Friday, 27 November 2009

The Five Pillars of Islam

Monday morning. Only four more days of school before the four-day Bayram holiday! I am in great spirits.

Four boys are waiting for me outside the classroom. Right away I'm suspicious: these kids are ultra lazy. They've got a furtive look about them too; I know from experience that if they had thought bubbles over their heads they would read Let's ask her and see.

"Teacher, Bayram," Mustafa says, thrusting out his chest and striking a confident pose. Mustafa is the strongest speaker here, the one-eyed-king in the land of the blind. He has obviously been chosen Designated Speaker as a result of his superior communicative skills.

"Yes, Bayram," I say enthusiastically, playing along. Only four more days of teaching before our four-day break!

"Bayram Muslim holiday," Mustafa continues, right on my tail as I push open the door.

"Yes, Bayram is a Muslim holiday." I love playing dumb. The way I see it, this job is tough enough as it is -- let me have some fun. Plus, I've got good pedagogical reasons for letting this play out slowly: language is all about communication and these boys have something they truly want to communicate. They more they get, the better.

"Very busy." Mustafa thumps his chest, then gestures meaningfully around the group by way of providing a subject.

"Yes, we are all certainly very busy," I say, setting my CD player on the desk. "Especially since we have three units to cover in a very short time. Could you plug this in for me?"

I can see the other boys watching Mustafa like cats watch a fish tank. Their thought bubbles would read Please oh please oh please.

"Many preparation," Mustafa puts in desperately. "Shopping."

"Yes, I know. It's a good thing we have Friday off, isn't it?"

"Teacher please no class today," Mustafa says, finally cutting to the chase.

"Muslim holiday!" puts in Ersoy, practically stepping on my feet. He has been hovering anxiously, unable to compete with Mustafa linguistically, but clearly frustrated that I have not been persuaded by Mustafa's arguments.

I roll my attendance sheet into a baton and whack the side of my desk. "Muslim holiday," I repeat. "And you are all good Muslims? You pray in the mosque every Friday?" This is mean of me, but I can't help it: no way do they go to the mosque every Friday. I've smelled alcohol on their breath before and I know a few of them have come to my class with hangovers. And let's not even talk about lying.

Mustafa has to translate. A few of the boys nod, but they won't meet my eyes.

"Okay, then," I say, an idea suddenly forming in my mind. "Who can tell me what the five pillars of Islam are?" They stare at me, confused.

"If you can tell me the five pillars of Islam, in English--" I pause for effect "--you can go home early to get ready for Bayram."

I know I'm safe here: not even Mustafa could manage this. These boys never study. If one of them were capable of explaining the five pillars of Islam, I'd immediately let him go home: with English that good, an afternoon off wouldn't set him back. And for him to have attained that level, he'd have had to work hard. I respect hard-working students. Smart kids impress me far less than diligent ones. I respect honest kids too. So if anyone tries to play the religious card with me, they had better play it well -- and truthfully.

"The five pillars of Islam?" I say, raising an eyebrow. "Can anyone tell me?"

Their faces radiate confusion. You'd think five and Islam might clue them in, but no.

Mustafa clasps his hands and bows. "Five times?" he says, his eyes pleading.

I shake my head. "Praying five times a day is only one of them. Come on, I'll help you out. The last one is hajj in Arabic."

Now at least they know what I'm talking about. While I take attendance, every boy in the little group does his best to come up with the three remainining pillars of Islam, recruiting some of the smarter students (i.e., girls) to help as soon as they enter the classroom. A few of them mime sacrificing a sheep and distributing the meat (part of the duty of Zakat, or charity), but this is as close as they get. Last term, I had six kids out of three dozen who claimed to regularly attend mosque. They might have managed the five pillars of Islam, but the kids I've got this term could sooner fly to the moon.

Tough love, I tell myself as they all take their seats with glum faces, their vision of a delightfully English free day so much vapor. Teaching is going to be tough today. Still, only four more days!

On the board, I write the five pillars of Islam. (It pays to have an inquiring mind. And a husband who teaches in an international school.)

Shahadah -- Declaration of faith (From my students I'd have accepted 'There is only one God'.)

Salah -- Prayer (from my students I'd have accepted 'Pray five times a day'. Heck, I'd even have allowed hand gestures and 'five'.)

