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.


melanie said...

Ohhh... it almost makes me want to cry, the poor boy. You're handling it so well. Maybe he always comes early to your class as he likes to see a kind face. Good luck!