.

Wendy said...

Well there you have little reward for all your hard work. Well done. I wish my business students - any of them, 1 or 2 would do - would feel happy about learning English. But they don't. They're forced to do it by their bosses so that they can do business internationally. It's hard to stay motivated when your arrival is greeted with glum faces.