Saturday, 10 January 2009

Excuses, Excuses

"Tee-cha, I am here?"

Oh God, no, it's Tanol.

I get asked this question almost every day, after class. A cluster of students swarm around my desk; they have shown up late and want to make sure I have marked them down as present anyway. It's a headache trying to figure out who has a legitimate reason for being late and who was outside yakking with his buddies. But Tanol, who is also lazy and irresponsible, isn't just a headache, he's a 24-hour migraine. A few minutes around Tanol and I wonder why I ever went into teaching in the first place: I have trouble suffering fools.

I can't figure out what Tanol is doing in the pre-academic English program. He's slightly older than the majority, already in his early twenties, but otherwise there is nothing to mark him out as different. He looks bright enough, his face is pleasant, even handsome, and he doesn't suffer from any obvious infirmity. But Tanol's ordinary features belie a vacuity that is almost staggering. After repeating the program twice, he still cannot string together an English sentence for the life of him. I am told that he speaks Turkish just fine -- indeed, he speaks it non-stop throughout the very few classes he has managed to attend -- and he seems not to suffer from real learning difficulties. But when asked to do the simplest task in English, Tanol becomes overwhelmed: his brow furrows; his eyebrows knit; his lips pucker. "Whaaat?" he whispers. In Turkish.

The first time this happened, the rest of the class thought it was so funny they shrieked, hooted, and pounded on their desks, and it took me ages to get everyone settled. I repeated myself several times, growing angrier and angrier, but Tanol still pretended to be flummoxed -- or so I thought. It took me a good two minutes to realize that he wasn't pretending anything; he genuinely did not know what Please take your book out meant.

"I am here?" he whispers again, gesturing hopefully at the roll book. He missed the first forty-five minutes of class and sashayed in fifteen minutes late for the next session with no apology, so no way am I going to mark him present.

But try telling him that.

"No," I say, putting away my markers. "You were late." I tap my watch meaningfully.

His brow furrows. "But -- here now."

I put my yoga breathing to good use. Please let me keep my temper! "But you were fifteen minutes late." I pull a marker back out of my bag and scrawl it on the board. "Fifteen minutes. Yeah?"

He stares at me uncomprehendingly and I sigh and erase the board. Others are trying to push past him, demanding to know when their papers will be marked; one boy wants to know what the difference is between almost and mostly and another wants to know what to study for the final examination even though I've explained it in class half a dozen times. Tanol takes a step closer to me, his eyes pleading. Time for tough love. I steel myself not to crack and turn my back on him.

Last week, Tanol showed up in class late after missing two months' worth of school, with no explanation -- though an explanation is no easy thing to get from him. He then proceeded to sleep through inseparable phrasal verbs and I didn't even bother trying to wake him up. The next day, he came to class twenty-five minutes late without his textbook, notebook, or pen. We were right in the middle of a complicated exercise and Tanol's noisy entrance ruined the tenuous order I'd worked so hard to establish. My compassion fatigue strained to the limit, I lost it: I told him to go home.

"Why?" he asked, looking genuinely perplexed. Around Tanol, I always feel so mean.

"You are late, and you do not have your book."

Tanol pursed his lips and frowned.

I took a long, deep breath. "Look, even if you had your book, we only have twenty minutes of class left."

His jaw dropped and he tilted his head, a furrow deepening between his eyebrows.

"For pity's sake, somebody explain it to him," I hissed. Someone did, and Tanoy left with a face like thunder. Ten minutes later, he was back, huffing and puffing -- and clutching his book. I didn't have the heart to tell him to leave. He actually opened his book and tried to follow what we were doing for the last ten minutes of class, making me feel almost as sorry for him as I feel for his parents.

Today, though, Tanol is determined not to be marked absent. The thirty minutes of English he has endured must be counted. No sooner have I sat down in the teachers' room with a cup of coffee than there is Tanol with a friend. The friend speaks good English and it appears he is to be Tanol's interpreter. "Excuse me, teacher," he asks, "Tanol is absent today?"

"Yes," I reply, fighting the urge to scream.


"Because he missed the first session and he was very late to the second."

The friend smiles ingratiatingly. "But it is my fault." Tanol beams at him encouragingly.

I put down my coffee. "Your fault?"

"Yes. I -- kept him."

This is just too much for me -- I feel something inside me snapping. Boneheadedness is forgivable, laziness is probably inherited (if my own kids are anything to go by), but getting your friends to do your dirty work? No, no, no, no, no! My compassion tank has officially run dry.

I frown at his friend. "Did you shut him up in your room?"


"Knock him unconscious?"

He shakes his head.

"Fool him into thinking that it was a different day? Threaten him? Bribe him to stay with you?"

He's beginning to back away, but I cannot stop myself. "Did you enslave him? Did you chain him to his desk?"

He shakes his head again and shoots Tanol a look that clearly says You didn't warn me that I would be dealing with a madwoman.

"Because unless you did any of those things, it's not your fault," I say, standing up. "Tanol is a grown man. He can get to his English classes on time just like everyone else. Tell him that for me, okay?"

The friend nods and gulps. "Okay, okay. Just -- I wanted to know," he splutters, edging away from me. Tanol trails after him, still looking perplexed.

I finish my coffee and put my head down on the desk. Why did I ever become a teacher?

Sigh. I wonder if Tanol will come to class on Monday...


Eryl Shields said...

I can't help feeling a bit sorry for Tanol, he evidently isn't up to English classes, I wonder why he does them.

Kim Ayres said...

Tell him next time, it will take a hefty bribe to mark him as present...

Robin said...

