Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year!

It's nice and cold, as it should be at New Year, and we're off to Okaasan's for noodles (tonight), a shrine visit (after midnight), and lots of yummy New Year food (tomorrow).

Happy New Year, everybody!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Personal declaration

I spent today with a friend who I have seen frequently in the last year but almost never without other people being present. This meant that today we were able to REALLY talk, in the way you don't when other people are around, even when the other people are close friends as well. Those of my readers (all of you, I hope) will know what I mean by this and why it was special. We didn't talk about anything particularly private, but still, just the two of us being there meant that we were free to talk about anything at all, and a few bits of dirty laundry got aired without it causing any awkward moments in the conversation, because it was only us, so we didn't have to worry about it.

On my way home I listened to a playlist on my iPod. I have just learned how to make playlists, which makes me feel alternately very clever and very stupid. Clever because I know how to make playlists!!! How clever I am!!! and stupid because how long have I had an iPod without figuring this out??? and why did it take me this long??? This playlist consists almost entirely of Dire Straits songs, the very slow ones. (This means about five songs out of the Dire Straits songs I have. When I listen to music I tend to listen to the same stuff over and over until I get sick of it.)

Perhaps it was the music, or perhaps it was just my mood in general, but for whatever reason I started thinking about life and liberty and what's it all about, and, you know, things like that. By the time I reached my station I had decided that my Personal Declaration of Independence would be a little different from the American Declaration of Independence.

The preamble to my Personal Declaration of Independence would say this:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Interestingness."

That's right. This evening's blinding moment of clarity (good evenings always include a blinding moment of clarity) revealed to me that pursuing happiness is just silly. You can't be happy all the time. If you were, someone in a white coat would be along pretty quickly to make sure you were happy somewhere SAFE.

'Interesting,' on the other hand, lasts longer. Also, it is more . . .

. . . interesting.

There has to be another way to end that sentence, but I'm too tired to think of it right now.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

To order or not to order?

Recently I read a book that I enjoyed so much that I decided I wanted to try something else that writer has written. It was not an educational book. It was a novel, written by Christopher Brookmyre, called The Sacred Art of Stealing.

Actually I bought this book at least a year ago at the big booksale (which didn't happen this year, and WHY NOT?). A couple of weeks after buying it I picked up the book, started reading it and hated it, so put it aside for when I was really desperate.

A few weeks ago I was desperate, so picked it up again. This time I managed to get past the first part, which is a long exposition on the advantages of paid-for blowjobs written from the point of view of a hitman who is hanging around in a small Mexican town waiting for information about the guy he is there to kill. It was this part that put me off last time I started reading. Instead of trusting that this was the character's voice rather than the writer's, I sighed and put the book aside, assuming that the writer was not capable of thinking outside that particular narrow way of seeing the world and that therefore the whole book would be like that.

This time, however, I read on, and discovered I was wrong. I soon found myself totally immersed in a fabulously funny bank robbery (I want to be a hostage! Go on, pick me!), and developing a crush on the bank robber (but not the hitman). I was riveted. The plot was so twisty and tricky that when I finished the book I had to go back and reread bits, which had suddenly changed in the light of what I now knew. And yes, including that first scene, although I still think the blowjob rant was a bit unnecessary. Perhaps that was there to draw in the dumb macho male readers.

Anyway, last week I went into Osaka, to Junkudo bookstore to see if they had anything else Brookmyre had written. They didn't, so I went to Kinokuniya as well. There I discovered that the ever-shrinking English book section had shrunk still further, so that the B section in fiction was only two very short shelves. I think I have more books at home written by people whose names start with B. It is PATHETIC.

That was discouraging.

Today I went into Kobe, to see whether they had anything at Random Walk, my new favourite bookstore. Actually they have a bigger store in Shinsaibashi, but Kobe is closer and easier and less crowded. (If you go to the bookstore site, be sure to scroll down and click on 'how to find our store' for a good example of scrupulously accurate directions. I confirmed for myself today that there is no big red arrow sticking out of the police box.)

