Friday, 15 May 2009

Sweating It Out

Mert sits in the back of the class, against the wall. The classroom seats are in long rows, bolted to the floor. The rows are close together too, making it impossible for me to check the work of wallflowers like Mert. It's no puzzle why he sits there: he rarely comes to class and he will do anything to get out of speaking, reading, or writing English.

Today, he is present for the first time in ages and he looks nervous. Small wonder: we're less than two weeks away from the final examination and Mert's chances don't look good; apart from his lousy attendance, he blew the midterm. The one example of homework I have from him is, to say the very least, not stellar.

During the break, I collar Mert before he can sneak out the door for a smoke. "Are you okay?"

Mert still has the deer-frozen-in-headlights look all the other students lost after the first few weeks. Unlike the others, he's never gotten used to the idea of a non-Turkish-speaking foreign teacher. His jaw drops now and he stares at me, stricken, unable to answer.

"Are you feeling well?"

"No," he hisses. "I am illy."

"You're ill?"

Mert's mouth remains open. "You're ill," he affirms, and I try not to sigh.

"Is that why you were sleeping in class?"

His jaw drops again. Another student translates my question and Mert shakes his head. He's not sick now, it seems; he was ill last night, but now he is better. Since I have an obliging translator, I take the liberty of grilling Mert a little further. "You've missed a lot of classes. Were you ill for two months?"

He nods. Before he can go on, however, our interpreter leaves and Mert is forced to finish on his own. Mert doesn't call me tee-cha; he calls me hojam, the Turkish equivalent. Squeezing his eyes shut, he finally comes up with an answer. "Hojam, Turkey."

"You were in Turkey?"

His head bobs up and down.

"For almost two months?"

More nodding.


All of a sudden I notice that Mert has begun to sweat. His upper lip has a thin glaze over it and beads of sweat are collecting on his high, pale forehead. Even as we stand there, the drops of perspiration seem to join up and double in size. A large drop loses its hold on his temple and begins to trickle down the side of his face.

He swallows painfully. "Hojam, mother. Illy."

"Your mother is ill?" Boy, am I getting tired of 20 questions!


This is awful. If he's telling the truth, this poor kid deserves all the sympathy I have. If he's bluffing, how dare he come up with a lie like this?

"What is wrong with your mother?"

Now Mert is visibly shaking. If there's any time left after this, he's really going to need that smoke!

"Hojam, greep."

Good thing I've taken French. Let's see...grippe must mean flu.


He's got a packet of Kleenex out now, and it's about time: the sweat is running down his neck in rivulets. A drop quivers on the end of his nose. He hastily wipes it off. "Yes," he almost whispers.

"Your mother has had influenza for two months?" I can't keep the incredulous tone out of my voice.

He nods.

"Is she in the hospital?" Fortunately, I know the Turkish word for this, so I use it. I have to.

Now Mert really does look ill. He is so pale that I can see the blue veins throbbing in the side of his head, still slick with a sheen of sweat. Edging away from me, he licks his lips. He knows he's backed himself into a corner: any mother who's had the flu for two months ought to be in the hospital. He starts to shake his head, edging away from me, his hand automatically going to his shirt pocket where he has his cigarette pack. His eyes are filled with desperation and misery.

I give up and let him go. It's just not worth it, subjecting a kid so disinclined to learn to this sort of torment.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with his mother -- I'll bet you a hundred dollars. But I almost wish she'd give up on Mert's English too.


Robert the Skeptic said...

In high school, Dr. Cosco finally gave up on me being able to learn Spanish in his class.

Dr. Cosco: "Bob Neely, did you study"?

Me: "No, Dr. Cosco".

Dr. Cosco: "Well then I am going to give you an F but I am going to make it a D because you are so honest".
You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it speak [insert language here].

Charlie said...

Mary, is your ESL class elective or mandatory?

If it's elective, I wonder why all this deadwood chose it.

And if it's mandatory, I wonder why they don't give a damn.

Either way, they're wasting their time and seriously testing your sanity. Or what passes for sanity.

Angela said...

This makes me so sad you know. I read Three Cups of Tea not that long ago where the children of poor villages in Iraq and the area would do anything to get an education--sit out on the frozen ground scratching at the ground with sticks; walk miles and miles each day with little to eat, etc. Breaks the heart that some take it for granted.

Mary Witzl said...

Robert -- Good for Dr. Cosco!

I've got a handful of honest students too, and I always make it a point to praise their honesty. I don't reward it -- I can't -- but I do let them know I admire it.

One of my better students came in late for the umpteenth time the other day. I asked her why she was late and she immediately answered, "Too much sleep." Not "I missed the bus" or "I am ill" or any of the other excuses I get all the time. I get so tired of being lied to; I was utterly beguiled by her frankness.

Charlie -- We're mandatory, as in Mandatory Minimum Sentence. And that's pretty much what we get, too.

