Saturday, December 15, 2007

Black Thursday

(Warning: Very long post, very tired writer.)

The bad day on Thursday started off well. The Man was particularly affectionate when I was leaving. (He has been particularly affectionate recently, I suspect because he is in the middle of translating a book by a truly sloppy thinker, and I shine by comparison.) Also, I left a little earlier than usual. This would mean that I could take time over breakfast, which I eat near the university to avoid the morning rush hour on the trains.

But as I was parking my bicycle near the local station I realized that I had left my lunch at home, so I had to turn around and go back to get it. I ended up on my usual train. Not such a disaster yet, but not a good sign, either.

My first class went fine, too. I had spent the entire weekend marking homework and collating grades-so-far and printing them out for all my classes, so that I would be able to inform those students who are in danger of failing exactly what they need to do to pass. I had also put together the tests that I would be giving my second and third classes, AND made the copies myself. The university insists on us ordering photocopies a week in advance, and since the last few questions in the test aren't even settled until the week before the test, and we have no working computer in the teachers' room (we have two non-working ones, however) this is impossible for me. I have to sort everything out at home. My tests are pedagogically sound but administratively impossible.

Anyway, the first class went as planned. Towards the end, however, I happened to notice what I had written in my notes for the next class, remembered that I was giving tests, and realized that I had left the test papers at home. I had also, I then discovered, left the computer printouts of the grades at home for every class except the first one.

The only bright spot on the horizon was that it was lunchtime, so I had time to panic AND come up with a solution.

When I left the classroom I was already planning like mad. If I plead really pitifully at my second-in-command boss (I'll call him George) maybe he'll let me use the computer in his office to type them up again, I thought.

The first person I bumped into was George, and I put my plan into immediate action. He obliged, as I knew he would (he is my favourite boss out of the seemingly dozens I have), and I spent most of lunchtime retyping the tests, except without the proper easy-to-mark formatting that I had used at home. There was no time for that, and besides, I wanted to fit everything in each test onto one page so that I could then plead for copies from George as well without overburdening him too much. He has a copy card, being a full-timer. We lowly part-time teachers do not get copying privileges. (We get more classes and less support. I am not sure of the reasoning behind this.)

Dear George obliged with the copying as well, RUNNING over to the copying room to copy the tests while I spent the last five minutes of lunchtime inhaling my lunch.

So I gave the test, and the students wrote their answers on separate sheets, formatting them as they saw fit, which will make them a pain in the fundamental tube (as my brother used to say to avoid recriminations from the saintly parents) to mark – but at least I GAVE THE TEST. First hurdle over.

The test was not long enough, and I knew that, so to fill the last half hour or so I had a crossword puzzle (which I had been able to copy in advance). I would have preferred to let the students go, but we foreign teachers tend to be spied on at that university. The Japanese professors of language do not like us, and if they see any foreign teacher's class leaving even only five minutes early there are often complaints.

Unfortunately the crossword I had given the students took them a lot longer than I expected it to take, and they enjoyed it. Class ran over time, leaving me no opportunity before the next class to get back to the teachers' room for coffee and, more importantly, no time to go to the toilet. I desperately needed to pee. I had desperately needed to pee since before lunch, but had not had time.

The next class started.

Normally if I desperately need to pee I get the students working on something and disappear quietly for the couple of minutes it takes to run down the corridor (down two corridors, actually – I am as far away from the toilets in that building as it is possible to be). But I was giving a test, which meant I could not leave the room. Also, although the test for this class was a bit longer than the one for the first class, it would still not fill the entire ninety minutes. I was worried that if I used the same crossword, which had been my original plan, I would not get a break AGAIN, and if that happened I would explode. I would have gone while the students were doing the crossword in the previous class, but some of the clues were tricky and they kept asking me for more hints.

I decided that the only possible response to a situation where the other alternative was to explode was to skip the crossword and finish the class early. I would just have to risk it.

I let the class go twenty minutes early.

It was not my day yesterday. Just as the students were streaming out of my classroom a Japanese professor walked past, saw them, and looked at his watch. I did not rush out and strangle him, however. I rushed out and sped past him in the direction of the toilets. By that point nothing else mattered. I had been holding on for four hours and could not wait another minute.

