Wednesday, 30 March 2011

An Embarrassment Of Experiences

"I once taught for a whole thirty minutes with my blouse unbuttoned," my friend Karen groaned.

Karen is a retired teacher. We'd gotten to talking about teaching and how fraught our classroom experiences were with embarrassing situations. We were vying with each other to find the most blush-inducing, cringe-worthy teaching incident we could recall. "A girl in the first row finally caught my eye and told me," Karen added, wincing. "Naturally the buttons were in the worst possible place."

"The same thing happened to me, but it was my skirt," I said. "And the student who pointed it out was a boy."

Maybe my long-term memory is exceptionally keen, but after Karen had shared more embarrassing experiences -- knocking over a metal wastebasket with half a bottle of Coke in it, forgetting names while being observed, tripping over a student's bag -- I was still going strong. Embarrassment, we both agreed, was one of the occupational hazards of teaching.

For instance: one of my American colleagues in Japan had learned how important it was to teach culturally related body language, especially things like hand shaking. So on her very first day as a teaching assistant in a large high school English class, she asked all her students to introduce themselves and shake her hand. One by one, the students blurted out their names and thrust out their hands for her to shake. As she made her way through the classroom, she became aware of a strange vibe. A few of the girls were trading nervous looks; boys were giggling and beginning to wriggle in their seats. When she approached the last student, she understood why. The boy mumbled his name and, after a bit of good-natured prodding, reluctantly put his hand out. Which is when she noticed that he was missing several fingers. "All that time, the poor kid was dreading having to stick his hand out," she wailed, wiping her eyes. "I felt horrible, putting him through that!"

When I was teaching at a large preparatory school in Tokyo, our classrooms were so large that we had to use microphones. My colleague and team-teacher, Mr. Ito, clipped his to his shirt. One day after a break, we came back to the classroom to find everybody laughing. "Sensei," one of the girls gasped, "you did it again!" Mr. Ito look down at his shirt -- and blanched. He had forgotten to turn off his microphone. He had treated the entire class to the highly amplified sounds of what transpired in the faculty men's toilet.

The very worst thing that happened to me, though, involved Ahmet, a shy Turkish boy who disappeared for a whole month. When Ahmet finally came to class, I asked him to explain his long absence. "Teacher," he said, looking away, "my mother is die."

Now, this sounds hard-hearted, but the horrible truth is, I'd heard this one before. Two boys had already tried the dead/deathly ill mother excuse before, and on both occasions, I found out they were lying. Several colleagues assured me they had fallen for the same trick. The first two times, I heard this, I'd almost burst into tears. This time, I'd gotten savvier: I wasn't buying it.

"I'll need a letter from your mother's doctor," I told him coolly.

"Okay," Ahmet almost whispered, looking ashen. "Next time, I bring."

I stared at him. Was he feeling guilty? He ought to be! How dare anybody tempt fate by using such an excuse? What if something actually happened to his mother? Would he ever be able to forgive himself?

But as I left the classroom, I had a horrible thought. What if Ahmet's mother really had died? It had happened to me. When I was in graduate school, my own mother died, and I'd gone to my Japanese drama teacher to ask if I could retake the final. "You're the fourth person who managed to miss it!" she'd muttered crossly. "Well, what's your excuse?" When I burst into tears, I don't know which one of us felt worse. Had I just done the same thing to Ahmet?

"I've got a student whose mother died," I told our head teacher. He laughed and shook his head. "Not another dead mother! He's lying, I guarantee you."

"All the same, would you mind checking? I'd feel awful if he were telling the truth."

The head teacher gave me an indulgent look, but he went off to check. He came back white-faced and sober. "He's telling the truth. His father says his mother had a heart attack. She was only 40."

The next time I saw Ahmet, I told him he wouldn't need the letter from his mother's doctor. He pressed his lips together and tried to nod, but I saw that his eyes were wet. I promptly burst into tears.

Like I said, embarrassment is one of the occupational hazards of teaching.


JLD said...

Oh, Mary, how awful! It happens to all of us, though. There is always this delicate balance in life of "Am I being heartless?" vs "Am I being played for a fool?"

Thanks for sharing your embarrassments. I'm not a teacher, but I have a nice long list of my own.


Bish Denham said...

Oh my...At least you had the presence of mind to have someone check. Obviously you sensed this time it was different.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Our father had died years earlier so when it was time for my sister's wedding, I had the proud distinction of walking my sister down the aisle.

I did so, my sister on my arm, then reaching close to the alter I stepped back. But nothing happened, my sister did not step up to the alter, everyone stood there as if in suspended animation. I heard some whispering behind me but couldn't make it out.. then someone stood up and whispered in my ear: "You're standing on her dress". I took one step to the side and the wedding continued. I got a lot of ribbing for that one during the reception.

Robin said...

That is just too awful!

I went to a lecture once where the guest lecturer went pee pee with his mike on, and the whole auditorium was treated to tinkle sounds. I cracked up, and then looked around me and no one else was laughing. I felt like someone in "The Emperor and His New Clothes". The more mature audience members pretended that nothing was amiss.