Random Walk had one book by Christopher Brookmyre. I got all excited until I realized it was the book I already have. After browsing a bit and only buying two books (a new record for me in that shop, I think), and then wandering around Kobe window shopping, I decided I wasn't really in a shopping mood. I went into a coffee shop, ordered coffee, and was served tea. I don't know how that happened. I definitely ordered coffee. Did I mumble? It wasn't important enough to make a fuss, so after drinking that and reading a bit of one of my new books (an ever-reliable Terry Pratchett), I came home.

It looks like I'll have to use Amazon. I hate using Amazon. It is dangerous. I get on there and think, Well, since I have to pay for postage I might as well get more than one book, because then it's a bit cheaper per book . . . and the next thing you know I've almost bankrupted myself.

But before I visit the Amazon site I thought I'd ask. Is it worth it? Have any of you read any of Brookmyre's other books? Are they as interesting and funny as The Sacred Art of Stealing?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas flea market

The flea market was fun, as usual, and as usual I did not buy much. But I did take some photos. Heads and dolls seem to feature rather too much, like last year, but those were the most photogenic bits.

There were heads on sticks, again.

This is Daruma. I think he has been smoking something funny.

One of these dolls looked very familiar. Can you still get them in NZ? I hadn't seen one since I was a child.


The Tengu has a very rude nose.

These are Ainu dolls. They are cheap souvenirs, but photograph well.

More dolls . . .

A tent full of kimonos . . .

Yet more dolls . . .

There was a fabulous amount of junk.

This exhibit was not for sale.

Happy Boxing Day!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Five minutes into Christmas Day, and I'm going to bed. That is because tomorrow morning I will be up early. I'm going to a flea market with a bunch of friends, as I do most years.

But just now I was checking out My Best Gadgets, and came across what would have been the perfect Xmas present for that hard-to-buy-for man if (a) it wasn't already sold out, and (b) it wasn't too late. Also, you'd have to be rich.

But still, it would almost have almost been worth it to see people's faces when he casually produced this to peel an orange with.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

It's the silly season

At dinner on Thursday evening after work, in an Indian restaurant next to the university, we talked about work, as usual. I had been testing students again, and was feeling rather discouraged. We all were. It's that end of semester.

I told my colleagues about my plan to have my students writing lines next year. One of them came up with a more creative idea.

"Electrified chairs!" he said. "We would have little buttons on our podium, and whenever we heard one of the offending mistakes we would hit the button. They'd learn REALLY FAST, I reckon. It wouldn't need to be a big zap."

One of the guys started acting out how this might work.

"I went to shopping," he said, woodenly, and leaped out of his seat. "AARRGH!"

A couple of others joined in.

"What do you like music?" one asked. "ERK!"

"How many families do you have? OOOOH!"

A group of students wandered into the restaurant, and stared in amazement as respectable, middle-aged teachers erupted from chairs screaming and clutching their bottoms. After watching for a few seconds they walked out again, and I don't think it was only because there was only one small table free.

I think they were worried that the curry might be too hot for them.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Plagiarist and pants

Last week I stunned yet another student with my fantastic and magical ability to spot plagiarized homework. The homework assignment was to write about a tourist destination in a similar way to a bit in the textbook, which was an imitation of a tourist brochure. Here is a typical result from a student who did not plagiarize:

Koara and kangaroo is very cute. Anyone can touch koara and kangaroo in Australia. Koara sometimes crosses the street. Be careful a koara when you will drive a car. Australia is very hot. Australia's sea is very beaustifull. Australia is also beautiful. Australia is the grate place.

I always learn something from these assignments. I did not know, for example, that koalas like to cross the street. (Why did the koala cross the street? ought to have a punchline, however.)

The plagiarized assignment started something like this:

"An area rich in culture and history is blended with traditional attractions and plenty of outdoor fun. The vast open land and lush forests await your discovery."

As students were handing in their assignments I glanced at the papers to make sure they wasn't obviously copied. It saves a lot of trouble if I pick it up straight away, especially at this time of year. I can get the offending student to do the homework again in time for the next class. We only have a couple of classes left.

Most of the time you don't have to be a very fast reader to spot the plagiarized homework. I spotted this one in about three or four words, and laughed. I couldn't help it.

