Friday, October 24, 2008


What happens when a student that you've been trying to get to speak up finally does?  You punish him, that's what.

An easy distinction to make between western and eastern students is that the Asians--especially those from Japan and Korea--are quiet, meek, subservient, uber-respectful. That getting some of them to speak is like pulling a rotten, broken tooth.

Of course every stereotype can be shattered, every stubborn tooth can be yanked, but is it possible to push the right buttons, to prod and push even the most timid student to the point of impudence?

Consider Hiroshi (completely made-up name): A student here for the past six years, he has never spoken up, has never uttered a clear, complete sentence in class. Asked to respond to a simple question, he'll stammer and stutter, hem and haw for so long that everyone in the room will throw their hands up in frustration. That's what the other teachers say. I know otherwise.

First of all, I've heard him with friends. A few weeks ago, I had a "Japanese party" at my place for the J-kids, and Hiroshi was here, chatting and arguing with his friends, confidently beating them down at darts and with words. And the thing is, his English pronunciation is excellent--clear and no typical Japanese errors with L's and R's.

Second of all, I've heard him practically yell at an adult. Again, great pronunciation. Fluent. And that tone! An inner city youth might blush at the level of disrespect. It happened yesterday.

I took one of my classes to one of the computer labs. We had to walk through the library and, because this lab doesn't quite have enough computers, students tend to race to make sure they get one. I was last one through the library, so I didn't see what happened, just the aftermath.

The librarian was yelling at three of my guys, specifically at Hiroshi. A small wooden cabinet stood between them, its glass door shattered. Two of the guys stood there, saying nothing. Hiroshi, however, came close to the librarian, practically shouted, "I told you I didn't touch it!"

"What? You want me to believe that you walked past," she retorted, sweeping her arm past, "and then, magically, the cabinet fell over on its own?"

"I was there," he said back, pointing to the stairs leading down to the lab. "How did I knock it down? I walked past and five seconds it crashed?"

The librarian was clearly fed up. "Fine, you were there," she said. "But no one else walked past this, and it fell down. I'm not blaming you. I'm not going to ask you to pay for this. I just want you to apologize!"

He walked closer, spread his arms in exasperation, and hissed, "What ... the ... heck!" 

Watching all this, I sure was glad he hadn't used another word, but I was even more glad that he turned around and stormed down the stairs. The librarian explained to me what had happened, the way she saw it, told me how frustrated she was with herself because, just an hour earlier, she had commented that this cabinet needed to be moved, that someone would knock it over if it stayed where the movers had placed it.

I walked down to my class. One of the assistant librarians walked over to Hiroshi and demanded that he go back and apologize to the librarian. He was ready to refuse. I said, "Hiroshi, go apologize. Now." As he slowly made his way back to the stairs, I caught up to him and said, "Listen. Maybe you don't need to apologize for the broken cabinet. Maybe you didn't do it. I didn't see anything, so I don't know. But you do need to apologize for the way you talked to her. I did see that."

He returned two minutes later. It was my turn up the stairs. "Did he talk to you?" I asked.

"Yes," she said. "Thanks for that. I told him that it would be expected that, even if he didn't knock it over, that he would come back and help pick it up and apologize."

"So," I said, "did he apologize?"

"Yes," she said. "He said that he was told to come back and apologize."

"He what?" He what!

It was my turn to feel dissed. I went back to the lab, waited for the final bell, then grabbed Hiroshi. As soon as the others were out of the room, I launched into him, into a solid 10-minute talk about respect and sincere apologies. The whole time, his defense was, "She had no right to yell at me." 

"That's a logical fallacy," I snapped. "We just talked about that one in class two days ago. Remember? You're just changing the subject. I tell you what you've done wrong and you deflect your wrongdoing by pointing out that someone else did something worse." He looked at me blankly. "Tell you what, if you tell me what fallacy you've just committed, I won't give you a demerit." He couldn't.

"Fine," I said. "You're not sorry about any of this. Then I'm not sorry for giving you a demerit. Three demerits! And I'm not sorry that I'm giving you Saturday morning detention." He just nodded, accepting his punishment.

Then I launched into another 10-minute spiel, this time about how I taught all types of miscreants in Chicago, and no one ever showed me this kind of disrespect. Finally, he had enough.

"But I went," he said. "You wanted me to go, and I did it."

"I wanted you to apologize," I said, "not tell her you were told to apologize."

"Did you want me to lie?"

"I wanted you to apologize," I said, careful not to raise my voice.

"But I went. If I didn't want to apologize, I wouldn't go."

"Are you kidding?" I asked. "If I told you to do something, you'd refuse if you didn't want to?"

"I've done it before," he said. And I noticed the frustration mounting in this usually silent student. Tears welled up in his eyes. As I launched into another spiel, this time about listening to the demands of your elders and superiors, a single tear rolled down his face. In utter humiliation, he wiped it back with his sleeve. 

At the time, I was quite proud of forcing him to cry. I wasn't sure what words finally got to him; perhaps it was: "Do you think it's OK to talk to the librarian that way because she doesn't give you a grade? Or is it because she's a woman?" Maybe it was something else, but I was glad. That'll teach him to speak up, I said to myself.

