Friday, June 29, 2007


It has been hard to write anything in the last few days. I've been very tired, work is ridiculously busy, and the weather has become horribly muggy. Besides all that, the America's Cup is on and is being uncharacteristically interesting, keeping me up far too late.

Last night was a day off for the sailors, which was just as well because I didn't get home until nine and had to be up again at five. But I had some preparation to do that I had forgotten over the weekend, and so had a cup of tea to keep myself awake for that. That turned out to be a mistake, because it also kept me awake for half of what was left of my night, and meant that today I was not feeling very on top of things.

And that is why I think I must have been hallucinating today when I was up on the eleventh floor with my class of third year students. They were taking a test, and I was wandering around the room keeping an eye on them. Nobody was cheating dramatically, which made things rather boring for me, and I went to the back of the room so nobody could see I was having trouble paying attention. I allowed my gaze to drift out the window at the hazy, polluted view.

And as I was staring out the window, a crow flew by, rather ponderously, with a bright yellow tennis ball in its beak. Then it disappeared around the side of the building.

I stood there like a dummy, rooted to the spot and staring after the crow. Then I looked wildly around the classroom, hoping someone else had seen it, but all heads were down. Superman could have flown past thumbing his nose and my students wouldn't have noticed. I stared out the window again, but the crow did not come back.

Then I started to doubt what I'd just seen. It was just TOO RIDICULOUS. Was that like one of those visions of the Virgin Mary that happen to people occasionally, probably when they're overtired? If I meditated more upon spiritual matters and less on the weird habits of crows would I have less ludicrous visions?

Of course it could be that the crows are collaborating with my students, because the entire class could have pulled out cheat sheets at that moment and I wouldn't have noticed a thing.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Duck tact

"I can't see properly . . . "

"Does my bum look big in this?"

"Do I have to answer that?"

Sunday, June 24, 2007


I have been listening to a live stream of the America's Cup yacht race, while preparing lessons (probably badly). It's actually more fun to listen to the commentary of these races than to watch them. If I'm watching, half the time I can't even tell which boat is which, let alone who is ahead.

The Kiwis lost yesterday to the Swiss boat. Today they are winning - no! they have won! - and I just heard something I never even imagined I'd ever hear. I heard an American commentator refer to the teams as 'the two superpowers.'

New Zealand, a superpower? What have you guys been UP to while I've been away?

(And I bet Ms Mac didn't know she was living in a superpower.)

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Teaching opportunity

I had one of my favourite classes today, at the women's university. There are only seventeen students in this class, and with one absent today that meant I had the perfect number for groups of four, and because they work well together and are funny and good-natured I was in teacher heaven.

At one point I managed to entertain the entire class with a fart joke. This was unintentional. What happened was that I decided to clean the chalkboard erasers, which I'd made very dirty, and so I used the little eraser-cleaning machine. (Maria writes very entertainingly about the eraser-cleaning machines, and they are wonderful.) The eraser was rather old, so that the foam padding inside the cloth was worn down. This made the cloth a bit flappy, and when I ran the eraser over the machine it made a surprisingly realistic farting sound.

Two of the girls in the front row looked up from their books and stared at me, startled. Then they started giggling.

I glared and clutched my bottom (well, what SHOULD a mature teacher do in such circumstances?) and told the girls sternly that it was rude to laugh at their teacher. Then I went back to cleaning the eraser, and the machine did it again. It was satisfyingly louder this time, which caught the attention of the whole class. Being a mature and responsible teacher for whom every accident is a teaching opportunity, I taught them a new word. I also cleaned the eraser very thoroughly. It is not often that you get to teach a new word with sound effects.

It is the silly season, I'm afraid. The end of semester is in sight, the rainy season is here, and we're all feeling sticky and tired. Really the only thing you can do in the classroom is to have as much fun as possible.

And it was fun. My students thought it was the funniest and most interesting English word they'd learned, EVER.

Monday, June 18, 2007

It was difficult

Over the weekend I marked some more homework, and I've almost caught up with the backlog now. This makes me happy. One bit of homework made me happy, too. One of my low level students has shown an unexpected gift for metaphor. I am sure many of my students are adept with metaphor in their own language, but very few of them attempt to use it in English, and especially not at that level.

This student did, though, and the result was bizarre and yet ... expressive. He wrote about interviewing an English speaker.