"You copied this," I said, handing it back, along with another copy of my DO NOT PLAGIARIZE handout. (I always keep extra copies in my folder for such occasions, even though the students already have it.) "Do it again," I said. "Use your own English."

The student stared at me.

"I didn't copy!" he spluttered indignantly (in Japanese), then added, "You didn't even read it!"

He tried to give it to me again.

"Are you SURE?" I asked, looking at him closely. "Do you REALLY want to give me this? I'll check it properly if you really, REALLY want me to. And I'll give it a grade if you really, REALLY want me to. . . "

I held out my hand for the paper, but something in my smile had caused him to back away from me, and suddenly he wasn't so keen. He stared down at the handout thoughtfully. Perhaps he'd noticed the bit that said, Plagiarized homework will receive an automatic grade of zero.

"Next week OK?" he mumbled.

"Next week is fine," I said.

He went back to his seat, downcast. I overheard him saying to his friend,

"How did she know? She hardly even looked at it!"

But what I want to know is this: How could he possibly think I wouldn't know?

I spent most of today marking tests. One test answer that made me hesitate was from the bit where the students were supposed to correct some mistakes. These test questions come from the mistakes students made during the semester. We do the error corrections in class, just four or five a week, and then I test them on it the following week. All of these questions end up in the final test.

One of the mistakes was:

I am wearing a pants.

The student had guessed correctly that this was a singular/plural problem, which is why I hesitated. After all, the correction he had made WAS grammatically correct.

He had corrected it to:

I am wearing a pant.

In the end I decided not to give him the point. If he had bothered to review he would have known the answer. It was written in his notebook. Also, while I suppose it is possible that a one-legged person would wear a pant, I do not think my student was thinking of one-legged people when he wrote that.


Am I the only person in the world who has a 'mail to be opened one day' pile? Mine is starting to teeter, and also to inhabit my nightmares. It includes things like bank statements, credit card statements (those ones are a bit worrying), frequent flier statements or whatever you call them, and various envelopes from places of employment.

It hasn't been THAT long since I opened my mail, but it seems to be piling up rather fast this semester. Most of what I get from the universities is ignorable and when I open it I will just throw it out anyway. Usually it is something that doesn't really matter, like student evaluation summaries, or forms for me to make requests for the library for materials for my students (which they almost never use), or thinly veiled demands for me to have a chest X-ray to prove I do not have TB, or forms I'm supposed to fill in saying what I did to improve my teaching this year and how I plan to make myself a better teacher next year. (That last form comes from only one department at only one university, and so far I have failed to fill it in for five years running.) Oh, and notes telling me a student absolutely had to miss ten out of fourteen classes this semester because he or she had CLUB ACTIVITY. Everybody knows that CLUB ACTIVITY is far more important than classroom activity, and they are terribly puzzled when I fail them anyway.

One memorable time I got a note from a doctor via the university administration office saying that the student had a mental problem and couldn't stand being around people. Apparently I was expected to pass that particular student without actually ever meeting him or getting any work from him, because he was enrolled and had a doctor's note. I didn't, of course, but I was impressed by the idea. I thought of giving it a whirl myself sometime. "BadAunt has developed a mental problem and can't stand being around students, so she will not be attending classes this semester. Consider all students enrolled in her classes passed. Enclosed please find a note from her doctor."

(Can you tell it's the end of semester? I'm feeling so JADED.)

The official student evaluation summaries I usually glance at, eventually, but I never, ever take them seriously, aside from making sure the overall score is higher than average. ('Average' of what I'm never quite sure, and and nobody I have asked has ever been able to explain the numerous charts and graphs to me either, or at least not in a way I've been able to understand.) I used to worry about these, but these days I know that while the university will take note of what my students think of me, there is no point in me taking note and adjusting my teaching accordingly. I have known this since the time I had a class I completely forgot to give homework to. I had given all my other classes a lot of homework, but for some reason this one class got none, as I discovered to my horror when grading time rolled round. (I think I was having a bad semester and gave their homework to a different class.) In their evaluations of my class, however, three of the students complained that I gave too much homework. I would have dropped a few points from their final grades if I'd known who they were.

