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.


Kim Ayres said...

Maybe you should leave Ender's register slot blank until the end of the class. Let him know if he tries extra hard to make up for being late, you'll mark him as present :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Teaching can turn even the most benign saint into a raving, drooling lunatic with homicidal tendencies. I've been there.

WordWrangler said...

Bless your heart! I homeschool my 3 girls and believe it or not...we have plenty of days like that. (okay, almost like that).

Take your day of rest.
Eat some chocolate.


Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- I have, on countless occasions, made this very suggestion: "Just sit down and do what you're supposed to do, and if you really try your hardest, I'll mark you present." It doesn't work. You know why? Because Ender won't hear me out. And the honest truth is that he could not do it even if he tried: he's one of those kids who CANNOT sit still. I suspect he's hyperactive.

Charles - Man, I was there today. Teaching took me to a dark, dark place. (Shiver.) On Monday, I'll have to go back there again. And again.

Glad to know I'm not the only one!

WordWrangler -- Thank you! I would need an entire confectioner's shop full of chocolate after today. Seriously, half a dozen Hershey's bars, some king-sized Cadbury's fruit and nut, and maybe some Belgian truffles ought to do the trick. Ooh: Ender has ended my diet...

Vijaya said...

Just being a mother has turned me into a lunatic ... I am relatively calm as a teacher. But some days ...

Do take that day of rest, Mary. You deserve it.

Falak said...

You deserve a holiday..... Some spa resort tucked away in some remote corner of the world where attendance sheets, late students and anything remotely related to teaching vaporizes into thin air. It took you one year to transform.... You truly are mild natured... I lost my cool in the very first week of my tryst with teaching:)

Bish Denham said...

Sometimes it takes a bulldozer to move the rocks.

Robert the Skeptic said...

How sad about the smoking. But I am amazed at the number of young people in the US who have taken up this disgusting habit. It's not like the consequences are completely unknown. To me, cigarette use is how I identify the leaders from the followers in society.

Mary Witzl said...

Vijaya -- In Japan, I was the calmest, most collected teacher you ever saw. With my Turkish students, I'm like something straight out of hell, but then most of us are: my colleagues will back me up. I don't exaggerate on this blog: the reality is much worse than I make out. And boy, do I need a holiday! I'm thinking a snug little suit and a nice padded cell ought to do the trick.

Falak -- Just keep thinking those holiday thoughts for me, please. It's not going to happen anytime soon, but it's nice to know that people out there are thinking pool resorts and little drinks with umbrellas for me.

Bish -- My problem is that I've got so many sows' ears to turn into silk purses. A good proportion of the kids I teach are not university material, but I've got to pretend they are and go through the motions anyway.

Robert -- What's really sad is that some of our African students have taken up smoking. Very few of the Africans smoke, whereas the students from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, (and all the other 'stans', come to think of it) tend to be heavy smokers. Every time I see an African kid who's taken up the habit (largely because of making Turkish and 'stan' friends), I want to cry. The consequences are known, but what kid thinks of his own mortality?

Still -- cool, I'm a leader!

laura said...

I think you've earned your keep this year! I couldn't do your job in a million years.

Postman said...

Once again, I find myself left awed by the utter "expatriate ESL-teacher" relevance. I can sympathize with you wholeheartedly in this matter, the unexpected fierceness that one develops in the teeth of the necessity of discipline. It blindsides you, doesn't it? I could tell you some stories...

angryparsnip said...

How old are the students in your class? and is it a Turkish thing to do so early in life? or are they in their 20's?
I don't see as much smoking where I live but the expensive price tag might be the reason.

Mary Witzl said...

Laura -- I can't do my job properly half the time! Never say never, though: one year ago, I'd have been amazed to see myself, swanning around the classroom like some kind of dictator.

Postman -- There ought to be a teaching blog, don't you think? Or is there one and we just don't know about it? All of these stories of ours would be good to pool, I think. At the very least, we could see that others have been along the same paths and fought the good fight. You should tell some of your teaching stories!

AP -- The youngest kid in my class is 17; the oldest this year is 23. And cigarettes are dirt cheap here: it breaks my heart how many kids smoke. It also pisses me off: restaurants haven't banned smokers so I will never be able to enjoy eating out here.

What great news that there aren't so many smokers around in the States, though!

Charlie said...

Unfortunately, if it takes the harridan approach to control a human zoo, then so be it. "Nice" has proven itself not to work, so it's the fish-wife. The good news is, you won't be selling fish for the rest of your life.

Robin said...

Wow. Ender is going to be culled from the herd with Darwinism. He's going to be eaten by jackals if he doesn't wise up.

Anonymous said...

Hahaha! I'm laughing WITH you, so I'm not crying with sympathy. Oh yes! I could a tale unfold, the lightest word of which would harrow up thy soul. I still have "fond" (i.e. NOT) memories of the time I completely lost my temper and shouted sarcasm at my students in Mauritania. And I am usually very mild-mannered and tend to avoid confrontation at any price! But they drove me to it.
And mine started with a late student too!

Anne Spollen said...

I can't get over his name -- perfect!

Mary Witzl said...

Charlie -- You're right: my fishwife days are numbered. And you had better believe that I am TICKING THEM OFF THE CALENDAR one by one. June 2010 is shining in the horizon like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. June! June! June! (That's to give me courage to face tomorrow, Monday morning.)

Robin -- It's awful to say this, but the jackals would have a tough time digesting this lad's head. We're talking a skull as thick as the walls of Fort Knox. Hope he quits smoking though: he's polluting everybody's air.

PN -- You cheer me up, you know, my fellow suffering teacher! You can harrow my soul if I can harrow yours. Sometimes I have to remind myself that it's almost cruel to get angry with these kids. Then one of them does something so ridiculous, like OBVIOUSLY plagiarizing, blatantly copying someone else's test paper, or swanning into class 20 minutes late and having the gall to demand that I mark him present, that I just lose my cool entirely and go all mental again. Sigh... Not nice, is it?

Anne -- (Blush) Ender isn't his real name, on the off chance that he'll google his name and mine and maybe get a Nigerian or Kazakh friend to translate for him. But his real name is just as good!

Postman said...

Hmmm...if there ain't such a blog, we should start one. That would put an end to me feeling like I'm endlessly turning the conversation back to myself just because I like to swap stories of similar experiences with you. I might just start putting a few of those stories up on my own blog, though...thanks for the impetus.

Helen said...

Ooooh Mary - you scarey thing you! I can so imagine that a group of snotty, obnoxious teenagers would probably drive me to manslaughter, if not plan old pre-meditated, painful murder.

Mary Witzl said...

Postman -- We ought to start one called 'The Teachers' Rant' or something similar. I think my rant blogs have gotten a little out of hand, actually. I think I need a separate place to whine. And I hope turning the conversation back to oneself isn't wrong: I do it all the time!

Helen -- Parenting and teaching can take a reasonably sane person to some VERY dark, scary places. So far, I've only really lost it once or twice, and I never hit anybody. I pray a lot in class though. I clasp my hands together and tilt my head up and cry out, "Give me strength!" The kids love it too: it provides comic release.