Here is what he wrote:

The man who I interviewed introduced himself as Richard. He looked like smart. However, no matter how good materials are, poor cooks make up terribles. I was a bad cook. While I interviewed him, my eye's were traveling vast universe, and brain was dyed black or white.

I have to study English harder.

The Man tells me that parts of this are almost but not quite translations of Japanese expressions, but he was puzzled by where other parts came from. Upon reflection, however, we both understood pretty well how the student felt. And I gave him top points for trying for something a bit more interesting than, "It was difficult."

Why I blog meme

I have been tagged for a meme. I do not know why Tinyhands used a C for me. Why did I get a C? Should I have tried harder?

Anyway, here we go. Five reasons why I blog.

1. Because I can't stop. (Although I do seem able to pause, sometimes.)
2. For the comments and connections. Classrooms are very isolating. My readers keep me sane. (Really!)
3. To let off steam. Blogging is more fun than bashing my head against a wall.
4. At times my job seems utterly pointless. Some days, writing about it IS the point.
5. Life is full of funny bits.

I don't know how many people I am supposed to tag, so I'll just pick a few.

Carrie, RadioactiveJam, Paula, Styleygeek, Kenju, Maria and, um, anybody else who wants to.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Nothing interesting

Yesterday morning my alarm went off as it was supposed to, and I turned it off. My brain then started the process of constructing a complex and plausible reason why it was not necessary for me to get up. This was working very well, and I was totally convinced until The Man said to me gently,

"Aren't you supposed to be getting up?"

No! said my brain, but my mouth did not open.

"It's tiiiime!" he sang.

I got irritated.

"Nanyoobi desu ka?" I asked. I don't know why I felt I had to ask in Japanese, but I did. It seemed terribly important.

"Friday," said The Man.

"FRIDAY?" I squawked, and catapulted out of bed. Then I sat for a moment trying to remember why it was that I did not have to go to work, but unfortunately my impeccable reasoning had unravelled when I opened my eyes, so I couldn't think of any excuse to go back to sleep.

When I got to work I sat in my first classroom waiting for my lone student to arrive, and he didn't. It seemed to me that this was proof that my brain was right and I hadn't had to get out of bed. But although I tried and tried, there was no way I could make the logic work unless I went backwards.

It has been an uneventful week in teaching for me, aside from the Wednesday seating arrangement thing. On Tuesday my goofy student turned up at the normal time for the right class, surprising me enormously. Actually, I suppose that could be called an 'event,' because it is the first time he has managed to do that since the first class. Perhaps the scream he elicited last week gave him a fright.

But aside from that, nothing interesting has happened. Nobody hyperventilated, nobody screamed, and it has been business as usual.

Seating arrangements

On Wednesday, at the women's university, one of the teachers I'm 'team-teaching' with (we teach the same classes on alternate weeks) told me she wanted to switch classrooms this week because she wanted to show her students part of a movie, and while my room had a DVD player, hers didn't. (This was the loopy professor, who is my sort-of boss.) That was no problem, but because I'd left my tape player behind after the first class I had to go into her classroom to get it before our classes started. Our classrooms are next to each other.

When I went in I was greeted with a peculiar sight.

The seating arrangements in the classrooms at that place are horrible, with benches rather than individual desks, and there are three seats per bench, a bit too close together. There are six or seven rows of benches, three benches across, but only 18 - 20 students in these classes. My students generally sit two to a bench, scattered mostly around the front half or two thirds of the classroom.

But in the professor's classroom the students had crammed themselves three to a bench so that they could all fit into the back two rows. They had their bags piled on the desks in front of them, and looked as though they were prepared to have missiles thrown at them. All I could see were their faces. It was hot, and they looked enormously uncomfortable. It was the oddest classroom arrangement I've ever seen, with those rows and rows of empty seats in the big room, but the two back rows crammed full. The professor was not there yet.

I put my hand up to my eyes and squinted at the students. They seemed very far away.

"HELLOOOOO!" I called.

"BadAunt-sensei!" they shrieked, waving.

"What are you all doing back there?" I called. "You won't be able to see the movie!"

They giggled nervously. It was a tactless question, quite aside from the fact that they didn't have the English to answer it. I shouldn't have asked.

The professor wafted in busily.

"Hello everybody!" she said, smiling sweetly. (She never stops smiling sweetly.) Nobody responded, but she didn't seem to notice. I grabbed her by the collar and shook her until her teeth rattled and her eyes bulged.


Actually, I didn't do any of that, but I wanted to.

