Wednesday, December 12, 2007


I have an unusual student this semester whom I haven't written about for two reasons. One reason is that it is hard to convey exactly the effect he has on people in writing, because his voice is so much a part of it. The other reason is that I was worried about him, and writing about him accurately felt uncomfortably like laughing at him, which I did not want to do.

Now, however, I feel a little freer, since I have stopped worrying about him. The first problem remains, however. I still have trouble conveying how he SOUNDS, which is a large part of what makes him so unusual.

This kid is probably 19 or 20 – he's a second year student – and is in a class of only about 12 students. It should have been a larger class, but for some unknown reason, like many of the second year classes at this university, about half of the registered students never turned up at all. I'm not sure what's going on there. I suspect the students enroll in everything and then get some new part-time job and only go to the classes that fit with their job schedules, hoping that professors will pass them anyway in a fit of absent-mindedness. This never happens with my classes (I'm not THAT far gone), but I suspect it happens with a few others.

Anyway, this kid is in this small class, which is fairly high level (at least relative to most of my classes), and his English is as good as or better than most of the other students in the class. His way of using it, however, is rather odd. It seems to me that he has learned English in all the ways that language learning research tells us not to learn a language: he has memorized everything, he has no spontaneity at all, he never plays with the language, and never makes mistakes. Every time he speaks it is in perfect sentences. There is no creativity or playfulness at all in his use of the language. Everything he says could have come straight out of a textbook.

He has also learned appropriate responses to everything. It is as though he has learned it all from a manual, or he is a robot that has been programmed to say exactly the right thing.

But it has worked, for him, and I have no argument with his methods. Whatever works is fine by me, especially when the student in question has such obvious deficiencies in other areas. Good for him!

At first it was hard to see exactly what his problems were. They were clearly there, but identifying exactly what was wrong was hard. I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist. I do not have that sort of training.

The first hint I got was in the first week, when after class he came up to me and asked, in perfect English,


But you have to have heard him to understand what I mean by 'perfect English,' and why his utterance made me stare at him and not respond for a moment. I didn't know him yet, and I was busy trying to figure out whether he was winding me up.

The way he said it was not only perfect English, it used 'perfect' intonation. And by that, I mean the sort of intonation you use when you're teaching intonation to students who do not respond, and so you exaggerate your intonation dramatically in the hopes that they will imitate just a little bit and therefore it will come back at you sounding something close to normal rather than like a robotic drone. This kid put all the emphasis in the right places, but far too much. It sounded, for those of you who have never had the misfortune to try to teach English intonation, like the way a person might speak to someone who they think is both deaf and stupid. Or to a two-year-old.

So I stared at him, looking for a hint of I'm taking the mickey out of you, hee hee, didn't see anything of the sort, and sighed inwardly, wondering what I was in for this time.

"No, there isn't," I said.

Nobody had ever actually asked about homework on a first day before, and I wondered if I'd disappointed him.

"THANK you," he said, and left.

There was something very 'off' about this exchange, but I could not figure out exactly what it was. (Besides the content, I mean.)

In the next class we started on the conversation activity I have my students doing in every class. For this, I give them a framework for their conversations: how to begin a conversation, how to make the transition from greeting to chatting, and how to make the transition to ending, and ending. The first week they play around with various forms of greetings and endings.

This is where I heard him speaking again, as they practiced. His voice is very loud, and the volume is always the same even though the intonation changes. (And the intonation is appropriate. It is just TOO MUCH. He is PUTting exPRESsion into his VOICE.)

"HI! HOW's it GOing?" I heard him saying to his partner, who stared at him, momentarily nonplussed. The weird kid waited, apparently unconcerned by the rather long pause.

That was when I noticed what I should have noticed the week before: There was no connection between the intonation in his voice and the expression on his face. His face always looks the same. He has a vaguely detached expression that never changes, while his voice is full of textbook-learned intonation.

I started to worry. I always seem to have a mental problem student, and I'm sort of used to dealing with them, but this was a new one. I would have to look out for bullying. He was so strange he was a natural target.

So I have been watching carefully and unobtrusively all semester for signs that other students might treat him badly, but the only thing I've seen from them is the bafflement that I often feel when dealing with him. How do you get a REAL response out of him? Or . . . is this his real response? He does not make eye contact much, but when he does he looks straight at you and you know he is seeing nothing except a person in a textbook, or a manual. He is seeing 'teacher,' and responding appropriately. He is seeing 'fellow student' and responding appropriately. He is seeing 'conversational partner' and responding appropriately. The problem is he is not seeing YOU. He is seeing a cardboard cutout.

But in a weird way, it has turned out to be not a problem. The other students are quietly fascinated by him. They have tried to strike up a connection, but it is obvious that he doesn't even notice. He responds appropriately, but nothing goes further than the words. This is not nasty or anything. He does not seem to be aware that it is supposed to go further, or that he is supposed to feel something. He is not upset if someone laughs at something he didn't mean to be funny, and he is not upset if someone ignores a question he asked because they were busy chatting with someone else. He just waits for a break in the conversation, then asks the same question again, using exactly the same intonation. Similarly, when I complimented him on his English after one class (he always has a question after class) there was his usual ever-so-slightly-too-long pause and he answered, face expressionless,

"THANK you."

He knew it was a compliment, and that he should respond to a compliment by thanking me, so he did. But he did not seem to actually feel anything.

"You are doing very well," I said. "You must study very hard."

"I DO," he said, still expressionless. "I study EVERY NIGHT."

I suspect he has some form of mild autism.

But last week I finally realized that not only do the other students tolerate him, they actually enjoy his company. They LIKE him. The liking is not reciprocated. This is not because the kid doesn't like them, but because he doesn't know he is supposed to like them. That wasn't in whatever manual it is that he consults. Somehow this is not offensive. It is just the way he is.

