"None of you did it?" I ask, my eyes wide, my hands held out. "Not one of you?"
A few students have the grace to look ashamed. They lick their lips and shake their heads slightly.
"But you do remember I told you, right?"
One girl nods. "Number three, four, six," she murmurs.
"And exercise two," I tell her. "You remember that, right?"
She looks uncomfortable. I turn to the rest of the class.
"On Monday when none of you had done your reading homework, I told you I wanted you to do two as well as three, four, and six. Do you remember?"
Three of them actually meet my eyes and nod, but I am beyond irritated with this group. This is at least the sixth time they have neglected to do their homework and I've had enough.
"I absolutely told you to do exercise two!" I say. "I even had you say it back to me afterwards. But now you're telling me that none of you did it."
Lips jut out. Brows furrow. Nobody will meet my eyes.
"All right, you are going to do number two right now--all of you, right here." And suddenly I realize what I've just said, and it is extremely funny. So is the fact that my students have no idea what the other meaning of number two is. I'm still hopping mad, but I snicker--I can't help myself.
The students look alarmed. Clearly I'm disturbed: I've just changed the channel from pissed-off to ha-ha-ha and they can't figure it out.
"Seriously," I say. "Open your books and start doing number two right now--" I clap my hand over my mouth to stop myself from howling. This is really embarrassing. I could not count the times my students have yakked away in Mandarin, laughing their heads off while I sit there utterly mystified, but suddenly I'm having my own one-woman giggle party. And there is no way I'm going to share this with them.
One girl casts a furtive look my way and reaches for her book. Now that she knows she's dealing with a madwoman, she's taking no chances.
"When you've finished exercise two," I splutter, "please check your answers with your partner's, then we'll go over them together." My last words dissolve into a fit of laughter as I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand.
And by God, they do it. Exercise two is faithfully if not accurately completed. They sit there, heads down, pens busy, occasionally taking peeks at me to see if I'm not actually foaming at the mouth. Then we go over it in class.
I don't give them any homework afterwards, though. I think they've suffered enough.
Friday, 12 April 2013
"None of you did it?" I ask, my eyes wide, my hands held out. "Not one of you?"
Sunday, 31 March 2013
I have a fever. It is such a high fever that I actually think I'm dreaming when I hear girlish voices just outside my room. Girlish voices talking about vacuum cleaners.
"You've got to see this!" the first says, and this voice is familiar--it sounds like my daughter. "The suction is incredible--it'll pick up anything." Good God, that doesn't just sound like my daughter, it is my daughter!
There is a roar as the vacuum cleaner is switched on.
"Oh my God, you're right, this is amazing!" This voice is harder to place, slightly accented. I recognize it eventually: it is Magdalena, my daughter's university friend who is currently visiting us.
"Try it over there, on the stairs," my daughter says eagerly. There is a satisfying sound of debris being sucked up. "See?"
I turn over in bed and blink. No, I'm not dreaming this up: they're actually out there, two eighteen-year-old girls, and they're having at the carpets in the hallway. The cat scurries in and jumps onto the bed, obviously traumatized.
"Isn't that just fantastic?" My daughter again.
"Yes! It doesn't leave anything!"
"Hang on--get that bit of string there in the corner."
The vacuum cleaner roars on.
"Oh my God, it picked that right up!" Magdalena squeals.
"Having a vacuum cleaner like this really makes you want to clean, doesn't it?"
Are my ears actually hearing this correctly? Having a vacuum cleaner like that doesn't make me want to clean one single bit. Obviously, given the state of our carpets.
"Doesn't that look better?" my daughter marvels enthusiastically. "You can really see where we've vacuumed!"
Magdalena makes an equally enthusiastic reply. The two of them could be doing a parody of those over-zealous fifties housewives in cinched-waisted full skirts and high heels you used to see in magazine advertisements, gushing over their brand-new collections of tupperware or gleaming kitchen appliances. I turn over in bed, flushed with fever--and guilt. Magdalena had only been over for two days when I succumbed to the flu. We haven't been able to show her a very good time, and here she is now, amusing herself with my housework.
"Whenever I come back, I always hope Mom hasn't vacuumed," my daughter says.
Bless her: this is true, and she is seldom disappointed.
"With a vacuum cleaner like this, I can see why you want to do it," Magdalena says.