What I really did was to exchange some wimpy small talk. Then I took the tape player and went back to my own class.

In my classroom the students were scattered around and chatting, all seated fairly near the front aside from a couple of sports girls who were in the back row having a nap. (This university is well-known for its tennis players, and they tend to arrive in class so wiped out from practice they can barely keep their eyes open.)

"Good morning!" I said.

"Good morning!" they answered (except for the sports girls, who continued to snooze). Then I slapped myself on the forehead and corrected myself.

"Oop! Sorry. Good AFTERNOON!" I said, and they chorused back,

"Good AFTERNOON!" and giggled.

(I always do this, and almost never on purpose.)

I looked at them, grinning. Up to this point I had felt that things hadn't been going too badly with these classes, but now I suddenly had the feeling that things were going ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANTLY, because my students were not frightened of me. But I must have stared too long, and looked a bit too stupidly happy, because the students started giggling and wanted to know what was so funny.

"I'm just pleased to see you," I informed them loftily, and mentally pulled myself together. I started the class.

It was true. They're not a fantastic class or anything like that, but I was happy that they were not all cowering at the back of the classroom looking terrified.

The whole thing worries me a bit, though. I have never seen students looking as uncomfortable and defensive as those students did in the other room. I KNOW that class. I have them every second week, and have had no problems with them. They're lovely. There are three particularly keen students who always squash themselves into the bench right in front of me and interrupt me with lots of (sometimes annoying) personal questions (which I parry with silly answers), and who like to investigate the papers I have on the podium, and try to read my notebook. (Good luck to them. Most of it even I can't read.) When they get too noisy or nosy I ask them to stop it, and they always do, AND apologize. They may overstep the boundaries now and again, but at least they do it respectfully, sort of.

But even those three brash young ladies had seated themselves at the back in the other class.

I don't suppose it is something I should be so proud of. That my students are not afraid of me is a fairly negative sort of accomplishment, although it is nice to discover that I am doing something right. I don't think students learn very much language when they regard their teacher as the enemy.

But what on earth has the loopy professor been DOING to them?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


I didn't know that beans grew on wisteria vines.

Monday, June 11, 2007


Sometimes down at the little river I see turtles swimming, their little triangle heads poking up out of the water, or sometimes just their noses. Today I was cycling past and saw something moving VERY FAST, and stopped to watch. It had a small head, not poking out much, but it was going much too fast to be a turtle. Turtles aren't as slow in water as they are on land, but they aren't THAT fast.

By the time it came up on the bank on the other side of the river, I had my camera ready. It continued to move fast, but I managed to get a couple of shots. That was no turtle!

It was a shimahebi - a four-lined rat snake.

I have never seen a snake in this area before, so although they're not great photos I was rather pleased to get them at all. I wish I'd managed to get one that included its head, though.

These snakes are harmless, according to what I've managed to find out, but still, I'll be watching a little more carefully where I walk the next time I wander down beside the river.


I had a haircut today. My hair has been annoying me recently because it is too long. I always wear it up because I don't like it in my face, but I have it long(ish) because I don't have time to go to the hairdresser often enough to maintain any sort of style when it's short. Actually it's not so much a time problem as a laziness problem. If I have some free time I do not want to spend it at a hair salon.

But it had become long enough that it was taking too long to dry, and getting too heavy for one clip to keep up efficiently. It kept escaping. My hair styling method in the mornings is to brush it then twist it around and clip it up, telling myself I'll fix it in a minute after applying sunscreen to my face. I then apply sunscreen to my face and forget to fix my hair. Before leaving I suddenly remember and ask The Man if it looks all right and he says yes. (Unless he tells me I look like Elvis, in which case I do it again.)

This has worked until recently.

I did not want to spend time at the hair salon (it takes me half an hour just to get there), so I asked The Man if he would trim my hair for me as a temporary measure. He agreed. He has offered to do this in the past and I have always refused. I know he knows how to cut Japanese hair, but he has not done gaijin hair before, and I was worried that the results would be awful. But for a trim I didn't really care, especially since it is wavy in funny places and I wear it up anyway, so nobody is likely to notice if it goes horribly wrong.

I think that was the most interesting haircut I have ever had. I have never had a haircut naked before. We used the bathroom, as that seemed like the easiest way to avoid getting hair on my clothes. But also, I have never before had a haircut that involved blood. In fact my previous haircuts have been notable for a lack of injury, and certainly have not involved the hairdresser having to quit before finishing. It was all very exciting.