I do, however, take the evaluations the students write for me seriously. I have them write those in English, and I tell them their final grades before they start writing. They also seem to take those seriously, perhaps because I tell them that I will read them and really want to know how to improve the classes for the next lot of students. I make them write their names on those, which I think makes a difference. They have to be responsible for their words. Also, this enables me to weed out the ones I can safely ignore. If a student tells me he couldn't understand anything in my classes, and I can see that he was the one who didn't come to the first three classes then arrived forty minutes late every week thereafter, I know not to feel like a bad teacher. On the other hand, if a student who came every week on time and paid attention didn't understand, then I think about what I can do to change my teaching style.

I don't really know what this post is about. I have been testing students all day, which means listening to painfully stilted and mangled 'conversation' after 'conversation' in which they reverted, through sheer fright, to all the mistakes they were making in the first week. My brains are scrambled. By the end of the day, if I had heard, "What do you like music?" "What do you like food?" or "What do you like sports?" just ONE MORE TIME I would have strangled someone.

Actually, on my way home I had an idea for combatting this. This semester I gave them LOTS of practice in using that question form correctly, using interesting and varied activities, but apparently it didn't stick, or perhaps it just confused them. Next semester I am thinking of instituting the good old-fashioned practice of writing lines. Not as punishment, exactly, but as a sort of drill. I will make them write, "What music do you like? What sports do you like? What food do you like?" one hundred times each, while repeating the sentences aloud. There will be a prize for the person who finishes first, and anybody who stops repeating the words aloud will have to start again. I will walk around the classroom with a big stick, to encourage them.

Well, the stick is optional, I suppose (although I feel strangely reluctant to omit that part of the plan), but anyway, it is obvious that I need to try some kind of new approach to this problem with my 'basic English' classes, and something dramatically boring and repetitive and faintly scary might focus their minds.

The more I think about this the more I think it could work (although it is late and perhaps I am just getting delirious at the thought of all the testing I still have to do on Thursday and Friday). After all, I have never, ever forgotten how to spell sincerely. I had to write it a hundred times after getting it wrong in a spelling test when I was eight. Actually, I got it wrong in TWO spelling tests. I kept putting the es in the wrong places. The first time I got it wrong I had to write it ten times. The second time, it was a hundred. That was the method my teacher used, and it worked, particularly because I knew the third time it would be two hundred.

Sincerely, sincerely, sincerely.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The spy

Every Thursday this semester I have arrived at my last class and seen a woman hanging around outside the classroom. Well, not exactly right outside the classroom, but down the corridor a bit. She always looks a bit anxious, and when I greet her she nods nervously, as if she didn't expect me to see her. She seemed like a nice, worried person.

And what I've thought, every Thursday, is,

They're spying on me! This is taking the whole stupid thing too far! That woman is going to report me to someone if I start my class late or finish it early! Couldn't they at least be subtle about it, or at least send someone who enjoys the job? The poor woman doesn't look happy at all.

Paranoid? Moi?

Then I would walk into my classroom and forget the lurking woman, because I got instantly too busy.

Last Friday I was talking to the lovely George, and telling him about the autistic student.

"Oh, I know him! He was in one of my classes last year!" said the lovely George. "Isn't he great?"

""He's wonderful," I said. "And he was in your class? So that's how he got to be so good at English!"

"Oh, no," said the lovely George. "It had nothing to do with me. That guy knows how to study, and he listens to NHK English programs all the time."

Then he added,

"Have you met his mother?"

"I don't think so," I said. "How did you get to meet her?"

"Well, I think she's his mother," said the lovely George. "His helper, anyway, but I'm pretty sure she's his mother. She takes him between classes, otherwise he gets lost."

Light dawned.

"Oh, so THAT'S who that woman is!" I said. "Really? She's not spying on me?"

"Spying on you? Why would she be spying on you?" asked the lovely George.

"Oh, no reason," I said, airily.

But the lovely George was distracted by the thought of the autistic student.

"He was one of my favourite students EVER," he said. "I bumped into him with his mother, or whoever she is, on campus at the beginning of the year, and I was really happy to see him. He didn't seem to remember me at all, but his mother did. I told her that he had been a wonderful student and I missed him, and she did that horrible overly grateful modest Japanese thing, apologizing for the trouble he'd caused me and all that, as if I was just saying it to be kind. But it was TRUE. He was brilliant. I want him in all my classes."