Zakat -- Charity (From my students I'd have accepted 'Giving money to poor people'.)

Saum -- Fasting during Ramadan (From my students, 'Not eating' would have been fine. If anyone had used the word 'fast' without consulting a dictionary, I'd have been tempted to give him the whole week off.)

Hajj -- Pilgrimage to Mecca (From my students, 'Go Mecca' would have been fine.)

It was a long, long class for all concerned. But now it's Bayram: four days of no teaching! I am in great spirits.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Happy Teachers' Day

It's Teachers' Day here. Teachers' Day is a big deal in Turkey, especially in primary and secondary school. A couple of days ago, all the supermarkets and greengrocers started putting pots of flowers and boxes of chocolates on display near the check-out counters. Single carnations wrapped in cellophane have appeared in shop windows.

My husband teaches younger kids than I do and the kids (and more importantly, their parents) go all out, lavishing their teachers with gifts. My husband made out like a bandit last year; my daughters and I had to make several trips from his classroom to the car, all of us lugging carrier bags filled with his loot. Among the Teachers' Day presents he received were three bunches of flowers, two pen sets, a potted plant, a clock, a photograph album, two diaries, four boxes of candy, three batches of cookies, a loaf of banana bread, a foil package of freshly-baked brownies, a mug with his name on it, a fancy nazar boncuk amulet to ward off the evil eye, and a bottle of whiskey. Best of all were the hand-made cards depicting a middle-aged man teaching rows of laughing, smiling children. And the messages crayoned and penciled inside: YOU are the Bestest teacher ever! thaNK YOU THANK YOU! and Welove math now becuase ov you!

"What did you get?" my daughters asked me. All I could do was sigh: for Turkish university students, Teachers' Day isn't a big deal at all: none of my students gave me anything but grief.

In fact, I barely even noticed it was Teachers' Day last year. After an afternoon of teaching that was more hellish than usual, I was putting away my books when one of the girls in the front row creased her pretty forehead and muttered something in Turkish to the boy next to her. He frowned and flipped through the pages of his dictionary. The girl craned her neck to see. "Teechateechazday," the boy muttered as I bent to unplug my CD player. "Teechazday," the girl piped up after him. It took me two minutes to understand what they were trying to say. I felt awfully silly drilling the class stragglers on Happy Teachers Day, Teacher.

Last year, a half-hearted Teechateechazday was all I took home with me besides a headache.

This year, the Turkish Ministry of Education and Board of Health went and closed down every primary and secondary school in our area barely a week before Teachers' Day due to the swine flu epidemic. Swine flu has spread through Turkey like fire through dry tumbleweed, and even though our local schools have had only a few cases, every school had to lock its doors.

We've had cases of swine flu at the university too and hopes have been high; fervent prayers have been wafted up to the heavens and a petition has even been circulated -- all to no avail: no edict has been issued to close us down.

My husband and his colleagues will no doubt still be deluged with Teachers' Day gifts this year, but they will have to wait until school begins again to receive them.

I told myself that this year I knew what to expect, and I would not be disappointed. I knew that nobody would be bringing me candy, flowers, or ceramic mugs.

But as it turned out, I did get a gift. Something even better than flowers or candy or ceramic mugs.

Today I was sitting in the teachers' room when three students from last term came in, graduates of our preparation English program. They had come to talk to me, they said. They wanted me to know that their classmates were complaining about how hard it was to understand their English-speaking professors in the faculty. "But we understand everything they say," one of the boys told me, "because you talked so much to us all the time. Thank you, teacher."

Because I talked so much. Bless them, in all my life no one has ever thanked me for that before!

This evening I will be walking down to the main road to catch the dolmuş home with a spring in my step and a light in my eye. Mugs and flowers are great, but it turns out that heartfelt thank-yous are even better. And a whole lot lighter.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Time Well Spent

I have a weird habit: I cart around all sorts of junk just because I think it might come in handy some day.

In fact, practically everything in my bag does come in handy. If you have a headache, I've got a foil packet of aspirin tucked into my wallet. If you spill something, count on me to always have a couple of spare paper towels nicked from the lavatory. If you need a safety pin, I'll burrow around in my bag until I find you one. I've got a tiny sewing kit in my bag which has saved several falling hems and a dozen loose buttons, a handkerchief that has wiped up dozens of messes, a miniature bottle of hand-wash to keep swine flu at bay, hand cream and lip balm for dry or chapped skin, Kleenex, and -- everybody in the staff room knows this -- a whole mess of sugar packets just in case anyone around me ever goes into a diabetic coma. Nobody ever has, but whenever you run out of sugar for your coffee, I'm your woman.

