Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Mr Lu and the Electoral College System

It is funny that having taught English for years, the one student I remember most clearly is Mr Lu. It is funny because I taught at the school he attended in San Francisco's Chinatown for barely five months, and I only had his particular class for four sessions. They say that we tend to remember awful experiences, so that may account for why I remember the class. But I know that particularly good experiences are memorable as well. And in my collection of teaching memories, there sits Mr Lu like a gem on a dung heap.

There were ten people in Mr Lu's group, only five of whom bothered to show up on a regular basis. I inherited this class from a teacher who'd mysteriously quit having given no notice, and after my first day with them I knew why she'd left: nobody wanted to be there. I could hardly blame them; the class I was teaching was called Janitorial Skills and it was boring as nobody's business.

All of the men were required to take a number of classes that would give them the requisite skills to get jobs, and the English they learned was geared to the particular line of work they would be doing. There were typing classes and IT classes, which were highly in demand, but these were for people whose English skills were up to it. None of the poor souls in Janitorial Skills could come close to the fluency required for these classes; Mr Lu's English wasn't quite there yet either, but he was definitely the star of the class. You could see it in his eyes, which were bright, friendly and engagingly eager.

I had done my preparation: I had to teach the class about cleaning solvents and how to dilute them. That it was important to keep bathroom temperatures low to discourage both vandalism and odors. I was ready to impart this valuable knowledge to my students, and I was also planning to teach a little body language just to break the ice: how to shake hands and greet people, American style. It went over like a lead balloon.

Eight students were there on that first day. Three of them glanced up at me, looked me up and down in amazement, then made disgusted tsk-tsk sounds and opened up their Chinese language newspapers. Mr Lu noticed his fellow students' behavior and his neck reddened. He smiled back at me earnestly. "Good morning, teacher! My name is Mr Lu!"

I grabbed Mr Lu's kindly overture like the lifeline it was, desperately relieved that someone had reached out to me. "Good morning, Mr Lu. My name is Mary Witzl. I know my name might be a little hard for you to pronounce, so I'll write it on the board." Nervously, I turned to the chalkboard and walked right into the lectern. The men in the front row lowered their newspapers for a brief moment and tittered appreciatively. Mr Lu frowned.

Getting those men to shake hands and do role plays was like pulling teeth, only more painful. They were appalled when I gave them 'American' name tags so they could take turns pronouncing names like Henderson and Schlutz. They looked shocked and stunned when I suggested that one of them be himself and the other, Mr Gordon or Mr Armstrong, just to practice greetings. I agreed that it was silly: why should Gordon or Armstrong be any more 'American' than Nguyen or Wong? "But you see," I struggled to explain, "all of you can pronounce Nguyen and Wong. But you need a little work with names like Gordon and Armstrong." Mr Lu nodded, obviously taking in every word. "Hen-duh-son," he solemnly intoned. "Ah-muh-straw."

Those four class sessions were excruciating, but at long last they were at an end. We had covered temperature settings and thermostats, solvents, industrial machines, and safety procedures, and we were all heartily sick of them. And when I reflected that I would not have to look at that front row of men and their wide open newspapers that shut me right out, I felt like punching the air and whooping as much as I am sure they did. Mr Lu had been my one bit of happiness: the one eager, shining face that always made me feel welcome.

"Well, it's been a pleasure teaching you," I lied. "Do any of you have any questions you'd like to ask me? Anything at all?"

The men in the front row all but rolled their eyes, but Mr Lu's hand went straight up. "Please Mary," he said, leaning forward eagerly, "will you tell us about the American electoral college system?"

We had three minutes of class time left to go at this point. I did the best I could, but I'm sorry to say that it wasn't much.

Wherever Mr Lu is, I know that he knows all about the American electoral college system by now -- far more than I ever knew. And I'm so sorry he had to learn all about industrial vacuum cleaners first.



Brian said...