"Me, too," I said. "He improves so fast he makes me feel like a good teacher."

"I asked him how he was getting on" said the lovely George. "Of course he was polite, but I didn't see any hint of recognition."

George smiled reminiscently. This is one of the remarkable things about this student. People feel enormous affection for him even though he doesn't seem to notice or remember us at all. It makes no difference.

I grinned at the lovely George.

"Did he say, 'I'm GREAT. THANK you'?" I asked.

"YES, he DID," said the lovely George.

It is nice to know I am not the only one stricken with inexplicable affection for someone who is so unlikely to return it.

It is also nice to know that the woman lurking in the corridor is not a spy.

Carol singers

On our way back from buying the flowers, we also saw a bunch of little heathens singing Christmas Carols.


Sunday, December 16, 2007


I went to a party today. It is that time of the year. The friend/colleague whose party it was had told us to bring nothing except ourselves. There will be plenty of food and drink, she said.

But when I met the two friends I was going with, we decided to take something. Not food, since she had been so insistent on that, but flowers. We wanted something bright and cheerful.

Instead of going to the big flower shop by the station we had all used for things like this before, we went into a different, smaller flower shop we hadn't used before. There we were greeted by a cheerful and friendly faced man with a face full of smile wrinkles. We explained how much we wanted to spend, what it was for, and asked him if he could do something suitable. He called his wife, who came through and chatted with us a bit. She was also cheerful and friendly. She told us to go through to the attached cafe next door and have a seat while we waited. We did.

After a while she came back and asked if we would prefer "amber, bright, or vivid." We looked at each other, and thought of the friend the flowers were for.

"Vivid," we said, and she went off.

Then we had a little discussion about the difference between bright and vivid. We weren't quite sure what it was, but anyway, vivid seemed like a good choice for our friend. We didn't expect too much – we weren't spending enough for a really flash bunch of flowers, but at least it would be vivid, we thought.

Eventually the woman came back with the flowers, and instantly gained three new regular customers. The other shop never put anything as imaginative as apples in their bouquets. It was PERFECT.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


I've been meaning to ask this question for some time, but keep forgetting.

One time, a few years ago, I managed to give my doctor quite a surprise, and vice versa. I had a cold and he wanted to examine my throat. He turned on his little light and peered in, I dutifully said, "Ahhhh!" and he reared back and shouted,

"Whoa! What did you do that for?"

It was a bit embarrassing, really. I didn't know how to answer. I said "Ahhhh!" because that's what I thought I was SUPPOSED to do.

I have never done it again, but now and again I wonder about the whole thing.

Do you say "Ahhh!" at your doctor?

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.


This is George, who the park wardens told me was the second-in-command boss of his group at the Semenggoh Wildlife Center. I thought I posted this picture back in August, but apparently I didn't.

Isn't he lovely?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Bad dreams

You know how, whatever job you're in, now and again it all gets too much for you and you have a nightmare in which you are at work and everything goes wrong?

Today I had one of those, only worse, because it wasn't a dream. And the most irritating thing about it was that it was ALL MY OWN FAULT.

(It was slightly unlike a work-related nightmare in that I was clothed, but that was about the only thing that went right.)

I will tell you the horrible details tomorrow. I'm hoping that by then it will have become funny.

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.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Lesson plan

Right now I'm having a wee panic as I realize that I do not have anything planned for tomorrow's classes. I thought I did, but I just picked up the notebook that contains my teaching notes from last Tuesday's classes, and read this:

Got a laugh at the beginning when I banged into a desk and said 'Ouch,' but otherwise not much reaction to anything. Next week: try stabbing myself.

I don't remember writing that, but it's my handwriting, so I suppose I did. The thing is, I don't really want to go with this plan. I'd prefer something less painful.

Christmas in Japan

One of my students wrote, last week:

I am not looking forward to Christmas because I do not have a girlfriend.

