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Classroom stories

I teach at a university and at a conversation school. The former is a joy, but eikaiwa students can throw me off track completely. I'll give you three examples.

The first was a woman who was into self-mutilation. She would arrive in the classroom with cuts on her arms, and then she'd proceed to bleed on the table. She freely admitted that her psychiatrist had booked her off for six months, and that she had decided to utilize her time by studying English. Teachers were instructed to ignore her "eccentricity" and simply carry on, but most teachers couldn't cope. Eventually she was assigned to two of us: a man who's a saint, and an ex-journalist from Africa who's witnessed so many civil wars that she's blasé about both blood and insanity. 


The second was a man with very bad eczema. He would sit down, unbutton his shirt completely and then start scratching his entire body. He frequently stuck his hand in his pants. One hopes it was also due to eczema. He sweated a lot and had bad BO. I have lots of sympathy with this disease – it must be utterly awful – but I have to ask myself whether he acted like this in business meetings, too. I think not.

The third was Mr He-Man Lawyer. He was in his late 60s, but still managed his own small but very influential law firm. He liked to boast about his string of Korean girlfriends, all in their early twenties. (His wife was ensconced in a faraway town. They hadn't seen each other in decades.) "I like Korean women," he said. "They have fire." Then he started flirting with me. Now let's get this straight: I'm not Korean, I'm a mousy bluestocking, I said goodbye to twenty a long time ago. This didn't deter Mr He-Man Lawyer. He decided that I should become his mistress. He promised champagne on the beach in Hawaii. He offered to buy me a house in Kamakura.

He was serious. I was amused. He got obnoxious. I got bored. He started getting aggressive. I started thinking that this could backfire in a very nasty way.

I talked to my boss, who, it turned out, had suspected something was wrong. My schedule was quietly changed and I never saw the lawyer again. It's the only time I've ever asked my eikaiwa not to schedule me with a specific student. (We are allowed to do that, provided we have a good reason.) Now I could kick myself. I said no to a house in Kamakura? I actually said no to a house in Kamakura?!

A lost cause

Occasionally I encounter a student who's so bad that I simply give up. I'm very patient with slow students – heaven knows, I've been there myself – but every teacher has her limits and I reached mine with, oh, let's call her Hanako.

She wants to improve her TOEIC score so that she can get a promotion at work. There's only one problem: she's in her late fifties, and she's never going to reach that goal. She repeated the elementary level three times over five years; now she's struggling with pre-intermediate. I can't decide whether I admire her dogged pursuit of the impossible, or whether I want to roll my eyes at her folly.

It's often obvious during her lessons that she cannot grasp most of what is written in her textbook. I sit there, silently contemplating her, and ask myself whether it's worth it spending thirty minutes on explaining the difference between "I like coffee" and "I would like coffee", or whether I should simply pretend, as she does, that she understands. I've even broken the most sacred rule of TEFL teaching and switched over to Japanese in the classroom. It helps not one whit.

Last week we had to read a short article about rice farmers. She mispronounced so many words that I suspect she might be dyslectic in English. Incidentally, did you know that English speakers have among the highest reported rates of dyslexia, and Japanese/Chinese have among the lowest? Kanji do have advantages. If you're interested in language, here's a fascinating article.

Where wos I? She mispronounced so many words that I started scribbling them down. The first word is what was written; the second is what she read.

true – sure
space – peace
whole – while
moment – mount
ears – earth
surface – sunspace
mankind – making
nuclear – unclear

The best moment, though, was when she read "they died of hunger" as "they died of humour".

Not in that class, they didn't.

PS: I only wrote this post because I wanted an excuse to use that picture.

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