"Yes," my daughter agrees. "The one we had before we got this one was awful. You could go over a spot a dozen times and not see any effect."
Ah, I remember that last vacuum cleaner: using it was a long exercise in futility. You could work for hours with very little to show for it afterwards. This is a little like writing. You can slave and soul-search endlessly, to have the fruits of your labors cast aside in seconds, scorned, or worse still, not even noticed. Maybe I should go back to doing regular vacuuming so that I too can delight in the satisfaction of a job well done. Of course, I abandon this idea as quickly as it comes.
The girls' voices grow more distant, along with the drone of the vacuum cleaner. I settle back on my pillows and marvel at my good luck in daughters and their friends.
Sunday, 3 February 2013
The phone rings, shattering my peace and interrupting my train of thought. But I have to answer it: what if one of my daughters is sick or in trouble? What if she needs money? What if somebody I love has died, or a friend just needs to talk? And finally, what if by some crazy quirk a wonderful bit of good fortune is about to fall into my lap? I am both an optimist and a pessimist, so I absolutely have to answer the phone.
And of course it is an annoying telemarketing person, just doing the only job she can find, but still driving me half wild. These people have been tormenting me for years now. They have brought me flying into the house from the garden; they have forced me to scramble down from ladders; they have vexed half a dozen sleeping cats who have been dumped off my lap so I can rush to the phone and be interrupted. Even one or two of these calls a week is too many.
And then a tiny lightbulb of inspiration flashes in my brain. I will have some fun with this call: it is my phone, it is my time, and it is my right.
"Hello?" I say in a low, respectful tone, the kind of tone you would use if there was an elderly invalid in the house and you were a totally out-of-touch menial whose job it was to answer the phone.
"Hello," says a brassy voice. "Is this Mrs. -- uh . . . " There is a long pause and then the lady mispronounces my husband's name.
"I'm sorry," I say in the same quiet voice. "With whom do you wish to speak?" I aim for posh east coast American since I can't do British.
The woman repeats herself, doing a little better this time, but still struggling with the consonant cluster.
"Ah," I say. "Just a moment. Madam is sleeping at present, but I will see if I can awaken her again." I pause. "This may take some time."
The woman apologizes so quickly I feel a twinge of remorse. "No, no--please don't bother her! It was just a courtesy call!"
Courtesy call. My remorse vanishes in an instant. "May I take a message, then--?" I start to say, but the woman has hung up.
I put the receiver back in its cradle and go back to what I was doing, smiling a smile of deepest satisfaction. I'm still nowhere near finished with the chapter, but I have still managed to achieve something extraordinary: in barely 30 seconds, I have managed to get a telmarketer to hang up on me.
Saturday, 5 January 2013
I am collecting homework when I see them, a real blast from the past: the Famous Four. It's the well-known photo of them crossing a road, single-file, mostly long-haired and bearded, and there they are, on the back of Xu's mobile phone. How touching, that today's young people still revere the classics.
"Hey," I say, tapping the phone. "You've got the Beatles on your phone. Are you a fan?"
Xu smiles, caught out. "I don't know," he admits. "Just--famous picture."
"The Beatles," I say, instantly feeling a lot older. "This photo was on their Abbey Road album."
He nods. "Famous American singer."
This stops me in my tracks. "No, not American--British!"
"Really?" Xu asks, looking doubtful. "I always think American."
"Believe me, you are wrong. They're British. Just ask Patrick." Patrick is my co-teacher, British, and roughly my age. I smile just thinking about his reaction to Xu's statement.
Now the rest of the class is interested. Weilong, who sits across from Xu, agrees with me: the Beatles are British. Jenny, who sits next to him, however, has always believed they were American.
This is the hardest thing about being old: the things you don't know often render the things you do know null and void. Although my students trust and respect my knowledge of English, my general ignorance of anything to do with IT never fails to astonish them. After all, kids like Xu and Jenny have grown up knowing the difference between DVDs and CDs, that YouTube is not spelled U-tube, and that 'cn' in a URL tells you it's from China. The credibility of people who have demonstrated their ignorance of such fundamentally obvious things has to be suspect.
"The Beatles are British," I tell them. "End of story."
"But one man dead in America," Jenny informs me pompously. "New York."
"Yes, I know," I say, a little dizzy when I consider that this happened at least ten years before she was born. "But he was still born in England. All of them were born in England."