His timing is always slightly off, too. Timing in conversations is a difficult thing to observe or even notice. Unless it is broken you might not even realize that every conversation has a beat, or rhythm. This kid does not do long pauses, but his pauses are always just a tiny bit too long or too short. He comes in between the beats instead of on them. I don't know how easy this is to understand if it's not something you've noticed, but you could try it the next time someone greets you. Instead of answering the usual way, take a half second (or less, even) longer to respond. This is very hard to do, because staying on beat is something we do naturally, but if you can manage it I guarantee you will have the other person's FULL ATTENTION. And this kid does this to us all the time. The effect is like trying to climb the step that isn't there at the top of the stairs in the dark, every single time he speaks. It really keeps you focussed.

Last Thursday something happened that made me laugh out loud. I generally do not react to funny student things that could be hurtful, but this one happened so suddenly it got past my filters. In any case, it didn't seem to matter.

I'm not sure if I can convey how funny this was in writing, but I'll try.

I had the students in groups, and they were doing a quiz. This quiz consisted of questions I'd typed up that other students had written for homework after doing a similar quiz earlier in the semester. Most of the questions were pretty easy, but there's the odd tricky one and a lot of them are funny and/or interesting, and the exercise involves a lot of speaking and listening (and arguing and laughing). The students always love this activity.

The weird kid was in a group with three other students, including one who is the bad/cool guy of the class. This bad/cool guy has been openly fascinated by the weird kid for a while now, and I have been monitoring the situation carefully in case it develops the wrong way. As far as I could see before last Thursday, it could still have gone either way.

The weird kid was spending a lot of time with his paper held up right in front of his face and focusing on that rather than on the other students. I think he was mentally rehearsing the intonation of his questions for when it was his turn to ask. This meant that he was missing answering many questions, because he wasn't listening to the other students' questions, but he was asking his own, and doing it very well.

The cool kid had apparently decided it was time to get a spontaneous reaction out of the weird kid, and was trying by giving silly answers (to which the weird kid answered, "No!" and waited for the next try), or whispering the answer (to which the weird kid would say, politely, "PARdon?"). Nothing was working, and he was getting more and more frustrated, and determined.

So he waited until it was the weird kid's turn to ask a question. It was an easy question. He read,

"This is an ANimal. It has a VERY LONG NOSE, and BIG EARS."

He read his questions in the way you'd ask something of a two-year-old (or of someone who you thought was deaf and stupid) except that by this stage all of us in the class know he does not mean it like that.

The cool kid held out his hand to stop the other two from answering, and waited a few moments. The weird kid did not budge or peek out from behind his paper. He just waited. We collectively held our breath. Then (and this was the bit that shocked me) the cool kid put his face right up against the paper so the two of them were nose to nose except for the paper between them, and bellowed at the top of his voice,


There was a pause. The class was very quiet, and I held my breath.

Then the weird kid's voice emerged loudly from behind the paper, in exactly the way it had for the other questions he'd asked,


The intonation was congratulatory, pretty much how you'd congratulate a two-year-old or a deaf idiot for getting such the question right.

The cool kid stared disbelievingly at the paper. Then he turned around to the rest of the class, uncool astonishment written all over his disconcerted face, and blurted in a hushed voice,


And that was when I lost it. The whole class did, although not very loudly. But we couldn't help it. I don't think anybody wanted to hurt the weird kid's feelings, but we were laughing at the cool kid rather than the weird kid, anyway. Kawaii is not one of his words. Cool guys do not call weird kids 'cute.' It had just popped out.

I don't think the weird kid noticed, anyway. There was no reaction from behind the paper. I could see his face, and it was the usual benign blank. He was focussed entirely on the quiz, and I think he had blocked out everything else. This is how he usually studies. He does exactly what he is supposed to be doing, and everything else is irrelevant. And that's why when someone suddenly bellowed the answer loud and close enough to make anybody else jump out of their skin, it was an answer, so he responded in his normal way, because that's what he was supposed to do. The details of 'how loud' and 'how close' were not relevant.

But what makes this whole thing so very strange, more than this can possibly convey, is how he has made us all feel about him. I think the entire class is in love. The way he inadvertently surprises us all the time and keeps us slightly off-balance makes us all FOCUS, and we look forward to the sudden sharpening of our senses when he's communicating with us.

I also think that if we all disappeared from the planet tomorrow he would probably not notice.

I am going to miss him next semester.


Anonymous said...

"I suspect he has some form of mild autism"
Sounds like it - high function... some now suspect that behavior like this is caused by neuron chain deficiency between the mid brain (emotion etc) and the associative areas (schema & language) - in other words, lack of wiring between emotional reactions and our general schematic understanding of time, space, situation and language.

Another insight is that autism involves deficiencies of 'mirror' neurons - a mid '90's discovery of motor neurons which 'enact' in us what is happening to others. Combining these two pictures suggests profound issues... tertiary institutions are still catching up with autism, even if they do have disability equity programs!

Keera Ann Fox said...

I can't say if you succeeded in conveying what you meant to convey, but you certainly held my attention and told a good story. Your weird kid has now touched the lives of people beyond your classroom. I am happy to have been introduced to him.

kenju said...

Keera Ann said it for me too.

Lia said...

I third Keera Ann. He sounds like a really good, sweet kid. Yeah, probably high functioning autism, or else some other social interaction disorder. Is he like that when he's speaking Japanese, too?

Badaunt said...

Anon: The mirror neuron thing occurred to me, as well, but I didn't know it was associated with autism like that. It certainly fits.

Lia: He doesn't interact with the other students in Japanese unless they ask him a direct question. Then he speaks the same way - the wrong length pauses, and very correct language. No emotional content at all.