I should point out that I don't do this out of virtuousness; I'm a born pack-rat. After dozens of moves, many international, I've had to suppress my accumulative tendencies. When I can indulge my inner pack-rat, I feel a lot better.

As much as I love being useful, I hate waste. I've been known to fish things out of the trash if I know I can use or recycle them. I once carried almost a dozen metal biscuit boxes home on the Tokyo subway: I'd found them in the rubbish heap, newly discarded and absolutely pristine. For ten years, they held crayons, loose jigsaw puzzle pieces, Chinese checker marbles, playing cards, and accessories for my kids' Girl Day dolls. If I'd walked past those boxes there on the rubbish heap, I'd be regretting it to this day. Stopping to pick them up was worth every bit of the embarrassment at being caught out, too -- and the hassle of dealing with them on the crowded train.

I hate wasting time too, so I usually have a book in my bag along with my Japanese calligraphy practice notebook, sudoku puzzles, and my harmonica. This way, whenever I get stuck waiting in the car, I can amuse myself in a variety of ways.

The other day, I had to take my class to a lecture on English, delivered in Turkish. I hate it when this happens. Inevitably, I shepherd my class to the lecture hall after taking roll, answer their endless, aggrieved "Do we really have to stay for this?" appeals -- "Yes you do, now sit back down and be QUIET!" -- then sit through the long session myself, bored out of my mind. (My students are lucky: at least they can understand Turkish.)

Good thing I had my bag of junk.

While we waited for the lecture to begin, Ilker started fidgeting, then wheeled around in his seat, his face radiating misery. "Teacher, very illy today. I have cold!" He pointed to his nose and mimed blowing it. I reached right into my bag, pulled out a packet of Kleenex, and handed it to him.

Two minutes later, Cem tapped my shoulder. "Excuse me, I go wash my hands come back, okay?" I rolled my eyes: Like hell he would! I shook my head. "You don't need to wash your hands." Cem's eyes widened. "Teacher, pig flu very dangerous!" I fished around in my bag until my fingers closed around my small bottle of anti-bacterial hand wash. I relished the look on his face as I handed it to him. My bag of tricks was really coming in handy: I even had enough chewing gum for the three people who wanted it.

But boy, was everybody jittery. Even after the lecture began, the seats shook with the boys' jerky, restless twitching as they readjusted their legs, fiddled with their mobile phones (which none of them can go any longer than five minutes without consulting), and passed items back and forth. I heaved a deep sigh: I was stuck here in their midst for the better part of an hour with nothing to do but examine the portrait of Atatürk, study my fingernails, and twiddle my thumbs. Stealthily I fished my calligraphy practice book out of my bag and began writing kuzushiji, the equivalent of Japanese cursive.

Five minutes into my practice, I suddenly realized that Abdullah, sitting next to me, was no longer fidgeting. And he was practically breathing down my neck. "Hojam, what language?" he asked, pointing.

"Japanese," I whispered.

He raised his eyebrows. "You know?"

I nodded and kept writing. Abdullah watched me, enthralled. I might as well have been turning water into wine.

Abdullah pulled out his notebook. "Teacher, you write my name please!" he said under his breath with barely concealed excitement.

Foreign names don't look very interesting in Japanese. You have to write them in katakana, the squarish syllabary used for non-Japanese words and names. People are always disappointed to see their names written in Japanese and Abdullah was no exception when I penned アブジュラー in his notebook. "What does your name mean?" I whispered. "If you tell me the meaning, I can write it better."

He didn't get it, so I wrote out my own name in katakana. "See, メアリー is how my name sounds in Japanese. But 芽亜里 is how I write it sometimes, for meaning. 芽 is like a small flower--" it's actually 'bud', but I wasn't about to try that on him "--and 亜 is for Asia, and 里 is for homeland. So if you can tell me the meaning of your name, I can write yours like that." I was pretty sure I'd lost him, but no, after a few minutes of feverish consultation on his mobile, Abdullah came back to me and scribbled the following in his notebook: Abdullah=God's servant.