I remained calm while he bled all over the bathroom, and was philosophical when he disappeared, dripping blood, cursing, and apologizing for leaving me with a few longer bits in the front. I grabbed the little mirror, the comb and the scissors, and cut those myself. They were still a bit uneven but when I let them go they sprung up in all directions, forgivingly wavy, and I decided not to continue. You know what happens when you continue. You get one side evened up and discover that the other side is now a little longer, so you trim that, and the first side is now too long, so you trim that, and then the back is too long, and before you know it you're bald. That has happened to me before. Admittedly the hairdresser in that case was five years old and I was three, but still I remember it vividly. I especially remember my mother's reaction when she found out why we'd been so quiet for so long. I had to wear a hat for almost a year. My hair grew very slowly in those days.

My hair is dry now, and I have it up. It is staying in place and there is no way of telling that there are some uneven bits. I think it looks fine. On top of that my hairdresser's finger has stopped bleeding and I think he'll survive after all, although it was touch and go for a while there, or at least sounded like it was.

I'd call the operation a success.

Saturday, June 09, 2007


We've had several thunderstorms, last night and today. I fell asleep to the sound of thunder, and woke up to the same thing. I assume it was two thunderstorms and not one. There was another brief one this afternoon.

These storms came with a wonderful sky. Looking out one window this evening I saw a lot of of fluffy pink clouds piled up on each other.

In the other direction, things looked more ominous.


I heard on a Radio New Zealand podcast that it has been discovered that New Zealanders have very low iodine intakes, and this can cause health problem. There was a discussion of ways to combat this, and it seems that the government's approach is to pass a regulation that iodine must be added to all bread.

I guess this is a good idea, in that most people eat bread, but it surprised me that at no point in the interview did they mention one of the best dietary sources of iodine: kombu. I looked it up, wondering whether I had been given bad information and in fact kombu isn't such a great source, but I was right. According to this vegan society website, 15g of dried kombu or kelp in a convenient container in the kitchen provides one year's supply for one person.

I guess the problem would be getting people to use kombu, since it is not a part of the usual NZ diet. But kombu is easy. You can add a little to soup stock, and it tastes great. You don't need to eat the kombu, just use the kombu stock.

But one of the problems with iodine, I discovered when I searched the web, is that too much is as much of a problem as too little. I guess that means that if the government adds iodine to bread, they will not want people consuming kombu as well.

But my favourite sentence on the vegan society website was this one:

The low iodine levels in many plant foods reflects the low iodine levels in the UK soil, due in part to the recent ice-age.

Funny how the meaning of a word can change so much according to its context. For an exciting moment I thought the UK had had an ice age just last week and I hadn't heard about it.

How would an ice age affect iodine levels in plants, anyway?

Thursday, June 07, 2007


"Are you my Mum?"

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


Today I was going to teach my students This Old Man. However, I had to change that plan suddenly. Purely by coincidence, yesterday I looked up knick-knack in my dictionary during class. A student wanted a word, and I thought that was the nearest to what he meant. I entered it in my electronic dictionary so he could check, went to show it to him, and suddenly pulled it back before he could see it, gasping with shock.

What on EARTH were they thinking when they wrote that dictionary? Where do they get their misinformation? The English-Japanese dictionary I use (which is supposed to be a good one) gives knick-knack a VERY rude meaning as well as the usual one. It was so rude I didn't dare show the student. I told him I had the wrong word and gave him a different one, far less suitable.

I realized then that I would have to think of a new lesson plan for today. I could imagine my students singing:

With a knick-knack paddy-whack
Give the dog a bone
This old man came rolling home!

And then some bright spark would to know what it meant, look up knick knack, and get a nasty surprise, the sort that could get me into trouble. People BELIEVE dictionaries. They don't believe lowly English teachers. I can't imagine trying to explain that this word is NOT extremely uncouth slang for an unlikely variety of both male and female bodily parts.

(Unless I'm wrong, of course. Have any of my readers heard it used that way? Is it new? Have I been in Japan too long?)

In the end, instead of teaching This Old Man I settled on teaching them to play Simon Says, which I figured was a fun way to teach a few new vocabulary items as well as giving the students a game they can use when they become kindergarten teachers. I included the usual things, adapted for seated players (it is not easy to stand suddenly with the seating arrangements in that room), and to amuse myself I included,

"Simon says rub your head!"