And that pretty much summed up Christmas in Japan, at least for my students.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Herding the cat

"Everybody! Remember what I told you. Look innocent.
The idea is to let him think that HE'S chasing US. "

"And when we get to the end, we hang around just out of reach, looking innocent AND tasty. "

"And then, while we're looking innocent and tasty, he jumps. Like this. Ha ha ha!"

"Ooh, it'll be so funny!"

"Shhh! Look innocent!"

"Here he comes!"

"Try to look tasty."

"Hee hee hee!"


"Hee hee hee!"

"Stop giggling!"

"Damn. It didn't work. Now what?"

"We go back and try it again, at the other end."

"This is weird."

"I'm feeling kind of . . . spooked."

"I don't get it."

"I mean, I'm the cat, right? I'm chasing them, right? So why were they BEHIND me?"

"Something feels wrong. And I'm sure I heard a giggle."

"Are they still there? I'm afraid to look."

"Ah. Good. My secret escape tunnel."

"What am I saying? I don't need to escape! I mean, the place I go to plot my next attack on those cowardly ducks."

"It's your fault! You didn't look tasty enough."

"Nonsense! It was you. You shouldn't have giggled."

"Cats can't stand it when you giggle. It makes them nervous."

Not very weird but almost random

Kenju has tagged me to write seven weird and random things about myself. I seem to remember being tagged with this meme before, and having trouble coming up with seven things. The main problem is that I am not a weird or random person, as everybody who has read me for any length of time knows. I am normal.

This, of course, makes me unusual. In fact, I think I can safely say that this is the first weird and random thing about me:

1. I am normal.

Practically everybody out there claims to be crazy, insane, or weird. I am not. I am sane, normal, and totally lacking in weirdness.

2. I am also not random.

This is where it gets difficult. It is hard for a normal, sane person to come up with weird and random things. Perhaps I can manage one or the other.

3. I sometimes have an ingrown toenail. This is a random thing about me, but not particularly weird. Lots of people have ingrown toenails, and I sympathize with all of them.

This reminds me of something else from the days before I had an ingrown toenail, which I suppose could qualify as a random memory except that it is sort of connected because a toe is involved:

4. Once upon a time I had an assignation with a guy which involved tying a bit of string to my big toe and leaving the other end (of the string, not the toe) hanging out of my window. The idea was that when he finally got away from whatever it was he couldn't get away from earlier (I forget what it was) he would pull the string to let me know he was waiting outside, so I could let him in. Under the circumstances this was not a weird thing to do. It was a normal, common-sense thing to do. I cannot remember now what the circumstances were, exactly, except that it was perfectly logical at the time. Context is everything.

There was a terrific storm that night.

When I woke up the next morning the string had come off my toe and was twisted around the end of the bed. Also, my toe hurt.

When we finally met again a couple of days later he was not very well. I tactfully did not mention the fact that he hadn't turned up until he told me, through sniffs and sneezes and gritted teeth, that he had spent half the night outside my window in the freezing rain and a howling gale tugging at my string and eventually shouting and banging on the window and HOW CAN ANYBODY SLEEP THAT DEEPLY?

That was a bit embarrassing, although it explained the sore toe.

5. For a while, when I was a kid, I had a pet duckling. (I'm getting better at this random thing.)

6. The other day I was listening to a podcast and learned that the reason hours have sixty minutes is that the ancient Babylonians counted in base sixty. They must have had a lot of fingers and toes. (We're back at toes again. 'Random' is hard.)

7. I hated having my photograph taken when I was a kid. In every family photo taken from when I was about four up I am the one with my face hidden, or else I am not there at all. I hated the camera with an irrational and meaningless passion.

Actually, I still hate having my photograph taken. I just don't cry and run away these days.

There! That's seven.

Now, here are the rules of this meme:

1. Link to the person that tagged you and post the rules on your blog. (Done.)
2. Share 7 random and/or weird things about yourself. (Done.)
3. Tag 7 random people at the end of your post and include links to their blogs. (I do not know any random people. All the people I know are perfectly normal, like me. Also, many have already done this meme. How about you tag yourself by leaving a comment, if you want to do it?)
4. Let each person know that they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog. (See 3)

Friday, December 07, 2007

Magical policeman

My third year class gave their presentations today. This was the one where they had to take a children's story and add a policeman. The presentations were generally a huge improvement over last time, although they were VERY giggly. (Not that I blame them, really. I'd be giggly too, if I had to do a presentation in a foreign language I wasn't very good at.) There was a lot of laughter, and the audience was far more attentive than usual. Since most of the students used pictures in their presentations, even the ones who had trouble understanding the English at least tried to follow the stories. Some of my students are amazingly talented at drawing.