Grinning, I took the pen from him -- I knew how to write this! 神の召使 I wrote in his notebook. Abdullah's mouth hung open. "Thank you," he breathed. And for the remaining thirty minutes, he did his damnedest to write his Japanese name, 神の召使, as perfectly as he could.

True, the only English Abdullah learned was God's servant. But he also sat quietly for a whole thirty minutes, a miracle in itself.

Next time, I'll have one of those beginning English readers in my bag.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009


"Teacher, I don't understand."

I sighed: Cahide again. "What don't you understand?"

Cahide opened her workbook and pointed. I took a quick look and stifled another sigh. "Can you come and see me about that tomorrow morning, before class? I can't explain all that to you right now -- I've got another class to teach."

I had to repeat this half a dozen times before she got it, but Cahide finally nodded. "Okay." It took her so long to understand, I seriously considered including her in the list of students who belonged in a lower class. I wondered when she would give up and realize that she was out of her depth.

First thing the next morning, Cahide was there with her workbook. I was surprised to see that unlike the majority of her classmates, she had completely filled in the pages I had assigned for homework. While her classmates' books were almost entirely pristine, Cahide's was full of penciled-in explanations, scrawled dictionary definitions of words in margins, erasures, crossed-out bits, and answers. Nothing had been left undone, either; she had even completed the sections I told everyone not to bother with.

It took ages for me to explain everything Cahide didn't understand, but the light of reason finally dawned and she went away, satisfied. It was enormously gratifying.

Unfortunately, she was back the next morning. She caught me gulping down coffee ten minutes before I was leaving to teach another class. "I don't understand this," she said, opening her workbook.

I took a look and blinked: she was already onto the next unit! I shook my head. "We're not doing that yet. Wait until we cover it, okay?"

She furrowed her brow and tilted her head. "Sorry? I don't understand."

I fought the urge to look at my watch. "We will do that unit the day after tomorrow. Wait until then, okay?"

When she finally understood, she nodded -- grudgingly -- then turned a few pages back to the unit we were on. "I don't understand this," she said, pointing.

I let out a slow breath. "Come and see me after class, then."

"Twelve thirty o'clock?"

I bit my lips. "Yes, twelve thirty is fine." There went my lunch break!

Sure enough, Cahide came and saw me after class and stayed an hour while I did my best to explain around hurried bites from my sandwich. She didn't leave until she was certain she had understood everything.

Over the next six weeks, Cahide hounded me and the colleague I shared her class with. She followed us out of the classroom and buttonholed us on our way to the toilet to ask us questions. We took to hiding from her, she was so determined. Her stamina and tenacity amazed us: she did every assignment we gave her, wrote every paper, filled in every form, answered every question. And if she didn't get something, she was never shy about letting us know. We began to dread her Teacher, I don't understand.

But we began to admire and respect her even more. She never gave up. When the rest of the class yawned and looked at their watches, Cahide nodded her head and raised her hand. When everyone else sprinted out as soon as it was break time, she stayed in the classroom and asked endless questions. She walked to the teachers' room with us afterward, grilling us about details. What should she be studying? How many hours? Which compositions should she be writing? Would we read her work after she had finished? Would we correct it please?

Before the midterm examination, Cahide's diligence surpassed itself. She doubled, then tripled her efforts, constantly bringing us compositions to mark and questions to answer. What impressed me the most was that she never gave any preference to my Turkish-speaking colleague. Coping with our language gap must have been as much of a trial for her as it was for me, but it never seemed to faze her. My colleague and I were exhausted, but increasingly heartened by her enthusiasm and incredible determination.

The only thing that worried us was the midterm. Many students fail the midterm, particularly those of Cahide's level. We hoped that failing wouldn't discourage her the way it has discouraged other students.

Yesterday we got the midterm results. Cahide, it turned out, got the best mark in the entire class.

"I am so proud of you!" I told her today. "You are an inspiration!"


I wrote it down for her. "Inspiration. Look that up in your English-Turkish dictionary when you get home today, okay?"

She smiled modestly, but she seemed distracted. "Okay. Teacher?"


She flipped the pages of her workbook until she found the unit we will be starting next. Pointing, she said, "I don't understand."

Sunday, 15 November 2009

What's In A Name?