The students loved the game, and got good at it very quickly. Also, they use a lot of hair gel and other gunk on their heads, so after they'd rubbed their heads multiple times the resulting funny hairstyles stuck quite nicely. They didn't notice because they were watching me so closely and the game was going so fast.

At the end of class I shouted,

"Simon says wave goodbye and fix your hair!"

They waved uncertainly and turned to stare at each other. Then there was a riot of pointing and laughing, and class finished with a mad scramble for mirrors and combs.

I'm still pretty annoyed about knick-knack, but I have to admit the hair thing cheered me up quite a lot, especially when it worked in two classes running.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A bit of a worry

Today on my way to work I wondered whether my goofy student would beat the record he set last week, when he was nearly two and a half hours early for his class. He was there at 10.40 for my second period class. But he is enrolled in my third period class, which starts at 1.00.

He is not a stupid boy, at least academically. He does well when we have writing, and shows a grasp of English at least no worse than the other students (it is admittedly a low level class), but he seems to have no grasp of time, and is totally in the dark when it comes to social skills. He has still made no friends.

I suspect this is because he is trying too hard to be good, and is too obedient. His class is a fairly boisterous one, and I keep haranguing the students to speak English, not Japanese, because this is an ENGLISH class, and I am sick of meeting adults who bemoan how they wasted their time in university English classes and now are having to pay through the nose for private lessons. But most of the students ignore me completely most of the time (unless I start threatening them with grades) and treat English class as a wonderful way to make friends. As soon as their English conversations become interesting they switch to Japanese, and the next thing you know they're asking me to wait while they exchange phone numbers before they switch conversational partners.

So I bellow at them unconvincingly, he takes me seriously, everybody else ignores me, and thus he makes no friends. It doesn't help that he has no idea of how to chat. He stares with his mouth open when addressed, not actually looking at you except for the occasional quick, startled glance, and it is not encouraging.

I walked into my first period class today and he was not there, which was a relief. But when I turned up to my second period class, there he was again, at 10.40, the same as last week. I am not getting used to this. In fact it is becoming stranger and more puzzling by the week. He KNOWS he is not in my second period class. I KNOW he knows, because as soon as I walked in today, he gathered up his things and left.

The other students looked confused, and whispered to each other. I couldn't hear their words, but I knew what they were saying.

"Who IS that weird guy who keeps turning up in our class and then leaving? What is going on? Why is he doing it?"

I ignored their bafflement (and my own) and started the class. I was going to close the door to the corridor as I usually do, but then decided not to. It was not too hot today, but quite humid, and having the door open created a pleasant breeze through the room with the windows open as well. My colleague across the hall had his doors closed, so the noise would not disrupt him. My second period class is a good one. They don't get too rowdy.

I got the students going on their first activity, and while they were busy I noticed something out the corner of my eye. I glanced up, and saw that the goofy student was still out in the corridor, wandering silently and wraithlike up and down, peering into classrooms and looking totally lost. He has a way of sucking in his lower lip but keeping his mouth open when he is confused (most of the time), which makes his chin disappear and his buck teeth even more prominent, and which makes him look pretty much as goofy as it is possible to look. He also juts his head out searchingly, like a lost turtle, and has a long skinny neck, and ... oh, dear, I can't go on. It makes me feel too unkind, and all I am doing is describing him. The thing is, if he had a normal expression and posture he wouldn't look too strange. It is his manner rather than his looks that are the problem.

Anyway, I forgot about him for a while, because I was busy, and the students were also busy. Then towards the end of class, for a change of pace (90 minutes is a long time) I got the students doing some writing. As I said, that particular class is a good bunch, and they bent their heads to their notebooks and wrote away busily. The classroom was quiet except for the scratching of pencils.

The quiet only lasted a few minutes, though, because suddenly one of the girls screamed loudly. I was helping another student with his writing so didn't see exactly what happened, but when I leaped up and turned around the girl was clutching her chest in horror and the goofy boy was standing in the doorway, looking spectacularly bewildered. Then he darted away, back out into the corridor.

I asked what had happened, and the girl told me she'd got a surprise, that was all. The goofy boy had drifted into the classroom, and because everybody had had their heads down they didn't see him. When this particular girl raised her head to think, he was standing a few feet from her, staring at the class in his usual confused way. This is what I saw when I looked up. He did not behave threateningly. He just stood there, looking weird, and she was so shocked at his sudden and silent appearance she let rip her ear-piercing scream.

