Thursday, 12 March 2009

That'll Teach 'Em

Cahil sits behind me, coughing. No way is he sick -- I saw him just fifteen minutes ago standing in the courtyard downstairs, laughing and smoking with his pals -- but his cough goes on and on, a real show. Any parent with teenagers knows the difference between a phony cough and a real one though, and this one is as fake as they come.

Just ten minutes ago, we were right in the middle of so and because when there was a knock at the door. It was one of the senior teachers. Would I please bring my students upstairs to a very important lecture on AIDS that all students have to attend? Now, I'm as thrilled as my students to get a chance to escape the classroom, but I still hesitated: this group is way behind their peers, and judging from their most recent compositions, they desperately need to learn how to use because and so. "It's in English," my colleague added, "so it will be good for everyone's listening comprehension."

It could have been in Swahili for all my class cared: they got out of English, so they were all for it.

Several of the students made a beeline for the courtyard downstairs where they immediately pulled cigarettes out and lit up. No way were they going to miss this important lecture on AIDS, but that didn't mean they had to go a whole thirty minutes without a smoke. I ran after them, spitting fire and brandishing my attendance roll. "You three! Upstairs in two minutes or I mark you absent, you hear?"

They were all wounded indignation. "Yes tee-cha! Very important lecture!"

I followed the rest of my students upstairs, leaving the three smokers puffing away. You could show these kids a pair of blackened carcinogenic lungs, half a dozen post-laryngectomy patients and a roomful of people suffering from emphysema and they'd still be out there in the rain, sucking in nicotine. But no way are they going to miss a lecture on AIDS if it means they get out of class!

The lecture is not in English, and it is about more than AIDS. I sit there for the full thirty minutes, listening to a youngish woman delivering a long, tedious spiel in Turkish. I perk up every three minutes or so when she comes up with a few English expressions that I'm sure sail right over my students' heads: taxoplasmosis, opportunistic infection, Herpes simplex, and Chlamydia all get a mention, but they are the only English spoken. Even her audiovisual props are boring: dull-colored charts with squiggly bacteria and photographs of viruses, straight out of medical textbooks. Back when I was in university, a lecture like this would have been given by some hip young medical professional who looked like she had more than a textbook knowledge of sex. There would have been a few jokes, some interesting audiovisual aids -- maybe even free condoms. This is dull as dust and strikes me as a colossal waste of time. My students fidget and whisper -- in Turkish, of course -- and pay about as much attention to the lecturer and her charts as they do to me. I am so bored, I do something entirely out of character: I pull out my mobile and send a text message to my daughter.

Bulut, a hyperactive boy and the class clown, is sitting directly behind me and I can practically feel his breath on my neck as he leans forward to see what I'm doing. Half the time I can't get Bulut to sit still; his handwriting screams dyspraxia and getting him to pay attention in class is like juggling water. But here he is, reading over my shoulder. "I am bored," I hear him whisper, "What are you doing, honey?" I move my phone so that he can see it better: this is the most reading Bulut's done all week, and I can never get him to read out loud in class. What a breakthrough!

"Tee-cha!" Cahil whispers, his voice hoarse from his fake cough. I hear the rustle of paper and feel something brush against my shoulder: a note is being passed to me. I've been anticipating this.

Sorry Teacher, it reads, I'm very ill I'm going to hospital you don't write me absent please

I pull out my pen and scrawl back How stupid do you think I am? Bring back a doctor's note if you're really sick!

I pass the note back to Cahil and there is a long silence, followed by whispers. I can just make out the word stupid. There is a rustling sound, like someone turning the pages of a dictionary, another whispered conference, and another silence, then the note is finally passed back to me.

Okay teacher see you bye. tomorrow take you (unintelligible scrawl) doctors note no absent

I quickly scrawl back If you don't bring me that note, you are absent! Okay? and pass it back to him.

There is another long silence, and then the paper is handed back to me.

Okay no problem teacher Promise tomorrow take a doctor's note. :) see you

As he scuttles down the aisle, there is no mistaking the broad grin on Cahil's face. He's pulled a fast one on me!

I'm even more pleased than he is, though: that's the most writing Cahil's done all week.


Carole said...

Teachers teach. Against all odds, they still teach. You are of the finest caliber.

Robin said...

Mary, you rock! Those kids are so lucky to have you! You even taught Cahil about humor in English. I've got to think understanding a language enough to get the nuances of sarcasm is tough.

That lecture sounds awful. What was that woman thinking? Squiggly bacteria?

I have a really funny idea for when I go to schools to teach them about Child Psychiatry. I teach them about a few key disorders really quickly, and then get volunteers to be the "psychiatrist" and I'm the patient. Then I act horrible (depending on my disorder). I insult them, touch everything in the teacher's desk, and run around like a maniac. I'm laughing just thinking about it. You should see the poor teenagers trying to calm me down. They get reeeally flustered. Oh, God! I'm laughing again.

Charlie said...