"Poor kid," my husband murmured the other day as a teenage boy walked past us. The kid looked okay to me. "What's wrong with him?" I asked. "Is he sick? Have his parents split up?"

My husband shook his head. "He's fine. It's his name."

"What is it?"

He told me. I clapped my hand over my mouth. "You've got to be kidding!"

"I'm not."

"Maybe he can pick another name. Or use his middle name instead."

"Pick another name?" my husband snorted. "It's his last name."

Poor kid!

I'm not going to tell you what the word is. This is a kid-friendly blog. My kids know the word and so do most, but I don't like them thinking it's okay to bandy it about. Let's' just say that this word is about the worst you can get. When it comes to shock effect, it trumps the F word any day. And this poor 15-year-old boy is walking around with it.

"Hope he never goes to live in an English-speaking country," I said. My husband nodded. But this kid is around English-speaking kids every day. If he hasn't been ribbed about it yet, it's just a matter of time.

When I lived in New York, I knew a Japanese girl whose name was Mariko, a perfectly common and respectable name in Japan and one which means nothing unpleasant or embarrassing in English. But when Mariko went to her first ESL class in Brooklyn and was asked to introduce herself, she brought the house down when she shyly said, "I am Mariko." Her almost entirely Spanish-speaking class heard this as maricon, which is Spanish slang for gay. It took Mariko weeks to work up the nerve to speak in front of the class again. She also took to calling herself Mari. "I got tired of everybody laughing when they heard my name," she said.

In Japan, I taught a boy named Shu, which is pronounced exactly like shoe, a girl called Mami, which is pronounced exactly like Mommy, and a boy called Yu, which sounds exactly like you. Shu's and Mami's names always made me smile, but Yu's name really tripped me up. When we practiced third person present, it always felt weird to say, "What does Yu do?" Once when our class went out for coffee together, I had the interesting experience of asking one of his classmates, "Is Yu going?" It didn't sound right.

When Yu told me he was going to study in the States for a year, I was thrilled for him at first, then I frowned. I hated the idea of telling someone to change his name, but Yu seemed to be heading for confusion.

"Umm...have you given your name any thought?" I asked. He smiled. "Someone told me Scottish name like Euan is good idea in America." I let out a sigh of relief.

In my years as an EFL teacher, I've also taught a Saiko (pronounced the same as psycho), a Tuba and a Tuna. But I never once taught an Anus. My mother did.

My mother used to teach in a tiny one-room school in the backwoods of Western Kentucky. Many of her students came from humble families with illiterate parents. One day a new boy showed up in her class. When she asked him for his name, he promptly replied, "Anus."

My mother blanched. She had grown up among people with Victorian ideas and for a split second, she wondered if the boy was trying something funny. "Spell that," she almost whispered.

The boy licked his lips. "A - N - U - S."

My mother studied his face: there was not even the slightest flicker of a smile.

For a week, my mother taught Anus. "But I could not call on him by name in class," she told us. "I had to point to him and say you,and I felt so rude doing that." She decided to pay Anus' parents a visit.

Anus' parents were good, simple people though obviously illiterate. When my mother brought up the subject of his name, his father proudly said that they had gotten it from the Bible. My mother was vastly relieved by this: they had been aiming for Enos, but hadn't thought to double check the spelling. When she suggested that they might want to change the spelling, Anus' parents were confused. Why?

My mother was the sort of person who never even used the words damn or hell. As a child, she'd had her mouth washed out for calling someone a fool, so she was way out of her depth trying to explain what Anus' name meant. For a few awkward minutes, she hemmed and hawed. She explained that ENOS was the correct spelling, but Anus' mother shrugged. So their son would have a different spelling for his name, what was wrong with that?

My mother flushed. "It means something bad."


Sadly, my mother's Victorian sensibilities made it impossible for her to spell it out. For one entire year, Anus was referred to as You in her class. Too bad he couldn't have called himself Euan too.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Cat Scratch

The hospital porter gestured through a fog of smoke to a pair of grubby-looking swinging doors and a sign that read CASUALTY. "What wrong?" he asked, waving his cigarette.

I showed him my right hand. "Kedi," I said, making a scratching motion with my left. He nodded and pointed at the doors.