I went out into the hallway but he had gone. When I came back I closed the door. I told the class reassuringly not to worry, he was in one of my other classes and was just a little confused and lonely. This, of course, made him sound like a serial killer just waiting to get started on his career and did not help matters at all, but everybody settled down eventually and got back to work.

Downstairs in the teachers' room at lunchtime I told the other teachers what had happened. The teacher from the class opposite me stared at me.

"So THAT'S who it was," he said. "He looked through the little glass panel in my door, and gave me quite a fright."

Another teacher chimed in.

"That scream was from your classroom?" he asked. "Which floor are you on?"

"The sixth," I said. "We had the windows open."

"So did I, and I'm on the fifth floor. We thought someone had jumped. So THAT'S what it was all about!"

"I heard it too," said another teacher, "And I'm on the fourth floor."

(My student has GREAT lungs.)

The teacher in the class opposite had not heard the scream. With his door closed the sound-proofing was apparently extremely good. I was not sure whether to be happy about that or not. I think if a student screams in my class I WANT it to be heard in the nearest classrooms.

The goofy student turned up in the correct class after lunch, and it was as if nothing had happened. He did all the work, did well on the writing bit, and generally doesn't seem to have learning disabilities (although I'm no expert on that). Pearl's other suggestion, that he might have problems at home, seems more likely. But generally he is what I would call an extremely unsocialized person; he simply does not know how to function in situations that involve other human beings. I think he would like to have friends, but simply does not know how to go about the process of achieving this goal. He sees the other students interacting with each other and it is like they are speaking another language, and although that is, in fact, what they are supposed to be doing, usually they are not. They are speaking Japanese, chatting and interacting like mad, exchanging gossip, advice and probably diseases. He sits there and watches them, ignoring the one who sits beside him with whom he is supposed to be interacting himself. It is as if the other students are a different species.

To him, I suspect, they are.

Today he ended up paired (randomly, I swear!) with the kindest and brightest boy in the class, who treated him exactly right, not making eye contact or putting too much pressure on him during the conversational parts of class. The kind boy also helped him to understand how to do the writing part. (The goofy boy never understands what to do at first, and gets paralyzed with uncertainty, which leaves him still working long after everybody else has finished.) The kind boy explained it to him patiently, and they both did a good job. I don't think they'll become friends - that would be asking too much of the kind boy - but at least the goofy boy got to experience some interaction that was pretty much normal. (And I mentally assigned the kind boy an A today. He can miss the entire rest of semester for all I care, and fail all his tests, and he will still get an A. He was THAT GOOD.)

Kind people are scaffolding for the goofy kids of this world, and can help them to find their feet. But this kid needs an awful lot of scaffolding, and I'm not sure if there are enough kind people in his life. I do my best to give him good 'random' partners, but my class is only once a week, and anyway sometimes my mathematical skills fail me. Do you know how difficult it is to count off thirty-odd students apparently at random into pairs which will then switch five times and have one particular student end up with another particular student, AND make it look as if it happened by accident? Some days my head almost explodes.

It can all be a bit of a worry, this teaching business.


Monday, June 04, 2007


Today I had a crisis in my classroom

The class was one of the ones I meet only once every fortnight (that's once every two weeks to you Americans), and they have a Japanese teacher every other week. This means that today was only the fourth time I have met them, although we are seven or eight weeks into semester. They are one of my good classes. These are first-year students who are studying to become kindergarten teachers, and although their English level is generally low-to-nonexistent, they are keen and well-behaved. We do not make very much progress (what do you expect, meeting so infrequently?) but at least we have fun.

Today three students were absent. The Japanese teacher who has them on alternate weeks told me that was the case last week, too, and she will look into it. I am wondering whether I might have been given a clue today.

At the beginning of class I told the students we would be using the text for the first half of class, as usual, and for the second half we'd play an English game. For the game we needed teams, so I divided them and asked them to move into their teams at the beginning, to save time later on.

At the time I did this, one student - let's call her Keiko - was already asleep. She had come in, carefully folded a small towel, put her head down on it, and fallen into a deep slumber. I asked her friend to wake her up so they could move, and she did. Her friend explained to me that Keiko was 'very tired,' so I asked Keiko if she wanted to sleep instead of attending class. This was not a threat. I asked kindly. She had been absent only once before, and it would not hurt her grade to be absent once more as she has generally been a good student. But it would make it easier for me if she decided first, as I could organize the class better. If students are in pairs and one falls asleep, the other cannot complete the work.