Only one story had a major problem, but unfortunately that problem was that I couldn't understand a word of it. I had expected more of this, because they did not do their homework last week and I had not checked the English, so I suppose I should be pleased that there was only one.

But even in the incomprehensible story the pictures were very good and would probably have helped, except that I got distracted right at the beginning. In one of the earliest pictures I could see that there was a policeman involved, as I'd instructed, but when he first appeared, in dramatic close-up, what I saw was a tiny policeman standing on a penis, or else a normal-sized policeman standing on a very large penis. It was hard to tell. These were line drawings, manga-style.

I gaped, but while the rest of the audience laughed, it wasn't THAT sort of laughter, and it gradually dawned on me that I must be wrong about the penis. The next picture, which was a wider view, made it clear that in fact it was not a penis but a thumb (and a tiny, magical policeman). You could see the rest of the hand. I was able to relax.

But I still cannot understand why nobody else noticed the penis. This class is mostly guys. They're around 20 years old and will usually pounce on anything that even hints of being a little bit naughty, and milk it for all it's worth. I know they had been talking about their stories amongst themselves last week, and probably already knew that it was a thumb and so that's what they were prepared to see, but STILL. I am fairly sure that even if I had been expecting a thumb I would have been pretty surprised by that picture. And I thought I had the cleanest mind in the room.

Apparently I thought wrong. What a disconcerting idea.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Bzzzt! Ouch

Today's lesson:

When the weather is very dry, do not remove a windbreaker jacket while listening to your iPod unless you want your ears to be electrified.


This morning I left rather early. After saying goodbye to The Man I went downstairs and put on my shoes and jacket.

I was deep in thought, as I usually am at that time in the morning. Nothing inside my head is moving very fast that early, and I was concentrating fiercely on things like,

Do I have everything I need? Is today really Tuesday? Or is it Wednesday and I'm going to the wrong place? Am I SURE?

It was very quiet. I locked the door and turned my back to it. Immediately it unlocked and opened itself again, apparently all by itself. I jumped out of my skin, whirled around and said,


And then I stared at The Man, who was standing in the doorway. I could not understand how he had managed to sneak up on me like that. For a moment I wondered if he was real. Wasn't he upstairs? It was like magic.

"You must have been right behind me!" I said, and my voice quavered a little. "How did you DO that?"

"I called out to you as I came down the stairs," he said. "You didn't seem to hear me."

It was true I hadn't heard a thing. All the little hairs on the back of my neck were still standing up. That was REALLY SPOOKY.

Apparently when I concentrate really hard I go deaf. I didn't know that.

Monday, December 03, 2007


Saturday, December 01, 2007

Three Little Pigs

Next week, one of my classes will be presenting stories they have made according to my instructions. These stories are based on children's stories. I told them to decide on the story, add a policeman and change the ending, and then write up the result.

It is a long time since I used this activity, but it still works as well as it ever did, and the students are all excited about the stories they have come up with. They are allowed to change as much as they like, I tell them, or just stick to the basic story line. The only stipulation is that I have to be able to recognize the story it came from. Basically, this is a way to get them to write a story. Having somewhere to start from means that even the least imaginative can manage something. The more imaginative go to town. (One gorily memorable time Little Red Riding Hood had a grenade in her basket and Granny was a cleverly disguised terrorist mastermind.)

Yesterday these students were supposed to have their stories ready for me to check. I had given them plenty of time. In the last class – two weeks ago, since last Friday was a holiday – they were supposed to decide with their partner which story they would use, and start writing it. The plan, I told them, was for them to finish writing it for homework and then I'd check it in the next class, which was yesterday. Next week they are presenting the stories to the class.