My sanity is only just there half the time, but even with all the time wasters, there are HUGE perks. Like the shy girl who wrote in her journal, "You try hardly for us. I am so happy you my teacher." Or the boy who could not parse a decent English sentence three months ago, but now turns in journal entries that are coherent, cohesive and genuinely interesting. There ARE kids who want to learn, and while the ratio of time wasters to genuine learners is pretty bad, as long as there are kids who want to learn, I'll keep on keeping on. I'll also write more about this heartening minority. They are really inspiring.

Angela -- It breaks my heart too! I often wish I could pair my ingrates with some of those Three Cups of Tea kids, or with any of the African students I've taught, who see education as a huge opportunity instead of a boring imposition on their leisure time.

Sometimes I think I'm the worst possible teacher for most of my students. My parents couldn't pay for me to go to a university away from home, so I worked my way through. I never skipped class and I definitely wanted to learn everything I could, because I was paying for it. Most of the kids I teach don't have any idea how lucky they are to have parents who are prepared to pay for their education, but I do have a few who do. I will do just about anything for any student who shows the slightest bit of interest, but the kids who appreciate their parents' efforts are the ones I go all out for.

Eryl Shields said...

Poor Mert! I am reminded of when I was attempting to get my first degree in law. It was mandatory to also take a foreign language and I chose French because I knew a little and spent a few weeks every year in France. But I was terrible at it, and although I started off highly motivated and enthusiastic I came to hate it. I was really good at law, always got As, but having to study French put me off and I gave up after a year feeling completely worn down. It took another eight years before I went back into education.

Bish Denham said...

I wonder if Mert thinks he'll make the grade? There are also those you cannot help, no matter how hard you try.

Kanani said...

Well, he doesn't want to be there, but then would rather take an F, than to back out and admit he's not interested.

Anyway, having an illy nother with le grippe, must be costing them a fortune in tissues.

Good post, Mary. Keep it up!

Ello said...

Ha! I know he's lying! I have heard every excuse in the book now. So when students ask to speak to me privately, I say "if you need an extension that is fine - here are my rules. No personal information is needed. No extensions after _____ date." That has kept me from hearing more doozies.

Robin said...

Maybe it's the sadist in me, but I absolutely love the image of you relentlessly pursuing Mert's stupid lie about his sick mother. I have no pity for him. Just friggin' come to class and do your work, Dimmy.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- You did better in law than in French? Wish we could study side by side: I could use your skills!

Mert belongs anywhere but in my class, but his mother wants him to get a degree. I suspect I have more business pursuing a degree in engineering than Mert does pursuing a degree in ANYthing, but he obviously doesn't have a choice, so we're stuck with each other.

Bish -- There is NO WAY that he is going to pass. I'm just hoping Mert knows that. If he doesn't, he'll soon find out...

Kanani -- I think Mert would love to see the back of me and the whole university, but his parents are expecting him to muddle through and get that all-important degree. It's sad: he might make a great pro golfer or pool custodian or insurance salesman, but his parents have their hearts set on a diploma for him. And he could hardly care less.

(Thank you! As long as I've got kids like Mert in my class, I'll keep plugging away at this.)

Ello -- You know what I'm talking about here, don't you? Last year, one of my colleagues had a boy crying his heart out -- his mother had died, sob, sob. My poor tender-hearted colleague felt awfully sorry for him -- until he got a call from the boy's mother the next day. It sounds so callous, but some of these kids are just incredible liars. You get so cynical after a while...

Robin -- (Actually, I did pursue it: Mert's mom was fine, surprise, surprise.) I've got more than a little sadist in me, too: I figure I get to be mean after martyring myself with excess patient calm endurance. Part of me just doesn't get it: how hard is it to go along with the program and just do the minimum of work? It seems so much easier than screwing up and being endlessly nagged, hassled, and pestered.

Anne Spollen said...

Have you no pity for his sick mother? I think having a mom sick that long is work a C+, at the very least. Imagine what he is going through.

I wonder if they think you are more gullible somehow because you are not Turkish-born? Just a thought.

debra said...

It's tough to have a requirement that you can't relate too, or don't see the reason for. I, too, have been there. I don't think I've ever painted myself into such a deep corner though.
You've won my giveaway, Mary. Email me your address and I'll send it to you :-)

Mary Witzl said...

Anne -- If Mert had, at the very least, worked on his excuse, I'd have a little more respect for him. But, "Hojam, mother. Illy" just doesn't cut it. It's hard to respect someone who doesn't even have the sense or the energy to come up with a good lie.

I suspect the reason they think I'm so stupid is because I don't speak Turkish. They're like those xenophobes back home who talk loudly and slowly to anyone with a foreign accent: they assume people who don't speak their language aren't really people.

Debra -- I've been there too! I tell my students this -- that I've been in classes I hated, made to do things I had no interest in, and caught out in lies. The good ones get this. The bad ones don't even bother to listen...

I'm thrilled that I've won your give-away!! One address coming your way!

Kim Ayres said...

me begin to whorry about me speelnig nd gramma wen i comment on ur blog, tee-cha

Anne Spollen said...

Does Turkish school end in June?

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Don't you worry: you've got some two-syllable words and a when-clause there, you're a real star!

Anne -- Our own particular course ends in June, praise God and hallelujah. I'm pretty much counting the days...