Keiko said no, she wanted to attend. I asked her to try to stay awake, so that her partner would not have a problem. She nodded.

Once they were in their groups, I asked for questions about the page in the textbook we would be doing, and explained the tricky bits. That went well, except that Keiko fell asleep again. I left her until we'd finished that part, figuring that her partner would explain it to her later. They're generally good at helping each other.

Then I set up the listening section. They are all familiar with this part. One of the good things about the textbook we have to use is that it uses the same simple format for every unit. I cued the tape, and asked if everybody was ready. Keiko had not moved, so I called her name.

"Kei-ko!" I called in a sing-song voice. "Listening tiiiime!"

Her partner touched her shoulder and called her name, but she did not move. I shrugged. "Never mind," I said. I did not want to spend half the class trying to wake up a student who was clearly not able to stay awake. I would mark her absent and rearrange the groups after the listening section.

(Here I will interrupt myself to explain that at Japanese universities, attendance is more important than almost anything. As far as I have gathered, in lecture classes teachers do not particularly take note if a student is awake or not, as long as they are there. I explain to my students that since in these oral classes most of their grade comes from what they do in class, sleeping will lose them points. They generally seem to understand this, although occasionally some will accuse me of being hidoi - cruel and merciless.)

I was just about to hit the play button on the machine when suddenly Keiko's partner leaned over her, then urgently asked the student behind her for a plastic bag. Keiko was making funny noises.

I thought at first she was throwing up. She was clutching the small pillow-towel to her face, and had her eyes closed. But she was not throwing up. She was hyperventilating.

The other students leaped into action. One produced a plastic bag for Keiko to breathe into, but had trouble getting it to her mouth because Keiko would not let go of the towel. A couple of others gathered round and stroked her shoulders and back, and held her hands, saying soothing things. Keiko panted rapidly.


When this did not stop, one of the students asked if anybody knew where Keiko kept her medicine, and another found it in her bag. They produced a bottle of water, and managed to get her to swallow the pills. She choked a little but got them down, then continued with her hyperventilating.


One of the girls was timing her.

"Five minutes," she said, and for a wild moment I wondered if in fact Keiko was going to produce a baby.

I turned to the girl standing beside me, who was watching Keiko carefully and occasionally saying something soothing.

"Did this happen because of me?" I asked. "Did I frighten her?"

"No," she said, and laughed reassuringly, and added, very quietly, "She does this all the time."

That explained why the other students knew what to do while I was in the dark. (Shouldn't teachers be TOLD when have chronically hyperventilating students? Shouldn't we be advised about what to do?)

"I think somebody should call the nurse," I said. "This is going on too long."

"She might be all right in a minute," said one of the students.

"Hu-hu-hu-hu-hu!" panted Keiko.

After few more minutes I insisted that someone go and get the nurse, and two girls rushed off. (I have hyperventilated once in my life, when I was very ill, and after about three minutes had gone blue around the lips and thought I was going to either throw up or pass out, or both. Keiko was not going blue, but I was worried and wanted a properly qualified person to deal with the problem.)

Five minutes after that the two students came back, and a very long ten minutes after that a tiny, elderly nurse appeared. (Did she get lost?)

The nurse then proceeded to do exactly what the students had already been doing for the last fifteen minutes, with exactly the same effect.


I suggested that perhaps Keiko might be better off lying down (in the clinic, I meant), and the nurse agreed, and with the help of a couple of students got her lying across four chairs pushed together. This did not help. Keiko lay there and panted, clutching the towel to her face, with her eyes squeezed shut.


The nurse and three or four students who were hovering near continued to make reassuring noises, and to tell Keiko to relax and breathe more slowly. She didn't. After another ten minutes or so the nurse said that perhaps we should get Keiko to the clinic (FINALLY!), and sent two girls off again. I thought they were going to get someone with a stretcher, and organized the moving of some desks and chairs to make a clear path to the door. However, after fifteen minutes or so (of "Hu! Hu! Hu! Hu! Hu!") the students came back with a gym teacher, who carried her on his back out of the classroom, followed by the nurse, who was supporting her bottom. One of the students went after them with Keiko's bag. I heard them "Hu-hu-hu-hu-hu!"-ing down the corridor.

We moved the desks back into position and I looked at the class. They looked back at me. Everybody looked serious, even grim. It seemed very quiet suddenly.