The waiting room was so small it only had three chairs in it. A bored-looking 20-something woman sat in one, communing with her mobile phone. Next to her sat a middle-aged man in a shabby suit. The third was taken up by a stoop-shouldered elderly woman in a headscarf. In a corner of the room stood a very skinny old man who at first sight seemed to be clutching his crotch. I took a surreptitious look and decided he must be trying to hold up his trousers: he was so thin they were in danger of sliding right down his legs. The mobile-punching woman and I were the only ones in the room who didn't look ill.

Immediately after me, a woman came in with two young children. The kids were covered with blisters daubed with some sort of white ointment, and both of them were screaming their heads off. The woman looked the way you look when you've been taking care of sick, cranky kids for far too long. No sooner had she steered her shrieking kids into a corner than the door swung open again and a man on crutches hobbled through, followed by a woman, veiled from head to toe and carrying a tiny infant. I looked at the healthy young woman who was busy punching buttons on her mobile, but if she noticed the man on crutches or his encumbered wife, she never gave the slightest sign.

I looked at the tiny scratch on my hand. What was I doing here? Who got lockjaw nowadays anyway?

The elderly man who looked like he was clutching his crotch talked softly to the children, as though he was trying to stop them from screaming. They didn't pay him the least bit of mind.

A door whipped open and a harassed-looking doctor stuck his head out and barked something in Turkish. Two of the seated people got up and followed the doctor through the doors, their movements sluggish and pained. I expected the woman with the baby to sit down in one of the chairs, but she remained standing, scowling at everyone in the room, her baby sound asleep in her arms. She stayed there even after her husband hobbled out of the room.

Hardly a minute later, the swinging doors creaked open again and a man in a business suit came through. The doctor's door swung open again and the couple who had been sitting walked out. The doctor spotted the man in the business suit and fired a question at him. The businessman held out his hand. My eyes popped: his hand was the size of a boxing glove. It was swollen to twice the size of his other hand, his knuckles round and smooth as glass, the skin tight, dark red and shiny. The doctor poked and prodded it, all the time staring in fascination; we all did. I winced, half expecting it to burst open. The doctor said something to the man and he left, taking his fascinating hand with him.

The doctor disappeared through his door just as another man rushed through the swinging doors, holding his hand high over his head, his face drawn and white. He was dressed in a mechanic's jumpsuit, black with use, and his hand was wrapped in a dirty-looking blood-soaked bandage. The doctor poked his head out again and beckoned him through.

I now felt completely out of place. What in the world was I doing among all these people with genuine complaints? Should I even be here? With all these ill and injured people, I would be here for ages before anyone could see me! The fully cloaked and headkerchiefed woman stared at me sullenly through narrowed eyes. I fought the urge to bolt from the room.

The man with the bandaged hand came out of the treatment room, a clean white bandage on his hand. The doctor beckoned the two screaming children and their mother. After they left, the waiting room got a lot quieter. The girl with the mobile phone continued to sit, and the woman holding her baby continued to glare.

Half a minute later, the two children came back into the waiting room, still screaming, followed closely by their long-suffering mother. The doctor crooked his finger at the crotch-clutching man who disappeared into the treatment room with him.

The woman with the baby scowled a little more deeply and I stared back at her, trying to make my expression kind but firm. I have a right to be here too. I haven't had a tetanus shot since God-knows-when. And if I were the one sitting in that chair, I'd have gotten up the minute you came in!

The woman's face did not soften.

No sooner had the crotch-clutching man pushed through the swinging doors than another family came in, composed of a granny in a headscarf, a middle-aged laborer dad, comfortable-looking mother, and two sullen teenage kids. The doctor stuck his head through the treatment room door and noticed me for the first time. "And you?" he said in Turkish, frowning.

I sucked in my breath and showed him my scratch. Never mind that it had bled copiously earlier; never mind that it was deeper than it looked: my blushes were a lot deeper. I almost expected the doctor to burst out laughing, but he nodded and motioned for me to follow him.

The linoleum floor inside the treatment room was sticky and the examining table was spread with a stained sheet. I sat down on it and waited while the doctor rummaged around for a tetanus vaccine. Opposite me lay a young man on another examining table, his outstretched arm being tended by a nurse with a pair of tweezers. A mess of bloody dressings spilled out of a stainless steel basin placed nearby. I tried not to stare, but it was a compelling tableau: the man's face was turned away from the nurse, his eyes dull, utterly without expression.