There is little more debilitating to one's confidence than working a hostile audience. Fortunately,I never suffered that during my acting times, but I bitterly recall one lecturing occasion.
The student body had been expecting to have the hour off because of certain special circumstances involving the non appearance of a guest lecturer but the college principal had felt that they should not be allowed that self indulgence.

I was the bunny selected to pinch hit

My usual lecturing technique involved being on floor level with the students , mingling in the drama activities involving 30 of them at the most, but here I was -- remote on a stage -- in a formal academic gown that I rarely used , faced with 200+ resentful students , entirely uninterested in the subject that had been selected for me to deal with

Sensing the atmosphere -- not difficult , believe me ! -- I truncated the lecture savagely , and spent the minimum time I could to save face and satisfy the Principal's idiotic wish .

Not a happy experience , and with not a single Mr Lu to ameliorate it !


Paul said...

I agree hostile audiences are bad, but having an expert in your class is worse! I once had to give a series of lectures to health workers that included a session on 'Ethical Dilemmas in Healthcare'. Keep it simple, I was told - which suited me fine. Except at the start of that particular session one of the students told me he had been looking forward to this very much. He told me he was a Doctor of Philosophy and had majored in Ethics. You can guess how much my 'keep it simple' approach impressed him, and how much fun he had during the Q&A session.

I still have nightmares . . .

Mary Witzl said...

Brian -- You should write a blog! If we were not in a virtual world right now, I'd start up a chorus of 'Brian's blog!' and I'll bet a lot of people would join me.

After my unfortunate martyrdom with Mr Lu's class (and I was so lucky to have him!) I had this experience many times. I once taught a group of Japanese engineers who were bored witless by having to learn English. Then a dozen of them found that they were going to be posted to Myanmar, and you have never seen such an attitude change.

But 200 sullen, hostile students in one go -- poor Brian! The sheer force of numbers would have intimidated me senseless.

Paul -- That is a great story, and I truly feel for you. I have often been in the situation of having a class full of dolts with one or two very bright, eager students, and that is bad enough, but you are right: an expert in the class is worse. A friend once told me a story about a man who had to give a lecture on Bach at our local university. He didn't realize that our school's music department had a world-class Bach scholar, and he hadn't put a lot into his lecture. Just as he was winding up his lacklustre performance, he glanced up and saw this man in the front row. He too had just asked if anyone had any questions, and yes, someone did, and lots of them too.

kathie said...

Oh Mary, I can relate. What a heartwarming story...I bet you were the best teacher they ever had. I've had some tough crowds, from urban kids of all ages, masters level teaching candidates, and adults transferring from welfare to work. Guess which group was the toughest. Yes, that's right, the well educated, intelligent though entitled master's students. Of course there was always a great group of them mixed in with the lazy asses (and I did have entire classes of serious, reflective students), but let me tell you, that group could kill you... Great post.

kathie said...

Paul, that's too funny. I can imagine your face as the guy spouts off his credentials and your mind settles on what all that means for the duration of your course.

Brian, I'm dying for you. I once gave a two day workshop for a mass of teachers who were forced to stay into their summer break--half way through the first day the coordinator approached me to ask if I had some funny stories to add, maybe a joke or two...WTF? Am I a clown? Do they need a clown? I guess so, they despised me as I was no match for visions of the beach--or apparently--visions of the circus.

Magister Dixit said...

Hi Mary

I found this amusing - not being a native English speaker myself (at least not the Queen's or BBC variety) - I can't imagine the process of teaching it to johnny foreigner. I would have them saying "whit ur ye daein heid-the-ba?" and such like.

I'm glad that a flicker of humanity in Mr. Wu made things a little easier for you. One often experiences little moments of human connection in the most unlikely circumstances.

You do appear to have a very strange and diverse CV, Mary!


Mary Witzl said...

Kathie -- If I was the best teacher those poor fellows had, then I sincerely pity them! I did try, but I was a callow youth and they were grown men in a sad and unfair situation: one of the men in the IT class had been a fairly high ranking officer in the S. Vietnamese army; another had been within months away of graduating from medical school in Vietnam, and my students all no doubt had qualifications way above janitorial skills that they had lost through no fault of their own.