If this were a movie, and you were being played by Michelle Pfeiffer, you would go to Tanol's house and meet his mean, abusive father who bashes him over the head with blunt instruments on a daily basis. Then, you would find out that Tanol has a brain tumor, and that the tumor, along with the head bashing, have made him really dumb. Then, you would quickly learn brain surgery, take out his tumor with a sharp knife you got from the cafeteria, and Tanol would recover and write a Pulitzer Prize winning book - in English.

But since this isn't a movie, I'd just take a lot of tylenol and keep marking him absent.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- So do I, but I wish to God he were not in my class. My first assumption was that he was trying to avoid doing military duty, but why does he bother showing up to class at all, then? And having him sit there, disturbing everyone else, sleeping or chatting in Turkish, has worn me right out...

Kim -- He wouldn't get it. With poor Tanol, I'm denied even the pleasure of sarcasm.

Robin -- Wish this were a movie. I'd almost like to get a look inside Tanol's brain. I suspect that the foreign language center of his brain looks just like my directional and math aptitude centers.

In the meantime, Tylenol is my middle name. Good thing I don't drink...

Kim Ayres said...

Who was being sarcastic? I was just thinking of a way to boost your income ;)

Anne Spollen said...

Maybe asking him what he hopes to get out of the class might work - sort of give the responsibility back to him.

I teach kids with ODD sometimes, actually kind of a lot since it's at an alternative school. I grit my teeth through the class, feverishly count the minutes, and manage to remain polite.

On Fridays, without missing a day, I purchase ten lottery tickets. ; )

Charles Gramlich said...

Oh that would drive me insane. You have such a tough job.

Charlie said...

My guess is that Tanol is both terminally disorganized and irresponsible. And I think he does suffer from a dose of laziness because you see no attempt at staying awake and trying to learn.

There are circumstances you may not know about as well. His home life may be a disaster, or he may have to work two jobs to support his family—circumstances that would embarrass or shame him to reveal.

But take heart, Mary: When he shows up in the teacher's lounge wondering why he failed the course . . .

BTW, I LOL at Robin's comment.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- The awful thing is, he could probably afford to bribe me: his parents have shelled out for tuition three times. I can't help but wonder whether they're delusional or just incredibly hopeful.

Anne -- Lottery tickets? What a great idea! And yes, I will have to take Tanol aside for a little chat; he doesn't have a hope in hell of passing his finals. But I'll need to book a Turkish interpreter first.

I teach a couple of kids I would swear have something similar to ODD: they cannot keep still. Most of the time I manage to be polite, but there are times I find my patience sorely tried. Like the other day with Tanol and his friend.

Charles -- Believe me, if it weren't for yoga, Tylenol, and this blog, I'd be a lot worse off. I should be thankful for what I do have -- and the fact that I have half a dozen students who really do want to learn.

Charlie -- I find Tanoy a complete mystery, and it is hard for me to describe him adequately. He is pathetic, but he is also lazy and disruptive. I sometimes wonder if his family haven't just washed their hands of him -- if they haven't just sent him out into the world to sink or swim. When he fails, as he is bound to, I'll feel like crying too -- just a little.

From what I have observed, Tanoy works not; neither does he spin. I suspect he is burning the midnight oil in pleasurable pursuits.

I laughed at Robin's comment too! Robin is good at cheering me up.

Kappa no He said...

Oh...Tanol!! I once had a friend who taught a gal that showed up the last day of the semester. When she was asked WHY she hadn't shown up the other days she whispered she had a yeast infection.

They're everywhere.

Christy said...

I can't imagine! I've had more than one teacher who would turn away any student who wasn't seated and ready to learn at the start of class. English or no English, it's not difficult to figure out that being marked present requires actual presence.

Barbara Martin said...

Your stories of teaching remind me of the ones my late mother used to talk about, especially with the discipline. I think if Tanol attended more of the English classes he would understand better.

Marcia said...

Oooh, you have a tough job. But what an entertaining story.

Mary Witzl said...

Kappa -- Your story makes me feel a little better. I've got a student who has attended, so far, only two classes. When I asked him why this was, he told me his mother was ill. When pressed further, he said that she had 'the grippe'. But who has the flu for three whole months? I smell a rat.

Christy -- I had teachers like that too. I remember once when my bike had a flat tire and I arrived 15 minutes late to a class. I made a quiet, respectful entrance only to get ordered out. My kids waltz in 5 minutes before the class finishes and look aggrieved when I reprimand them. They wouldn't have lasted a semester at my university. Sigh...I feel so old.

Barbara -- I'm beginning to think that nothing will help Tanol, and I hate to have this attitude. The only thing that comforts me about Tanol's failure is that he really doesn't try very hard. If he tried hard, I'd be broken-hearted.

Marcia -- Sometimes the only thing that gets me through a particularly tough class is the thought of writing about it afterwards. It invariably cheers me up; it's nice that some people find it entertaining.

Ello said...

Mary you are tough!!!!!!

I love that.

adrienne said...

Oh, boy. I feel your frustration! I'd say don't cut him any slack, and yet I feel a little sorry for him, too.

Mary Witzl said...

Ello -- Every time I walk out of the classroom my pulse is sky high and I could kick in a window, but I'll settle for sounding tough, so thank you!

Adrienne -- I feel sorry for Tanol too, but my sympathy is sadly overwhelmed by my own irritation; sometimes there isn't even much of a contest.

Carole said...

I do think Tanol needs a lesson in fanciful excuses. There is nothing for you to look forward to. HIs excuses are just too straight forward.

Mary Witzl said...

Tanol could use more creative excuses, that is for sure! In fact, he needs so much of everything (except free time) that my mind boggles. I hate saying that anyone is hopeless -- that sounds defeatest and cruel. But the sad truth is that I have quite a few students who aren't going to learn English: they don't have the motivation. Half my time I wrack my brains trying to inspire them...