Later, though, thinking about it, I realized it was all some sort of misguided sense of pride. He probably felt he lost face there in the library, with this woman screaming at him about something he didn't do ... in front of everyone. He fought back, stuck up for himself, as he'd been taught to do here in this international school. And for that, he was being punished. 

Still, I wrote it up and he'll serve SMD this weekend. Maybe we can continue this discussion at some point, and I can tell him how saving face is more important than losing it. How a simple apology could do more for his reputation than whatever preceded it.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Who you gonna call?

When the phone rings in the English Department office in the middle of the afternoon, I know it can only mean one thing: whatever it is, it'll be unexpected.

It's my free hour after lunch. I have a quiz to write up so that I can get it to the Reprographics guy to get it copied for tomorrow. If I work quickly, I'll get it done before the next class starts. So when the phone rings, I'm tempted to ignore it. But maybe it'll be something interesting ...

"Sorry to disturb you, but can you do us a big favor?" It's the head of high school, so how can I refuse? "Can you run down to the health center and get a stretcher? A student took a spill in science class."

Every teacher knows that our job description entails much more than “teach course material.” We’re counselors, parents, friends, disciplinarians, confidantes, and sometimes cooks, janitors, and money lenders to our collection of crazy, mixed-up kids. At a boarding school, all those jobs are multiplied, and new ones emerge. Today I'm about to take on the role of "paramedic."

I run down the high school ramp to the health center. The nurses are waiting for me, and they are laughing when I arrive. "So sorry to make you do this," the head nurse says, "but it's just the two of us here, and we've already got a full house." 

I see one of my students, nose bandaged up. "Hey, you look better than ever," I say. He broke his nose a few days ago playing rugby, and he's just returned from the hospital.

I grab the stretcher and run back up the ramp to the senior lounge. A girl is sprawled on the floor, and a couple of friends and teachers are gathered around her. "This is so embarrassing," she complains when she sees me. We scoop her into the stretcher, and the office assistant and I carry her down the ramp. "I'm so sorry that I'm so fat and heavy," the girl says. She's one of the most petite girls at the school. I laugh and ask what happened. She doesn't know, doesn't remember. 

Walking down the ramp with us is a senior boy, holding the girl's hand and telling her she'll be OK. He's not her boyfriend. Nor is he just trying to get out of class. He's one of these incredibly nice guys that always seems to be helping others out. On another occasion, he has walked another girl from my class down to the health center after she had some weird epileptic seizure.

I try to say something funny, try to lighten the mood, but mostly I'm thinking about the quiz I'm trying to create for tomorrow. As soon as the girl is safely in the health center, I run back up to the office. If the phone rings again, I think, I should ignore it. But I know that I won't be able to resist.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Stupid drama

One of the cool things about the school where I work is that, despite being in the foothills of the Himalayas, there's a great Western vibe here. Students are loud and have learned the art of speaking out and even talking back. Despite that, they're plenty respectful, and some even say "thank you" after every lesson.

And when you catch them saying or doing something rude, even if they're right, they truly feel bad about it.

Today, walking up to my classroom after morning tea, I was behind one of my students on the staircase. She's new to the school, just here from Kathmandu; hard-working and sincere, she's one of those kids that stresses out about individual points on quizzes and never fails to remind me when something is fair or unfair. Basically, she's a student that works her ass off to get good grades.

Anyway, I was walking behind her and she didn't know I was there, and I overheard her say something to her friend about a "stupid drama" assignment. As soon as she said it, she glanced back, saw me, and almost literally melted in shame. "Hi there," I said, smiled, and quickly walked past. 

For the rest of the afternoon, every time I saw her, I'd glance over and smile, and she'd bow her head. I went up to her in the cafeteria during lunch. "Just getting ready for ... drama class," I said. As I walked away, I saw her whispering to her friend, who just laughed.

I wasn't really offended that she called some drama assignment stupid. In fact, I couldn't agree more. This is my first time teaching drama, and I've found myself making stuff up, creating lessons that require little work from me but still allow students to get on stage and act as much as possible. I've heard rumblings that the kids really like the class, that, for some, it's the highlight of the day. 

For me, it's the opposite. When I'm unsure of myself in front of a class, I tend to get serious, I tend to have less fun, and I make up assignments that challenge students to do things I myself could never do. But that's the way it goes with teaching. Maybe life. Insecurity breeds cruelty. Backed into a corner, one lashes out.

And during class today, I finally snapped. The students seemed to rebel over some minor detail, and I ended up yelling something at them and storming out of the room. I wasn't sure if I was really angry or if I just wanted to get out of there. But I left, ending up in the staff work room.

Five minutes later, a couple of guys from the class came to find me. "We're so sorry," they said. "Please come back."

"No way," I said. "Not until I think you can be honest."

"Come on, please," one of the guys said. "We can't be honest when critiquing each other. If I told someone how bad she was on stage, she would just tell everyone at school that I'm gay or something. And then I'd have no friends."

I had to laugh. "No, too bad, I'm done with you guys," I said, trying to think of a way I could gracefully return to class. Luckily, they thought of a way.

"What if we dance for you?" the other guy said. "Would you come back?"

"Tell you what. I'll give you five minutes. When I walk into that room, I want to see a Bollywood dance performed by the whole class."

They ran off. Five minutes later, the class danced. And it was really good. And we all laughed and forgot about the stupid drama assignment.