"I'm so sorry," I babbled as the doctor rubbed my arm with alcohol. "The cat is usually very polite." He stared at me uncomprehendingly, and I could hardly blame him. "I didn't even want to come here," I went on, watching the doctor depress the plunger. "I mean, it's not really much of a scratch." The doctor frowned. He looked a lot like my students do when I'm not explaining things well: it was obvious he didn't understand a word.

On my way out, the family of five had been joined by a father and his teenage son. The woman with her baby was still standing; the girl was still bent over her mobile phone. They looked up at me and I felt my cat scratch shrink into a mere pinpoint.

I could hardly get out of there fast enough.

Friday, 6 November 2009

When The Saints Go Marching In

Ten minutes into the lesson and I've finally managed to take attendance.

"Teacher, what page?" asks a girl in the front row.

"Page thirty-three," I repeat through gritted teeth. "Page thirty-three."

The door whips open and Ender breezes in, reeking of tobacco and aftershave. "Hello teacher. Sorry for late." He looks pointedly at the attendance sheet lying on my desk. "I am here?"

"Teacher, what page?" yells a boy in the middle of the classroom who wasn't paying attention earlier.


Ender is still standing there. Barely glancing at him, I jerk a thumb towards the desks in a sit down gesture. This sails over Ender's head. He takes a step closer and gestures at the attendance sheet. "I am present?"

"You are late. Sit down!"

He doesn't sit down, though. If he knew me a little better, he really would, but he stands there, waiting for me to stop what I'm doing and mark him present.

"You are late, and I am trying to teach," I say, my voice dangerously soft and low. "Now sit down."

"Teacher, page forty three?" a girl calls out.

"THIRTY THREE! I bellow.

Ender still hasn't given up. He jabs his thumb at the roll sheet. "I am present?"

God give me strength! Ender is the third student who's come into my classroom late this morning. My patience stores, dangerously low even before Ender made his ill-timed appearance, are suddenly empty. I pick the register up in both hands and raise it over my head in a fair imitation of Moses ready to smash the tablets. "SIT.DOWN!" I thunder, making the entire class jump.

Students in my morning class tend to come in late because the bus service is erratic. I'd be more sympathetic if I hadn't spotted a few of the offenders outside, indulging in pre-class cigarettes. When it comes to the bus being late, wolf has been cried one time too many. I've gotten hardened after over a year here, and I've grown canny too: Ender is unmistakably one of the wolf criers. Maybe his bus was late. Maybe it was raining/hailing/windy where he lives or his lift didn't show up. Maybe his roommate stole his bicycle. Maybe he has a 104 degree temperature from swine flu, but I don't care. Everybody else managed to get here on time. Ender is on two legs; he looks more well-rested than I do, and he smells like he's spent the last three days smoking in a closet. Nothing short of, God forbid, a dead mother with an authentic, carefully-vetted death certificate is going to change my mind: I'm not marking Ender present. The midterm exam is this coming Wednesday, and my class is lagging far behind. I was hoping to use this period to catch up, but Ender has gone and made me waste five precious minutes.

Amazingly, Ender doesn't leave the classroom once he knows I'm not going to mark him present. Finally getting the point, he stomps down the aisle, throws himself into a chair and lands on his back, legs splayed in front of him, his face like thunder.

"Now open your books to page thirty three," I say quietly. And Ender does. The rest of the class are watching me narrowly, their faces full of awe. In fact, I'm full of awe myself.

How in the world did I get like this? I am the mildest mannered person you could ever meet. I hate confrontations; I will bend over backward to accommodate people; I am gentle by nature and utterly trusting. How did I become this shrill, cynical woman who bullies students into doing their homework, patrols her classroom for slackers, and wrests cell phones from the hands of teenagers? I've gone through an amazing transformation in one year's time.

For the next two hours, I work the kids like there is no tomorrow. I push them willy-nilly through the present perfect tense; I make sure they've got a handle on already, just, and yet; I drill them on Have you ever...?; I give no quarter and accept no excuses and I do not allow them a minute's peace. The deserving are praised, the lazy ones are admonished, and the confused are gently led to the light. I make sure that all of them participate and contribute, even Ender. And we get through all the material, by God. We are now only two chapters behind, and I know I'll be able to cover them on Monday and Tuesday. When I finally dismiss the class, they get up from their seats with glazed looks on their faces; they squeeze their eyes shut and rub their faces and the backs of their necks. I think they may be even more tired than I am.