While I was in the toilet I decided that if challenged I would explain that I had suddenly got my period, and with a bit of luck cause a lot of embarrassment. Or rather, I would send this explanation in an official letter of explanation and apology via my boss, who would receive the complaint via his boss. These professors never complain directly to us. They take it straight to the top. By the time my bladder was empty I was HOPING they would take it right to the top, because if I wrote a letter like that I would also add that I would appreciate it if people who were concerned about my professionalism approached me honestly and directly and did not sneak around behind my back in a cowardly fashion making anonymous and vicious complaints. I would ask The Man to write this in polite Japanese, of course. He is good at things like that.

It appeared that by emptying my bladder I was making room for rage. I conveniently forgot that my excuse would be a lie, and that the real reason for finishing the class early was that I had left the test papers at home and was badly prepared. That was not relevant, as far as I was concerned, and I managed to work myself up into a glowingly self-righteous fury.

But with the immediate potential disaster defused I now had a little time to sit down with a coffee, and I managed to calm down. After all, I did not know that that particular professor would complain. He might not be one of the nasty grumps. Maybe he was just a bit surprised because he thought he must be late for something. And anyway, I could worry about that later. I had one more class to teach.

I decided, while I was sipping my coffee, to abandon my previous plan, which had involved too much teacher work, and instead do something that would give me a break. I had no more copies of the crossword, but in my locker I had a simple logic quiz thing (rather like this one). If I dictated it to the students, then they could solve it. This has always been a popular activity when I have used it before, and involves the students spending quite a lot of time staring at their paper and thinking. This, I thought, would provide a little space in which I could sit and stare at them and NOT think. I had had enough of thinking for the day.

It seemed like a good plan to me.

I started the class with a short test (not one of mine – this is one we have to give almost weekly and which has been prepared for us), and then they had their usual speaking practice time, and then I gave them the puzzle.

They hated it.

This is the class that includes the autistic guy (who I will write about again soon), and he simply did not understand what to do. I did not realize that he didn't know what to do at first, though, because the others were too busy asking questions and complaining that the whole thing was too difficult. We had about thirty minutes to go by that stage, and I noticed somebody hanging around outside the classroom door.

And that was when I remembered that this was the day scheduled for teacher evaluations for that particular class.

I let the guy in, and he handed out the questionnaires.

I did not see what the students wrote. I am not supposed to, and I deliberately did not try to peek. I knew it would be depressing. There the students were, actively loathing what I'd given them FOR THE FIRST TIME THIS SEMESTER, and the perfect opportunity for revenge had presented itself.

I stood there chatting with the questionnaire guy and mentally kicking myself. They take teacher evaluations really seriously at this university, and I suspected that my previous record of ten years or so of good evaluations had just been obliterated.

Everybody except the autistic kid finished the questionnaire suspiciously quickly, and I am sure they did not give me good scores. The autistic kid, however, I am equally sure was fair. He spent a lot of time reading all the questions very carefully and thinking about how to answer them.

After the guy had gone I told the students that when they finished the quiz they could leave. This gave them sudden motivation to actually try it, and they suddenly started focusing, and discovering how easy it was. I also noticed that the autistic kid had been staring at his paper and not writing anything, so I went to him and showed him how to do it. I went over it slowly with him, and he listened and watched carefully. I wrote the first answer in for him. Once I'd got him started, he suddenly nodded vigorously, said, "I SEE!" and off he went. He muttered to himself and wrote rapidly, and finished the whole thing in about five minutes, which I think was a new record for any of my students. Then he went over it again very slowly and carefully to make sure the answers were right.

He was the last to bring it to me, just as the bell went. Everybody else was charging out the door, and I regarded him fondly. He was the only one who hadn't complained.

"Is this RIGHT?" he enquired, handing over his paper. I looked at it and did a small double-take. Then I looked at him.

"It's wonderful," I assured him. "You've done very well!"

"THANK you," he said, and left.

Finally I had finished my work day, but I was finding it hard to leave the empty classroom. I sat there, staring at the paper the autistic kid had given me and still not quite believing it.

Every single answer on his page was wrong except the one answer I had given him at the beginning. Usually when a student makes a mistake on this puzzle they get two answers switched, but he had got them ALL wrong, and then double-checked them carefully and decided they were right.

It was amazing.

But it didn't really matter, either, because the point of the puzzle is for the students to use English to solve a problem, not that they shine at the logic involved. He had used lots of English. All his muttering had been in English. ("If THIS house is RED then THAT house is GREEN and THAT house is YELLOW, and . . . ")

I went back to the teacher's room, taking care to put his puzzle into my bag to take home, to look at more closely later when my brain started functioning again.

