A Canadian writer teaches English and finds out what it's like to be a foreigner.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Spare the antenna

One of my twice-a-week classes is with two girls who are both at a very beginner level. They are really delightful though and we've worked up quite a rapport. They are the kind of kids who think I'm hilarious, so I can clown around a bit for them and put on a show.

They are also the only two who regularly call me "Sam-Sam." I think it's sweet. The series of books I teach from mostly is called "English Time" and features the recurring characters Digger and Max. They are two dogs who do a Bert & Ernie odd couple routine at the end of each unit. They usually revolve around Max eating too much, and Digger saying his catch-phrase "Oh Max!"

When I do something in an exaggerated ridiculous way, like drop my marker then kick it away when I bend down to pick it up, the girls laugh and say "Oh Sam-Sam!"

It's a pretty fun class.

The other day however, something happened that kind of disturbed me.

It was business as usual and I was pointing at some vocabulary words with a makeshift pointer which was really a confiscated antenna from a hand-held radio. I'd flick it here and there and pretend to conduct an invisible orchestra and things like that.

While I was occupied the girls swiped an extra pencil each from my cup and began drumming on the table. It was funny for a short time, then I plucked the pencils from their hands and they whined as if I was plucking feathers. As I made the way back round the circular table, one of the girls effectively "lost" her original pencil.

"Teacher! I'm no pencil!"

"You have no pencil?"


"Where did it go?"

"...I'm no pencil!"

"That's okay you don't need a pencil."

"I'm no pencil!"

"Yes, but you don't need a pencil. No writing."

I crossed my forearms in an X— the definitive "No" pose.

This same exchange went on for longer than it should have, and I got a little bit frustrated. The girl got out of her seat and walked up to me with her two hands held together at about the height of my chest.

I took it to be an asking gesture.

"You don't need a pencil," I said again.

"No, no!" she said, and pointed to my little metal antenna.

"You want this?"

"No, no!" she said, and mimed taking the thing out of my hand, hoisting it high above her head and bringing it down hard on her palm.

I was shocked.

"No, no!" it was my turn to say.

I know that corporal punishment is a presence in public schools, so many of the students come to expect it from any teacher— even Sam-Sam. She obviously thought she had done something wrong by jokingly hiding the pencil in her desk, and had come to me to receive her punishment. Her expression hadn't changed. She didn't appear concerned about having her hands hit with a small metal rod. She looked resigned. That's just the way it was.

When I told her no, she actually protested.

"Please!" she said, now holding her hands together in a gesture that couldn't be misread.

I actually took me some time to get across that I wasn't now or ever going to hit her, especially for something like hiding a pencil. Eventually she accepted it and we got on with our class, but for awhile she was obviously upset that the strict power structure she was used to didn't fly here. Like suddenly learning black is white... but sometimes it's black.

But I find it sad that learning you aren't going to be hit by your teacher is what causes the sudden shock to the status quo.


riley said...

morally disorienting and strange.. I can imagine lots of reasons why she'd want to be hit by the foreign teacher though - it could even be that interaction with us passes for a status symbol even when it's disciplinary violence.

I'm glad this hasn't happened to me. I've thought the possibility why not could be because I'm a woman, but if the beatings I've witnessed suggesting anything, it's that the punishment some women teachers around here are dole out can be the most humiliating and brutal -- especially in female students' cases -- but the worst I saw was at a vocational highschool, where the kids are brutal too.

It's obvious it's expected from the male teachers. In a way, she was demonstrating your acceptance not only in that role, but in that role in this society.

Congrats, in their eyes, you've made it into the boys' club. No that that's any consolation :P

riley said...

ps. I owe you an e-mail