"Mm," Jenny says, frowning.
Now I get it: they don't really care, one way or another, what nationality the Beatles were. They've got that look in their eye that says What difference does it make? A foreigner is still a foreigner. The look I've had myself when someone has pointed out that a CD is not the same as a DVD.
"Remember what we were talking about earlier?" I say. "About how you feel when somebody thinks you're Japanese? Or that man you told me about who argued that Confucius was Korean, and how much that irritated Chinese people?"
Xu and Jenny both nod, their eyes open wide. Suddenly they get my point: every country wants credit for its cultural icons. I will never forget my response to the Japanese student I once had who insisted that Simon and Garfunkel were British. Or for that matter, the spirited, spluttering reaction of a theretofore quiet Kazakh student when a Chinese classmate suggested that the first person in space was American. Xu and Jenny may not believe me, but when they leave, I have no doubt that they will be thinking about this.
And I am right. Three days later, Xu catches me after class. "Teacher, you are right," he says. "Beatles are British. I look in Wikipedia."
Friday, 16 November 2012
None of my students know what a ceilidh is and I can't get over this. None of them have even noticed the posters plastered all over the hallways.
"How pronounce?" one of them asks, pointing at the board where I have written CEILIDH in big block letters.
"Kay-lee," I tell them. "Surely somebody has told you about them?"
Blank stares all around.
"Seriously?" I ask them, exaggerating my shock by opening my eyes wide and holding my hands up. "Nobody here knows what a ceilidh is?" They shake their heads and knit their brows. Most of them are sitting, slumped, at their desks, mobile phones in hands, thumbs clicking away. Technically, they're still on their break and I'm just setting up, pulling books and papers out of my backpack. But I use this time to try and engage the livelier ones.
"And you've been in Scotland how long?"
"Since September," Gan says. Gan will answer any question, no matter how rhetorical. He lines his pencils up on his desk and breaks my heart by coming to class every single day in neatly ironed shirts and trousers with creases in them.
I hold up the poster I've swiped from the corridor so that everybody can see it. "Then you have got to go. You can't live in Scotland and not got to ceilidhs!"
"Dance?" one of the girls asks, pointing to the poster. I nod.
"Yes, but it's not just a dance, it's a whole experience. There's music too, and I'm pretty sure there'll be free food at this one."
This finally gets everybody's attention, especially the boys'.
"Free food?" a boy called Jiang asks, sitting up straighter.
"You bet. It won't be great, but it'll be there. And afterwards you'll dance and listen to music and have fun."
"But I can't dance," Jiang says, his face falling.
"Neither can I," I tell him, "but I still love ceilidhs. They're more fun if a few people can't dance." This is entirely true. People who don't know what they're supposed to do at ceilidhs provide a source of innocent merriment for the ones who do. I've done my bit as a graceless klutz at ceilidhs, and it won't hurt Jiang to do the same.
"But it is raining," a girl called Lin says, gesturing at the window.
"Ceilidhs are indoors!" I say. "And come on, this is Scotland. You can't use rain as an excuse for not going to ceilidhs." In fact, rain is one of the reasons people go to ceilidhs in the first place. What else are you going to do on cold, grey, wet days? Whooping it up to fiddle music is just the thing to revive your spirits.
Since everyone seems interested, I decide to show them a ceilidh video on the internet. The first YouTube clip I find is from our rival university. It shows a group of students being instructed in basic ceilidh dance steps. This isn't what I'm after, so I fast forward until the students are actually dancing. But the dancing is so careful, so earnestly, precisely executed and well-behaved, that I immediately abandon this clip.
"Okay," I say, clicking through YouTube videos, "this is going to take me a little time. Just hang on."
The students don't care: this is keeping them from reporting verbs and transportation graphs. We're near the end of term and they're exhausted. I could tell them we were watching a how-to taxidermy clip and they'd be okay with it.
And then I find the perfect YouTube clip. It shows a ceilidh in full swing, the fiddles merrily playing, the dancers' faces lit up, their hair plastered to their heads as they strip the willow. You almost feel the steam in the air. You can spot the ones who don't have a clue, but when they aren't tripping over their own feet or running into others, they are smiling.
"I will go," Jiang says, watching a boy run smack into another one. "Free food?"
"It says so on the poster," I tell him, fervently hoping it's more than potato chips and coleslaw this time.