In the teachers' room I walked into an uproar. I only listened for long enough to make sure it was not about me. It wasn't, so I did not want to know more. I made my escape. (Sometimes I understand why the Japanese teachers do not like us. Our discussions are noisy and we all talk at once when we get excited about something, and if you do not understand what it is about it sounds like we are about to kill each other. This particular uproar was over the best way to stuff a turkey.)

I met some other of my colleagues at the curry shop for dinner, and ordered a beer first. I don't think I have ever enjoyed a beer so much. I don't even like beer usually, but I liked that one.

Conversation over dinner was an uproar, too.

The excitement this time was over how the one German professor (the one real German professor, I mean, not a Japanese teacher of German) had actually talked back to the Queen Secretary. Our informant told us that the professor had become so angry with her questioning his requests and lecturing him about how to do his job (he had wanted more than one stick of chalk, or something similarly outrageous) that he had given her a full-on, scathingly loud lecture in Japanese about how her duty as a secretary was to support the teaching staff. He had banged on the counter! He had shouted at her in front of her colleagues and in front of the other teachers! He actually SILENCED her when she tried to argue back!

We could not quite believe this.

"Are you sure he is still alive?" we asked, and he assured us that the professor was, indeed, alive and in good health.

"I saw him today," he said. "All his limbs are intact, and there are no bruises. Also, he still has his job!"

This is the same professor who, when I met him a couple of years ago in a corridor one day, had broken his ankle and was having trouble with the wheelchair the office had kindly lent him. This wheelchair had small wheels, and could not be wheeled by the person in it. It needed a pusher. They omitted to provide him with a pusher, however, so he was reduced to trying to use crutches while pushing a wheelchair because he was too polite to tell them this was a worse than useless solution. The secretaries would not let him take the good wheelchair with big wheels because 'it might be needed in an emergency.'

I guess he has finally reached the limits of his excessive politeness. He is one of the mildest, most polite people I have ever met, and I really, really wish I had seen this confrontation.

After a bit of excited, celebratory discussion of this incident, someone finally said,

"But of course he can get away with it because he has tenure. . . "

And we realized, gloomily, that nothing had really changed. We would never be able to do something like that. The Queen Secretary is perfectly capable of getting an untenured teacher fired.

The next time I see the German professor, however, I intend to ask him to do us all the favour of arranging to videotape the next confrontation he has with the secretary, so we can ALL enjoy a little vicarious revenge. Stealing an entire box of chalk (which I did two weeks ago when she wasn't looking, to take to our building so that we do not have to traipse across campus to get chalk) does not give quite the same thrill. (Although I was rather thrilled, I must admit.)

Today I took George a box of chocolates to thank him for helping me out over the test debacle, and also to thank him for not lecturing me over my idiocy (as my first-in-command boss would have done). George told me the chocolate was not necessary as it was his job to help out teachers when they ran into a spot of trouble. I told him that my particular spot of trouble was entirely self-inflicted, that his help had saved me from totally screwing up, and that his lack of recrimination had helped me to calm down a bit and deal with a crappy day. I said that if he did not accept the chocolates I would have to give him a big sloppy kiss instead.

He took the chocolates.


torrygirl said...

I hate days like that. They always happen at the end of the year when things are starting to get hectic.

The one good thing you can say about a day like that is that at least it's over now.

Anonymous said...

Is nice-boss-George the same George as the one in the picture in the post below?

Badaunt said...

Well, they are both second in command of a bunch of primates, but nice-boss-George has shorter arms and not quite as much hair.

Keera Ann Fox said...

I can so relate, including the getting angry at Them even though I did something myself. (One time, it turned out I was right to be angry. Their mistake was bigger than mine.)

But what I really enjoyed about this story, is learning a new phrase: "fundamental tube". Good one!

lina said...

Love the "fundamental tube". Am gonna use it for my children friendly type of conversation (with credits to you and your brother!)
I myself can't think properly if I had to hold my pee for longer than 10 minutes. :-)

Anonymous said...

Fundamental tube! Love it. What an awful day, though. Yikes! Glad the boss-man was easy to work with. I get myself worked up into a rage over things that aren't true and totally my fault. Just this week I created this whole cover-up/lie in regards to something and then was enraged over the people who didn't feel sympathy for this lie (that I never told, I just had it in my head). So silly.