05 June 2008

A little bit sad

Originally drafted March 3rd 2008

It was simply meant to be a salon classroom that featured vocabulary building. I did not intend it to be so upsetting. There were several suggested lesson activities that all would function better with a group of students. She was alone this morning. I started by just asking about her day and life in order to gauge her level of working vocabulary.

“Tell me how you feel today?”

She gave a response that didn’t come out very convincingly: “I am happy.”

I continued asking without being overtly nosy about her homelife. She told me about her daughter, her husband and at each stage in the conversation, I repeated the same questioning and I received about the same response about her status. Thinking like the teacher I am paid to be, I tried different angles. I sat back as she started telling me about her ‘father’s younger brother’s son.’ I was impressed that she could compose such a phrase so I didn’t suggest that she simply call him her cousin. Her cousin was asking her and her husband yet again for another job. I paused and let her speak without any further guidance. They had just found him a job and he had lasted a week in it. I thought I found an opportunity. “Oh, how does that make your husband feel?”

“Maybe he feels angry.”

“And how do you feel?”

“No, I don’t feel angry.”

This seemed like a good time to introduce some new, relevant vocabulary. “Do you feel disappointed?”

She looked up at the word after I scrawled it on the whiteboard. After she wrote it down in her notebook, she spoke: “Yes, I feel disappointed at him.” She then went on to explain that this was the second time that they had found him a job. The first time he had quit after a month. This time he said that he would take anything. They told him that after two months in that job they would find him something better, but he seemed to start complaining from the outset.

“With him,” I corrected. “You feel disappointed with him.” She obliged me with a proper repetition. I banged the table to try to elicit what I thought should be a stronger response. I wrote out the words: frustrated, depressed, enraged, thinking that I could get her to open up and speak up more and use the target vocabulary. As she finished diligently writing down the words that I had only just suggested, she set down her pen and I noticed the creases of her lower eyelids swell ever so slightly and redden.

“Yes, I feel a little bit sad.”

I reached absentmindedly into my back pocket for a tissue but she held her hand up, telling me that she was fine. I think that then she was mainly relieved that she was facing away from the glass walls that define all the classrooms of the school. I was caught between pausing or else continuing as though this display of raw emotion were just part of my well crafted lessonplan. I wanted to neither overreact nor under to what she was feeling. She pointed to the selection of faces and vocabulary for feelings from the handout, placing her index finger on the word: embarrassed. I nodded once without saying anything further. I touched her once on the shoulder as I rose to fetch a tissue but she insisted that she was fine. She wiped away one last dribbling tear and regained her composure.

I asked whether she wanted to go forward and she picked up with her story, seemingly recharged. She told me how long her cousin had been living with her family and the additional stress that generated. By the end of the hour she had asked me for the definitions of the rest or words that were on the list and with a smile on her face she departed after I signed her booklet.

Many times I have found myself having asked a question that gives me more of an answer than I had anticipated. I don’t know whether this makes me a good teacher or not. I cannot plan for events like what happened. The best I can do is to deal with them as they arise, constantly weaving in and out of different roles. I don’t even claim to know what lesson she gained from me and yet I know that I must plug away in certain ignorance as to whatever benefits I might confer with my presence.