After the class, the minute I open the door, I see one of our Asian students in a full kilt, obviously planning on going to the ceilidh. He is a strapping, good-looking boy. I can hear Lin behind me, saying something in Chinese to her friends. I wheel around and manage to catch her eye.
"We are going to the ceilidh too!" she says.
Sunday, 4 March 2012
When we lived in North Cyprus, my husband and I decided one day to walk to the flags. These were huge flags, one Turkish, one North Cypriot (a flag recognized in precisely one country -- Turkey) and I was sure we could reach them if we just kept walking. My husband, a pessimist, didn't think it was possible, and as we labored up the hill, I began to think he might be right. The road curved and twisted and spiraled, and it went up and down. Sometimes the flags looked like they were right around the corner; sometimes it looked as though the road we were on was taking us in the opposite direction. Then, almost an hour after we set out, we turned a corner and saw that we had reached the flags--we were there. And yet there was another road that zig-zagged away, up through the mountains, and I knew that the flags were just the first point of a much longer destination, and that one day we would have to come back and see where that road led.
I started this blog back in 2007, mainly because I'd always wanted to write, but also because I had nothing better to do. My husband and I had sold our small business, after which we could not find teaching jobs in our small town. We were in a difficult situation: virtually broke and missing intellectual stimulation, but reluctant to go to a new place with better teaching opportunities; we didn't want to put our children through the trauma of another move. So my husband did what he could: he found a job delivering packages. I did legal typing, applied for every secretarial job within a 30-mile radius, and took care of my family. And when I could, I wrote. I believe that writing kept me sane during that period.
Having a blog has been a great discipline and experience, and it has helped me meet so many interesting people who have given me so much. Someday I want to be able to do what these people have done for me: to help other beginners find their way, deal with the frustration of endless rejections, and generally learn all the things you have to learn to be a good writer. One of the things I have learned is that there is no pinnacle, no end point. Even if you publish something big and manage to become a bestselling author, you just keep going, keep writing, keep trying to get even better.
This may or may not be my last blog post, but whatever the case, I won't be able to spend so much time here: I've been lucky enough to find almost more work than I can do teaching English and Japanese, proofreading, editing, and, especially, writing. I am writing this to explain why I'm disappearing: I have so little free time now that I have to spend it on writing. I've made it to the flags, but I want to aim higher.
So thank you to everybody who has come here to read what I've written and to comment. I have loved reading your comments and your blog posts as well, and I hope to meet you again -- at the flags, perhaps, or beyond.
Sunday, 26 February 2012
My daughter recently came back from school, disgusted. "There was this lecture," she told me, "on polio. And the people who gave it were great, but they made a lot of mistakes."
My daughter knows about as much about polio as I do, so this surprised me. "What kind of mistakes?"
"They had this map," she said, "of all the places where polio is still active."
"And it was wrong?" Because really, how would she know it was wrong?
"There were lines pointing to the countries," my daughter told me patiently. "And they had Afghanistan as Pakistan!"
"Well, they are pretty close," I said, desperately trying to remember which was where.
"Fair enough," my daughter acknowledged. "Afghanistan and Pakistan are close. But how about this?" Her eyes flashed. "They had Nigeria labeled as Afghanistan!"
"So what did you do?"
"I pointed it out to them--" she paused, correctly interpreting my worried expression "--very politely and not in a know-it-all way."
"Good for you," I said, relieved. "What did they say?"
"That they were just testing us to make sure we knew our geography."
I nodded. I do this all the time myself whenever I'm caught out on an error in class; it's a trick of the trade. "I do that too," I said. "My students are always catching me out on details, and I tell them I was just testing them."
My daughter rolled her eyes, not buying it any more than my students buy it when I screw up. "Sure. But come on--Nigeria as Afghanistan? That's unforgivable."
She's right, but it's also a little comforting: I may struggle to remember whether Pakistan or Afghanistan is further west, but thank God I'm not so daft as to get Nigeria confused with Afghanistan. That's something to be thankful for.
There's always something to be thankful for. Always. Never mind all those other things.
While I'm counting my blessings, here's another: I've got a daughter who knows the difference between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and cares about which is which -- and she knows how to point it out politely to people who've got it wrong. Never mind that she lost all her chemistry notes, has failed to turn in two essays, and cannot be pried away from her fan fiction.
Yep, there's always something to be thankful for.