This morning on the train I sat opposite a middle-aged woman who was crocheting a doily. She was wearing a lot of flat white makeup, with crimson lips painted on so that she looked like an ukiyo-e painting, little cupid's bow and all. The black floppy hat and frumpy clothes didn't really fit the image, though. It was as if an old painting had come to life and somebody had put a funny hat on it. It seemed a odd thing for an ukiyo-e woman to be doing, too, crocheting a doily.
I spent most of my long commute trying not to stare, and she did me the same favour, although sometimes our eyes met accidentally and slid away. I knew what we were both thinking. What a funny hat to wear with that makeup, I was thinking. What funny-looking people gaijin are, she was thinking. And why does she keep looking at me?
In my potentially troublesome classes today in the new (to me) department I am having very few problems, so in the teachers' room at lunchtime I was smug. Teachers generally hate that department's classes.
"My first and second period classes over there are dreadful," said one teacher. "They can't even be bothered coming on time. Students are trickling in all class. And they're incredibly rude about it. There's a great interruption every time someone comes in, greeting their friends loudly and so on."
"Mine were all on time today," I said (smugly). "Those that came at all, I mean. In the second period I had eight absent, but in my first period class I had almost full attendance, and they were all on time."
Everybody stared at me.
"You lucky cow!" someone said, enviously. "You must have a high level class."
"No, they're middle-to-low," I said. "But I had been warned, by you guys, and started giving them tests in the second week."
Not that my students are getting very good grades in their tests (although some of them are getting better), but they are at least making sure they are in class on time for them. These tests are usually only three to five easy questions, which I tell them the week before, and I also tell them the answers. The catch is that the test is in the first ten minutes of class right after calling the roll, and anybody who isn't there for them can't get the points. And they're worth (culmulatively) thirty percent of their final grade. Basically they can get thirty percent of their grade for coming to class on time and paying attention in the last five minutes when I tell them what next week's test answers will be. It should be an easy thirty percent, but it's very rare for any student to get more than about twenty. I have never figured out why this is. Making the tests easier and easier doesn't seem to work.
"I had to yell at my lot today," said another teacher.
"Give tests instead," I advised. "When they come in late I act all disappointed. 'Oh, no!' I say. 'You missed the test, and it was a really easy one! What a shame!' And the student says, 'Test?' and gets all panicky, because they'd completely forgotten. It's brilliant. I am fantastically sympathetic, and they think I am kind."
But actually, I think the students in my first period class are enjoying themselves now that they've finally resigned themselves to getting up in time for class. Today I taught them how to um and er. I heard some of them saying,
"And-o..." while they were having 'conversations' today, and stopped them.
"'And' does not have an 'o' in it, I told them. "If you want to stretch the word so you have time to think, stretch the 'a,' and you can add um or er to the end, too."
I demonstrated, staring at the ceiling thoughtfully.
"Aaaaaand ... um ... " I said. "Aaaaand ... er... "
They thought that was hilarious, and in their next conversations most of them used it. I heard Aaaand ... er... and Aaaaaand ... um ... all over the place. It was like being in a classroom full of deeply thoughtful people who just couldn't find the words to say what they wanted to say. Some of them didn't say much else, but I didn't worry about it. It is good when they try new things, especially if it sounds funny. You have to be prepared to sound funny when you're learning to speak a foreign language.
Making the classroom a safe place for students to sound funny is what my job is all about, when I'm not tricking them into coming to class on time.