I looked at my watch. Almost one hour of class time had evaporated into "Hu-hu-hu-hu-hu!" and my lesson plan was in ruins. I am supposed to be doing the same thing with eight different classes over two weeks, and this class was now behind. They're all supposed to get the same test at the end of semester.

I made a rapid decision, and wrote a note. Leave Unit Four out of the test, I wrote in my notebook, in red ink so I couldn't miss it. After all, I write the test. I can leave out whatever I want and nobody will check.

"We don't have much time left," I said. "What do you want to do, the text, or the game?"

"The game!" said the students. (Was that a loaded question, do you think?)

We played the game, and it distracted them so much that they were concentrating VERY HARD and laughing a lot by the time the class ended. I think that they probably learned more from the game than they would have done from the text. It was actually more difficult, although I would never tell them that.

But mostly I wanted to reward them, for reacting so calmly to a difficult situation.

My problem now is figuring out what to do the next time Keiko falls asleep in class.

When I got back to the office, after sorting out my things I told the secretary I was going over to the clinic to see how my student was.

"Oh, she's fine," said the secretary. "I just talked to the nurse. She's gone home."

"What was the problem?" I asked. "Does she have a heart problem?" I was thinking of the pills.

"No," said the secretary, cheerfully. "It's mental."

"Oh," I said. (Nobody tells me ANYTHING.)

"Is there anything I should know, or do?" I asked.

"How did it happen?" she said.

"She was sleeping, and I called her name," I said.

The secretary laughed. "Maybe she had a bad dream," she said, and shrugged. "Don't worry about it."

But I AM worried about it. If I have a student who is going to "Hu-hu-hu-hu-hu!" in my classes I think there should be some sort of quick response routine in place so that we don't waste more than half the class time dealing with it. I am totally sympathetic towards the student. (I might be inclined to "Hu-hu-hu-hu-hu!" in my classes too, if I were my student.) She obviously has problems, and I hope she can get help that actually works instead of the pills, which had no effect at all, BEFORE she becomes a kindergarten teacher. I do not want to think about what would happen if she did that in a kindergarten class. I don't think four-year-olds know how to deal with hyperventilating teachers.

Oh, well. I will just have to see what happens, and talk to Professor Hatayama, who is in charge of these classes, if it happens again.

I just hope I can catch the professor on a sane day.

Saturday, June 02, 2007


The Man is back. He spent the last two weeks working as a guide/interpreter for a crazy person, and is full of stories that make my hair stand on end. He is very tired, and I am not surprised.

Crazy people have been popping up in stories all around me recently, come to think of it, and I'm glad that for once none of them are related to me.

Here are two crazy people stories that have stuck in my mind.

The first story is about something that was said to a colleague who has been telling us frighteningly hilarious stories about a more than slightly unbalanced student who comes to see her in her office to chat in English. These consultations are required by the university, and are intended to help students with their study of English. This particular student's English is very good, and her way of practicing English is to tell disturbingly irrational stories about her disturbingly dysfunctional family, unless another student appears, in which case she suddenly turns into a normal person. My colleague feels unqualified to deal with this situation, and it is upsetting her. The student needs a counselor, not an English teacher. A foreign teacher suggesting such a thing is not acceptable, however. (Everybody knows foreigners can't possibly understand.) She has been told to help the student with her English, not to counsel her or worry about her mental health.

We gave my colleague varyingly serious/goofy bits of advice about how to cope with the student without losing her cool, because the situation, which she cannot avoid, was making her very stressed. Last time she tried one of our coping methods which involved mental imagery, and had placed herself inside an imaginary protective blue egg. That was the idea, anyway, and it was even working. The girl said some lunatic things and my colleague said, "Hmm, really?" and was perfectly calm. But then the girl suddenly whined nastily, apropos of nothing at all,

"My sister cursed my shoe!"

A crack appeared in the egg, and it was all downhill from there.

I'm afraid that when my colleague told us this story last Tuesday we laughed and laughed and laughed. It was SYMPATHETIC laughter, though, and we were suitably aghast at the other demented things the student came out with. (Also, we can't wait to hear next week's stories.)

This next one is a (translated) quote from The Man's traveling companion, and concerns a long-standing belief, not something fleeting:

"The dentist put my teeth in backwards."

This horrifying dental treatment has apparently caused the teeth to rotate, so they have to be constantly adjusted.

Have you ever seen someone adjusting their teeth? It is not a pretty sight, and perhaps will give you an idea of what The Man has had to put up with for the past couple of weeks.

He is very, very happy to be home.