I had nuns for teachers. They knew every word in the dictionary, save two: humor and sarcasm.

Fifty years later, I still cry myself to sleep over that.

Where were you when I needed you, Mary? And Robin too.

Bish Denham said...

Oh I'm SO glad that you take EVERY opportunity to get in a little reading and writing. Sneaking it in on them unawares...priceless!

Kim Ayres said...

Ah, so you need to teach them how to
text eachother in English :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Man the contortions we have to go through to get students to learn. You have it much more than I do, though.

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- Thank you for that compliment. The truth is that my teaching caliber is just so-so, but I make up for it with first-class effort.

Robin -- I enjoy getting my class involved in exactly the sort of role play you've described, and I would dearly love racing around the classroom maniacally, giving everybody a hard time! And I'll bet you could do a brilliant job on a lecture about STDs, come to think of it. Too bad you don't speak Turkish...

Charlie -- Robin and I were hardly twinkles in our respective fathers' eyes back when those nuns were tormenting you, or we'd have loved to teach you.

I've had a number of friends who were taught by nuns. Some of them had excellent teachers, but a lot of them recount stories similar to yours. Too bad that a sense of humor isn't something they can give you in teaching school. It really comes in handy!

Bish -- I didn't even try to do it -- my students achieved it all by themselves! I'd like to establish a new teaching methodology through reading texts over the shoulder and note-passing.

Kim -- Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think this would be a hit...

Charles -- We have it bad here, that's for sure. My students this term are really keen to learn and that is a plus. But the handful that aren't are such a pain, and for them, I definitely have to go into contortions. They hardly ever stop speaking Turkish long enough to listen to me.

adrienne said...

You're on to for passing notes! Glad the half hour wasn't a total loss.

a. fortis said...

Oh, what a story, Mary. Your patience as both teacher and excruciating-lecture-listener is laudable.

angryparsnip said...

I so look forward to reading your blog, you write so well that in my mind I can see your students, your school and family... Fabulous

Marcia said...

However they show that they'll learn it -- you teach it. I agree; those kids are lucky to have you.

Barbara Martin said...

I love coming to read your posts on teaching. It reminds me of the days my mother would come home from teaching and make the odd remark about one or two annoying students. It's true that teachers teach.

Mary Witzl said...

Adrienne -- Conversely, I'm sure the AIDS lady could have taught my kids all sorts of things about STDs if she'd only sat in the back of my classroom. I'm guessing it was the thrill of illicit communication that got my guys reading and scribbling all of a sudden.

Sarah -- (Blush) I lose my temper in tiny ways all the time: whacking notebooks down on the table, whipping out the roll book to write down the names of noisy offenders -- and I fidgeted all the way through that lecture! But I thank you all the same: I need all the praise I can get.

AP -- Thank you so much for those kind words. I come to this blog for sustenance throughout my struggles with writing, my many rejections and frustrations. Everyone who reads what I write helps me so much. You are all my great enablers.

Marcia -- The awful truth is that I'm just a so-so teacher. I long to have the gift for distilling complex information into simple chunks that my husband has, for instance; I fear that I confuse my students sometimes. But I also know that I deserve 10 out of 10 for persistence. And I LOVE writing about teaching.

Barbara -- Only the odd remark? Your mother was a true stoic! Like me, my mother was a teacher. And like me, she wasn't the world's most effective teacher. She would come home from school almost every day with impassioned accounts of her struggles and miseries in the classroom. And yet I became a teacher and you became an attorney. My mother should have kept her mouth shut; I'm sure that her whining infected me with the thrill of it all -- and the certainty that I could do better.

Merry Monteleone said...

Mary, you're priceless! I looove that he walked away with a smug look thinking he'd put one over on you... it's hysterical.

I had a number of teachers that were nuns... unfortunately, the ones I've run into understood sarcasm only too well :-)

Anne Spollen said...

This old woman who lived at the end of our street once told me she believed life was a series of tricks. Those weren't her exact words, but it was something like that. I remember not being able to get away from her fast enough. (Yes, of course I was a teenager)

Sounds like she might have been right.

You are a gift to those students.

Angela said...

Great job, Mary! As always, I love your stories. :-)

Mary Witzl said...

Merry -- It cracked me up too. Most of my kids seem to think they're smarter than I am. If I saw any sign of this, I'd be happy to acknowledge it, but so far I'm certain of my intellectual superiority.

Sarcastic nuns sound like fun, but I'm sure that's only because I was never taught by any. My sisters and I were always envious of the kids in Catholic schools, though: they got to learn Latin and they got out of drivers' ed.

Anne S -- I remember hearing wonderful lines like that myself -- generally from people who'd had decades to ruminate on life's vagaries and from whom I could have learned interesting things. At the time I was only too eager to get away from such people, but how I wish I'd listened now.

Angela -- Thank you! They keep giving me wild and crazy students, so it looks like I'll have an endless font of stories.

Katie Alender said...

Love this, Mary! Catching up on your blog is the perfect Sunday morning activity.