By the way, I would love to read about some of your teaching experiences!

Oli -- Welcome to my blog, and I hope you come back often! I wish that you would start up a poetry blog; I have been following your poetry, but find posting comments difficult considering my severe IT limitations.

I think I understand part of what you wrote there. Let me guess: 'What are you doing behind . . .(uh oh)' I don't have the kids here to help interpret for me, but I will continue to gamely plug away at my acquisition of, um, Scots. Put me out of my misery and tell me what 'heid the ba' means!

Brian said...

Why , my dear Mary , would I want to make the effort to create a site and write interesting ( ho ho , that'll be the day !) material for blogs when I can regale myself with yours ???? Not to mention those of your interesting friends ?

Creatively I have gone dry since the publication of the patterjack poems , and am now boring myself silly with polishing that Dondingalong series-- for which I may fork out dollars to be published so that the kids will have a record of the doings there .

At the moment I am cursing around waiting for the copies of Patterjack that I paid for-- very slow in arriving from Lulu -- and a lady friend in the local PO tells me a lot of overseas parcels are delayed by being opened in Customs -- do you smell Cemtex? or if terrorism is out of our purlieu , perhaps a snort or two of cocaine is turning the sniffer dogs cross-eyed ?

And I agree with Paul-- I have run Education Department In-Service courses , where you find ambitious lots of deputies seeking qualifications for promotion to principals -- and their cleverdickness knows no bounds !


Kim Ayres said...

Fortunately, in my philosophy evening classes people are only there because they want to be. And it is firmly aimed at the "Intro" level so I don't suffer Paul's problem.

I love teaching people who want to learn, but I can't imagine being able to cope with people who don't.

You have my respect, and sympathy.

Mary Witzl said...

Brian -- As for ambitious deputies and their cleverdickness, ooh, don't get me started! One thing I really hated as a teacher was how all the ex-teachers in the administration managed to forget all of the difficulties faced by someone still at the coalface of teaching, failing to take them into account when making up teaching schedules, assigning us to wholly inappropriate classes, etc. And I could go on and on, but I think I may save that for another posting...

Kim -- How I envy you! Teaching people who truly want to learn is hardly even teaching, it is so much fun. My husband once turned down a job at a girls' finishing school with a good salary and all sorts of perks (including a student body that was just about 85% miniskirted bimbo) to take a less well-paid position at a decent university with kids who were genuinely motivated and eager to learn. He knew that the students' positive attitude would mean that he could go to work every day without dreading it; that he would be able to really teach instead of merely going through the motions.

Carole said...

Perhaps you could explain the electoral college to me. What a ridiculous practice. But on the other hand, it might be easier for you to teach me Japanese.

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- I remember seeing a news program once; a reporter was going around asking a bunch of Americans of all different backgrounds some basic knowledge questions. Things like "Who is the current secretary of state?" "Does the sun revolve around the earth, or is it the other way around?" and "Can you briefly explain the American electoral college?" Friends and I had a great laugh over some of the obvious questions and the dopey answers people gave. And then Mr Lu asked me this question -- and I was no longer laughing.

What really got to me was the fact that Mr Lu didn't yet have his green card, but I, with ancestors who got to America before the Mayflower, was secure in my American residency. But look who was more eager to try and understand the system!

I remember a few of my students who were studying American government and history, hoping to gain citizenship. Believe me, they were well ahead of your average guy in the street.

And I would LOVE to teach you Japanese!

Pam said...

What lovely stories you have here on this gem of a blog!!

Mary Witzl said...

Hello, Pam, and thank you for commenting on my blog!

I have just watched that short clip of W on your blog (the one where he is presiding over the pressroom ribbon cutting ceremony) and feel a little ill. I wanted to stop, but kept on watching out of morbid fascination.