Time and again, I find the things I enjoy most about my job have little to do with teaching and everything to do with the absurdities I confront in the classroom. I wonder sometimes if this makes me a poor educator, but I don’t linger on it. My students have no books, their teacher has no experience, the class has no goal and the university has no clue.
I have a new class on Mondays; it was thrust upon me last week by the mysterious administrators who run my English Department. I think I met some of them at a banquet in December, but they were plastered on baijiu and singing, while I was gorging on free food and avoiding the too-friendly gropes and toasts of an office manager. These new students are freshmen, non-English majors, supposedly the best from their respective classes. That’s all I’ve been told.
A new class means I’m a novelty again. I forgot about the gasps that come out of 32 Chinese teenagers who are put face-to-face with a white dude for the first time, the pesky, basic questions I no longer get from students I’ve had for eight months in my other classes, and the utterly ridiculous English names.
I have another Christ in my class, and my “class assistant” calls herself Nazi.
“That’s an interesting name,” I told her. “How did you get it?”
She said it sounds like her Chinese name, which includes the character 娜.
“Do you know what it means?”
“It was Hitler’s party,” she said. Well then….
I threw them all into groups and set them interviewing imaginary celebrities. It’s a simple game, one of many cover strategies I’ve pulled off Dave’s ESL Cafe lately. You get imaginative when you have to create a curriculum out of thin air.
This is how my university teaches English. It puts a foreigner in front of 30 or 40 dumbfounded teens and 20-somethings and says, “Go teach.”
My friend Molly teaches herself English. After three years studying on her own, she speaks as well as many of my students, and better than a few (she’s also fluent in Japanese). I spend a lot of time in the coffee shop she owns, where she sits most mornings catching up on accounting and listening to VOA’s Special English program. While my students are memorizing pages of the dictionary and reciting passages in mindless choral fashion, this is what Molly is hearing:
“Yooo skroo dup. You screwed up.”
“Yooo messs tup. You messed up.”
“Itsss yerrr fault. It’s your fault.”
“Sheeez a bimm-boh. She’s a bimbo.”
“Sheee likes tooo goooh from mantaman. She likes to go from man to man.”
Molly is ambitious. She runs a business, travels frequently, studies whenever she can in ways she enjoys. It’s no surprise that she can get by in English with little formal language training. If she were the only self-taught Chinese friend I had, I’d write it off as an exception.
But she’s one of many. I often get students from other departments sitting in on my class, wanting to brush up. They study English on their own, too, and most are functional enough to hold a conversation with me after class.
I mused on all this for a while tonight as my students chose famous people to interview and began their role-play. Nazi’s group pulled me out of my daze.
They were deciding who to be: Steven Spielberg or Stephen Hawking.
A Jewish filmmaker, the director of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan; or Stephen Hawking, a disabled intellectual. Who would Hitler choose?
Nazi doesn’t seem at all fascist, though, no more than any other class monitor. Christ pretty much blended into the background. Of all the students I’ve met, one of the few who resembles his nickname is Crazy Moving, who attends another university. He’s a wild kid, according to my friends who teach him, but he’s sharp, too.
These are throw-away names. Few of my students can tell me their best friend’s English handle, and some don’t respond to their own. Few non-majors see English as anything but another exam subject, and the university gives little incentive to take it seriously. If any of them should land a job requiring an English name on one side of a business card, my hope is that someone will pull them aside before they go to the printer to say, “Maybe Nazi isn’t a good name to use if you’re dealing with Westerners. How ’bout Nancy?”
That’s how I’d like to believe the world works. Then again, there are plenty of assholes like me who will name a kid Waldo, just for the pleasure of looking out over the gaping masses and asking: “Where’s Waldo?”