~meredith~ said...

My dad was a teacher, and he did the bathroom trip with the mike on. Not only was his classroom treated to the sounds, but also the several on-line conference classes he had, too. No one was shy about laughing at him when he came back.

Charles Gramlich said...

Yesterday I clearly lost one student. I was takling about something when he started shaking his head and then he promptly leaned back in his chair and went to sleep. I wasn't too embarrassed, though, I thought it was kinda funny.

Mary Witzl said...

JLD -- Poor Ahmet, though! He needed and deserved my sympathy, but he had to pay for the dishonesty of the kids who used their mothers as excuses.

I've got a knack for making a jackass of myself like this. I could certainly write a book about all the embarrassing experiences I've had teaching, but they definitely make the job more interesting -- AFTER the fact!

Bish -- When the first boy told me his mother was gravely ill, I completely believed him -- ANYbody would have, this boy was a gifted liar. By the time the second boy was practically sobbing about his mother, I smelled a rat. With Ahmet, I just wanted to be sure, but I thought he was lying too.


Robert -- That is a hilarious story! I'll bet your family accused you of not wanting to see your sister married -- right? (You weren't standing on her Freudian slip, were you? ;o)

Robin -- They weren't mature, they were repressed. Right? Who in their right mind accidentally listens to the sound of somebody peeing, in a lecture full of people who have just heard that person speak of grave and important things, then pretends like it didn't happen? Things like that are gifts. Showing your appreciation is perfectly natural!

Meredith -- Whoa...your father did this too? That microphone-in-the-toilet issue is a worse problem than I'd realized! I had no idea this was such a widespread problem, but it makes perfect sense that it is. I'm always forgetting that I've got a pencil shoved behind my ear; what I could do with a mike doesn't bear thinking about.

Charles -- When you've got a whole class of virtually narcoleptic kids snoring away, it's not embarrassing, it's irritating. I used to tell classroom nappers I couldn't mark them present for snoozing through a class, but I was lenient towards one-offs.

AnneB said...

Mike-in-the-loo happened in our church a few years ago. An important person in the parish administration left the altar after an announcement and while the rest of the service continued, the sound of vomiting was heard throughout the land.

Fortunately the median age at that particular service is usually around 75 so only the sharp-eared heard it.

Marcia said...

Having experienced it yourself, you probably noticed the signs in him. And I guess this is a picture of how liars hurt others.

I had a prof in college, short guy, little mustache, who was a real wise-***. He and a couple of guys in the class especially enjoyed exchanging barbs. One day, we all entered the room, and his back was to the board. The carillon chimes rang, announcing the start of class, and he slowly turned. A fat bandage decorated his upper lip, covering exactly the whole area his 'stache had covered. The entire class busted out laughing. The poor man was so embarrassed, precisely because he'd always been such a you-know-what and knew he was fair game for teasing. Apparently, he'd worn the mustache to disguise some minor defect that he'd now had surgery on.

Falak said...

After reading about all those embarrassing moments I understand the perks of being a student. Although I must say that we have our own embarrassing moments :)

Pat said...

I was doing a TV ad with my baby son feeding him Heinz carrots which he genuinely ate.
Whilst the cameras were rolling I felt a ping as the milk came in but carried on spooning carrots into my son's mouth. Suddenly there was a loud 'CUT!'
The director - with a scarlet face - pointed out that all the buttons on my blouse had popped and my bulging bosom was there for all to see.

Mary Witzl said...

AnneB -- What a marvellous story, but it could have been worse: at least the speaker made it to the toilet in time! It's always nice to find a silver lining for disabilities: deafness can very occasionally be a handy thing, screening the afflicted from all sorts of horrors.

Marcia -- It was almost a 'boy who called wolf' situation, except that the boys who called it weren't the poor boy who'd lost his mother. Some day, they'll no doubt find themselves in a situation where they need to know the truth, but can only find lies. I hope they'll remember me, then!

Your poor teacher! The fact that he had his back to the class makes me feel all the sorrier for him. I once witnessed a teacher have an egg dropped on his head from a parapet. He was a pacifist, poor guy, who greatly admired Gandhi and Dr. King. He walked straight ahead, pretending it hadn't happened, not even wiping off the egg that ran down his face.

Falak -- The thing about student experiences is that they're usually private unless you're called on in front of the class (when they have the potential to be devastating). I did daft things as a student, but usually got away with them. When you're a teacher, you're pretty much on display. If you get away with them, you're very lucky.

Pat -- Huge kudos to you for sharing that experience! I haven't laughed that hard in a long time. Clearly your body was trying to tell you something there: "We're not quite ready to wean, yet!"

Lily Cate said...

Well, I am a world-class klutz, so most of my best embarassing moments involve physical comedy of some variety. Like crashing into a picnic table while trying to launch a kite, or dropping a bottle of soda in the grocery store, and having it blow up and spray me from head to toe with Dr. Pepper :)