I knew they would not have done the homework. In fact I was counting on it. I needed a break from that lot (they're not an easy bunch), and a class full of panicked students working away furiously was just what the doctor ordered. It meant that I could write on the board:


And then, when they looked guiltily at each other and mumbled excuses, I told them off, then wrote,



As I'd predicted, none of the students had even started their 'homework,' and spent the entire class in a writing frenzy. Nobody wanted help, because they weren't far enough along to need any. I was able to sit peacefully at the front watching them and wondering whether anybody would notice if I had a little nap. Now and again, in an effort to stay awake, I did the rounds of the classroom and peered over shoulders, but nobody wanted my input.

Towards the end of the ninety minutes a couple of students came up to me and told me they wanted me to check what they'd done. They had chosen the story of the Three Little Pigs.

I read it through, correcting the mistakes. It was not one of the most imaginative stories I've seen with this activity (no grenades were involved), but it was pretty good. It wasn't long enough, though. I'd told them how long it needed to be, and they were hoping that if they read it slowly it would stretch out that long. I explained to them that they were more likely to get stage fright and gabble the story too fast, making it even shorter. I gave them some tips about dramatic pauses. Then I suggested some extra lines for them.

These lines included such classics as,

"I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house down!"

They liked that one. That made me remember another one that goes with the story, and I was about to write it when I had a sudden coughing fit. This coughing fit was brought on by my head imploding when I suddenly realized what I had almost done. The line I had just stopped myself from adding would have had the sort of dramatic effect the story could do without.

So I did not add,

"By the hair of my chinny-chin-chin, I will not let you come in!"

I suggested something else, instead.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Q.E.D. revisited

A couple of weeks ago I found out something which, if it is true, means that a while ago I made a pun that went straight past at least half of my readers.

It was not a very good pun, I'll freely admit. It was ridiculously forced. But it took EFFORT to make it that bad, and that is why it is rather upsetting to discover that the reason nobody sneered was probably because they didn't even notice it was there.

Varieties of English can be SO confusing. I thought I had become thoroughly acquainted with American English due to having used so many American English language learning textbooks over the years. Also, I read a lot. You'd think I'd have noticed, but it is true that you tend to notice things that are there rather than things that are not.

In this case, I did not notice that Q.E.D is not a term in general use in the U.S.

At least, according to the Americans I meet, it is not. Since many of the Americans I know are better educated than I am, I can only conclude this is one of those expressions that have become a part of the language in some places and not in others. It was hearing it used casually on a Radio New Zealand podcast on my way home that reminded me of it again today.

(For those who were wondering how to use it, Q.E.D. is a quicker way of saying, "And everything I just said proves my case. So there." Said with the right sort of emphasis, it can mean, additionally, "Bite me.")

So for those of you who read the Q.E.D. story and missed the pun, I apologize for making it too obscure and regional. But now that you know it is there, feel free to have a quiet groan, or, if you're feeling charitable, a cheap laugh.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


I guess you're wondering why my head bulges like this.

It's because I'm so clever. My brains have grown so big they hardly fit into my skull.

See that bit in front? That's my frontal lobe. The puzzle-solving bit of my brain.

I had to grow a big brain to find food, because people keep hiding it from me.

That means I have to be cleverer than people.

Not that difficult, really.

For example, they probably hid some food under this rock. They thought I'd be too stupid to notice.

They also thought I wouldn't be able to turn over the rock. No opposable thumbs. Pfft! They only think opposable thumbs are important because they've got them.

Ha! Fat lot they know.

All right, so there was no food under that particular rock, but that doesn't mean I'm going to give up. That's what they want me to do.

I never give up.

I just move onto the next rock.

I can afford to take my time. I'm not so 'intelligent' that I have to sit in an office all day trying to make some stupid boss happy. I can do what I want.

Nobody is my boss.

I can turn over as many rocks as I want to.

And that's good, because they say seafood is good for the brain. I'm fairly sure river food is good, too.

My brain is growing bigger just THINKING about eating this, whatever it is.


Next rock.

I don't know why they bother to hide the food like this.

I always find it.

I'm not going to share, you know. Turn over your own rocks.

And go away. I'm busy.