The truth is, I don't know whether they'll pass the midterm. But this I do know: on the seventh day I will rest. And if there really is a heaven, I'm that much closer to securing myself a spot.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

A Dish Of Culinary Xenophobia

My knife slides into the avocado and the two halves fall apart, all green-edged pale yellow perfection. "Look!" I say, breathing a sigh of relief, "it's just ripe enough."

Avocados are tough to get just right: sometimes one that looks absolutely fine will turn out to be rotten inside, nothing but fibrous and rancid brown mush. The fact that this one is so beautifully ripe and flawless is a real stroke of luck. But the ring of faces around me registers deep suspicion. Nobody seems impressed.

"Now, we'll just put the avocado halves in this bowl here," I go on, handing one boy a garlic press, "and squeeze some garlic and a little lemon juice into it--"

"Hojam, I no like," the boy interrupts glumly, pointing at the garlic.

I look up at him in consternation. Last week, I asked everybody if they liked garlic and I'm sure I got nothing but enthusiastic nods. Maybe nobody understood me. Maybe all those nods were the equivalent of my students' kneejerk yeses when I ask if they've done their homework, even when they've hardly glanced at it.

I try to keep my face from falling. "You really don't like garlic?" How can someone not like garlic? "You didn't say anything about not liking garlic last week..."

The boy shivers and looks at the garlic press in my hand, his upper lip drawn back. When I suggested doing guacamole last week, everyone seemed keen enough. From the looks on their faces, I might as well be mixing up slug slime with gasoline.

I don't actually want to be here, doing this, but I have no choice. This term, our director got the idea that we should have after-school clubs for the students, in order to offer them a more diverse and stimulating social life. In the warmer months, there are a lot of things the students can do, but when it gets colder, they get bored. Students have complained that they do nothing but -- gasp! -- study, and commute back and forth to school. So now we have a tennis club, a football club, an engineering club, a conversation club, a drama club and a 'gourmet' club. I'm in charge of the gourmet club.

We should not have called it a gourmet club. Why not? Because it turns out that none of these boys will try more than the tiniest smear of guacamole. They feel the same way about the cheese and spring onion quesadillas we have fried up. The same food my own kids can't get enough of is clearly grossing them out in the worst way.

"No thank you," murmur all the boys, one after another, shaking their heads as I hold out a bowl of fresh tortilla chips and point to the guacamole. They avert their eyes and make nauseated little moues.

I should have known the boys weren't wholeheartedly behind the idea of trying Mexican food. When I reminded them about it earlier, they frowned at the avocados and started talking about kebabs and pilaf. They've eaten hundreds upon hundreds of kebabs and pilafs, but not one of them had the tiniest idea about Mexican food. I just wanted them to try something different. This is a Gourmet Club, after all! This is what I get for wanting people to love the things I love. For wanting them to try new things and expand their horizons.

All too keenly I remember the time my eldest daughter convinced me to make sushi for her class in Scotland. I told her it was a bad idea. I tried my best to discourage her, only partly because I didn't feel like going to the trouble of making sushi for a bunch of strangers: I knew that her classmates could not possibly appreciate my efforts as much as she did. People can be very squeamish about certain kinds of 'ethnic' food, and our little town in Scotland is hardly a cosmopolitan metropolis. But my daughter begged and begged me, certain that her classmates would be as thrilled with her favorite food as she was, so with great reservations, I sent her off to school proudly carrying a plateful of futomaki, stuffed with soy-cooked shiitake, carrots, cucumber, egg, and crab.

Sure enough, my daughter came home from school with an empty plate and a glum expression. While some of her friends loved the sushi, a lot of kids played ball with them in the classroom. "They didn't like the nori," my daughter told me. "They said it tasted like paper." I made a sympathetic face and refrained from saying I told you so. "All they like is chips," my daughter grumbled. "They don't even want to try other stuff, no matter how good it is."

"Turkish boys like kebab, Mary," my colleague informs me primly as I wrap up the scorned quesadilla and dump the guacamole into a plastic container. I scrub the chopping board and try to keep my irritation from showing. Of course Turkish boys like kebab -- I know that! But this is a gourmet club, not a Let's make the same old food you eat every single night club, right?

Looks like next week we'll be making a pilaf.