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A teacher's most vulnerable asset

The first time I stood in front of a university class was in the 1990s, when I was a guest lecturer at a journalism school in South Africa. I was regarded as an expert in African media, which simply meant I knew

1) that a deadline was a theoretical concept;
2) that full-colour advertising was wishful thinking; and
3) that there was no free lunch, free PR or free anything in Africa.

Eventually I left journalism behind, focused on linguistics, oversaw a few tutorials, marked a few papers, moved to Japan, taught at an English conversation school, progressed (or regressed?) to a university.

Throughout it all, I used to think a teacher's main assets are, in no particular order of importance: a good education, curiosity, patience, compassion, high standards in your work ethic, a passion for your topic, a genuine interest in your students, creativity, flexibility, being organized, the ability to simplify and explain and intrigue, a strong enough ego to cope with criticism, enough humility to admit you're neither perfect nor always right, a thick enough skin to ignore monster parents, the sensitivity to notice that a student is in trouble, a sense of humour and a sense of humour and a sense of humour.

Now I know that you need all that, but above all you need … strong vocal cords.

Unfortunately my respiratory system has always been my weak point. I don't smoke and I'm reasonably fit, but whenever I develop an ailment, it's URI or RAD: upper respiratory infection or reactive airway disease. I seldom get a cold, but every spring – and sometimes in autumn, too – I suffer from acute hay fever; I almost never get a flu virus, but when I do, it inevitably deteriorates into full bronchitis. Put me near a woman who drenched herself in perfume, and I start sneezing. Force me to alternate between a warm, humid outside and a cold, dry, air-conditioned interior, and I break into coughing fits.

Hello, summer in Japan!

It wreaks havoc with my voice, and a teacher without a voice is a teacher without a job.

The worst case was in 2010, when I caught a flu bug during a trip to Kyoto. I know exactly when and where: I was in a bus, next to a woman who was coughing her lungs out without covering her mouth with her hand. Flu turned into bronchitis turned into acute laryngitis that lingered for two months.

I had no voice. Nothing: not a squeak or a squeal or a croak. I couldn't even call my own doctor to make an appointment; and I had to communicate with everybody by scribbling notes.

There's very little you can do except wait, rest and allow nature to take its course. Thank heavens my company understood my dilemma and allowed me to return to work on a reduced schedule (after two months) so that I didn't strain my voice. I used all my available paid leave and paid sick leave, but I had zero income for a while.

Cue Aphonic Adventure, Act II. A week ago I started coughing; then my voice went wonky; this morning I finally went to my doctor. It's not a cold, it's not flu, it's not hay fever, it's not asthma, it's some baffling reaction to some mysterious thing.

"Why is nothing ever simple with you?" my doctor laughed at me.

"But," I sputtered, "I can't have easy illnesses! I'm from Africa!"

So here I am, with a dry cough, a sore throat and a scratchy voice that's putting the fear of God into me.

I'm going to have to find a temple that protects your voice, but perhaps any Buddhist temple will do. You see, your vocal cords are a mucous membrane that stretches across your larynx, and your larynx is surrounded and protected by a neck vertebra and your Adam's apple.

An Adam's apple is called nodobotoke (喉仏) or "throat Buddha" in Japanese. It's regarded as a sacred bone in Buddhist cremations: it's picked from the ashes and put on top in the urn, because it resembles a meditating Buddha. Look:



May Buddha in his mercy protect my voice. Please let me get well. I promise I won't yell Zulu impi war cries at my students. Promise!

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