Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Oh, dear

Today was only the second week at one of the places I work, which started later than the others. For homework last week, I asked the students to write a self-introduction. Usually I ask them to do this in class, because I watch them doing it and can get an idea of their level. But this time I already had an idea from the activities I'd done first in class, and I could see it would take time, so it seemed better to get them to do it for homework so they could spend time on it.

I explained to them that I wanted to put their self-introductions into a folder, so asked them to use B5 looseleaf paper with holes, and showed them the sort of folder I had. They all have similar folders, so I wasn't asking them for anything unusual. But I explained that every year, when I ask for this, someone always gives me the wrong sized paper, or writes on the wrong side, or gives me paper without holes, and it's REALLY ANNOYING. They laughed, and nodded patronizingly. They weren't stupid, their expressions said.

"I'm serious!" I said. "There's always a few people who get it wrong. Please, please, please, get it right. It's not a big thing, but it makes an impression. It shows you paid a little attention, and keeps my folder tidy."

Oh, they weren't going to make any stupid mistakes like that, their expressions said. They weren't dumb. Why was I going on and on about something so silly? It was OBVIOUS. I wanted them to do their homework the normal, expected way. Why would they stupidly write on the wrong side of the page, or use the wrong sized paper?

That was the reaction I got in all four of my classes last week.

Today when I collected the homework, one student, the one who had written the most and obviously worked the hardest, had written half a page on A4 paper with no holes. In all four classes, at least two had written on the back of the page instead of the front, and when I pointed it out to them they smacked themselves on the forehead and their friends laughed at them. And several had used paper with no holes at all. In fact three or four had written on pages from notebooks and then ripped them out, giving me what looked like leftover scraps of paper with scribbles on them.

I brandished these and shouted, "SEE? I told you! This ALWAYS happens!" I brandished the folder as well. "How am I supposed to put these in here?" I asked dramatically.

The offending students looked embarrassed, AND SO THEY SHOULD HAVE. I told them to do it again, and bring it next week. We all had a good laugh. None of this was nasty. I was being melodramatic and everybody understood that. They thought it was funny.

But at the same time I felt a little twinge of despair.

One of the offending students (and a reason why I did not make a serious fuss, just a funny fuss) was a little guy who is the most utterly gormless creature you can imagine. He doesn't seem to quite know what is going on in his life. I don't know who he thinks is in charge, but it's not him. He squints at the board, squints at me, his mouth hangs open, and he looks anxious and lost. Today he turned up twenty minutes before the end of class, rushing in panting, in a total panic, apologizing for being late. He had a P.E. class that had just finished, he told me (in Japanese) and I told him to sit down and catch his breath and not to worry. There was something funny going on if he had a P.E. class scheduled for the same time as one of his required classes.

Once I got the rest of the class busy (so they wouldn't stare at him and make him even more nervous) I took the class list over to him and asked his name. He told me. His name wasn't there. Then he told me he was not in second period, he was in third.

"Third period starts at one, after lunch," I told him. "This is second period."

(How come he turned up at the right time last week?)

He looked relieved, and then panicked again.

"What should I do?" he asked me. "Should I leave?"

I did not laugh, although I wanted to.

"You can choose," I said. "If you want to sit here and relax and watch, you can. We've almost finished, actually. Or you can go and have an early lunch."

He chose to stay. He sat at the back of the room and watched the class that wasn't his. He looked extremely puzzled, and I wanted to pat his head and tell him life would probably become less confusing soon, except that I had a horrible feeling it probably wasn't true. I suspected his life had always been confusing, and would probably stay that way.

He was there again in third period, and I took care to give him a smile but not to draw attention to him. I didn't think he'd like too much attention. Then I collected the homework. As I was going around and collecting it, I picked out bits and pieces that caught my eye, so that students would feel noticed.

"Oh, you have goldfish!" I said to one. "I had goldfish too, once, until they committed suicide."

"Eh?" he said, which was pretty much the reaction to everything I said, although usually someone translated after I'd passed. The student I was talking to was generally too stunned by the sudden attention to understand anything I said, but everybody around listened carefully.

When I got to my special little friend and glanced at his homework, the first sentence to jump out at me was,

I don't have any friends.

Oh, dear. Oh dear oh dear ohdearohdear.

"Lots of group and pair work in this class," I told him. "You'll meet a lot of people."

"Eh?" he said.

But it is true. With very few exceptions, even the least likely students end up making friends in my classes. The most common positive comment I get in my student evaluations is, The best thing about this class was that I could make a lot of friends. (I am never sure whether to be proud of this or not. Isn't the best thing about my class supposed to be how much they learned due to my fabulous teaching?)

I smiled. He smiled rather uncertainly back. I don't think he believed me, and I have to admit I was feeling a little doubtful myself. Maybe he would manage to be one of the exceptions. I hoped not.

He had written his homework on a B5 paper, but it had no holes. He also had a packet of B5 paper with holes on his desk beside his notebook. I remember he had it last week, too, because I held it up as an example of what I wanted when I was explaining the homework to the class. I can't imagine what made him decide to use something else. He was devastated when he realized his mistake.

"Don't worry," I said. "You don't lose points the first time. Just bring it next week."

For some reason, at that moment I was reminded of a rather interesting typo that turned up in my syllabus at another university one year. At that place there were typos every third word or so when the syllabus was printed, and it was always good for a cheap laugh. On this particular occasion I had written that the class included a lot of pair work, which the printers had rendered as,

"This course includes a lot of pain work."

Don't you just hate it when the typo is more accurate than the original?


Radioactive Jam said...

I realize this might be kind of a "just another day in the life of" post, but I found it... moving.

And I mean that in a completely positive sense.


Lia said...

That poor guy. "Oh, dear" seems like an accurate summation. I sincerely hope things do get better for him.

And you, what with the mis-formatted homework. But there isn't really any way to avoid that except by creating severe grade penalties.

Carrie said...

I was going to say something very similiar to what Radioactive Jam already said. Great post! I remember having kids like that in class it and it was tough to watch. I really hope he does make some friends.

Lippy said...

Maybe it's a good thing he's wound up in your class where hopefully good things will start to happen for him.