Sunday, November 12, 2006

One day you will go to the toilette...

Speaking clearly and loudly is a constant theme in my remarks to my students...their unwillingness to risk making clear and bold choices when they speak can be both frustrating and amusing especially when you factor in the difficulty I have hearing soft sounds.
One day I pose the question to the class, "How old is the main character in this story?" No one responds. Then a hand goes up. It is surprisingly, one of my female students is particulary hard to hear. Trying to get her to speak up is further complicated by the way her classmates react those moments in the classroom when I attempt to draw her out.
I repeat the quesiton, "How old is the main character?" She gives that deer in the headlights look. Barely a moment passes and then there are at least a half a dozen kids who seem unable to resist the impulse to swivel their heads round in her direction and whisper in French (and English) suggestions about what it is I want her to say, or translations of what is I said to her. I stand a mere five feet away but before I can reach her again, I first have to extinguish her support group.
I try again. She begins to say something but is silenced by the whispers from her friends who are already correcting her. She whispers back to them, they giggle...meanwhile I am waiting.
I tell them once again to be quiet, to let this girl finish. I repeat the question. Again, before she can speak one of her friends volunteers the following to me, "she doesn't understand."
I something less than grateful for this piece of information. I look sternly at the group and I say, "Nobody speak until Charlotte has answered my question." Then I look at Charlotte.
She mumbles something which I can't make out except to know that it is in French.
"English please, Charlotte."
She mumbles once more, in French again, no louder but I hear "monsieur".
I try another tack. "Call me Mr. Cahill." I say trying to prompt any kind of English response from her. But this tactic backfires since the sound of my name seems enormously funny to them. A few of them take shots at pronouncing it...and it is almost impossible for me to suppress a smile at what I'm hearing.
Her friends attempt to explain something to me but since they all talk at the same time (though not in unision) I still can't make out what they'r saying. Once more I silence them.
Meanwhile I'm back to square one with Charlotte who has become as hard to reach as some high level CEO shielded by a phalanx of secretaries and public relations types. Against my better judgment I try one last time.
"Charlotte, try again. How old is the main character?" I can tell that Charlotte is both relishing the way she's become the star of the moment and also that she has no intention of answering my question. Beyond that however I have no idea what she's been trying to say to me in part because of her soft voice and in part because of the interference from her classmates.
I am ready to abandon Charlotte altogether when a hand goes up. It is Remi, one her friends. He seems to be invested with a sense of good will. Wearily, I nod.
"She wants to know if she can go to the toilette." I look hard at all of them but particulary at Charlotte. I've been had...not for the first time in my career, nor for the last. Fortunately for eveyone concerned I've learned how to live with egg on my face.
I say to Remi, "Tell Charlotte, that one day she will go the toilette, but it will be the day she learns how to speak to me clearly and in English." Remi pauses, uncertain if he has properly understood his task. Then he turns and whispers to Charlotte.
I give her a moment and then I say to her, "I'm going to wait 5 seconds, Charlotte. If you can speak to me loudly and clearly by then, you may go to the bathroom. If not, you will have to wait..."
Her friends wait along with me. The silence seems to embolden her. "May I go to the toilette?" "Yes..." she begins to get up but I interrupt her, "but first you must tell me how old is the main character?"
"I don't know."
"When you know, tell me. Then you can go."
Her friends can wait no longer...there are whispers...all of them beneath my radar, and then I hear Charlotte say, "She is thirteen."
This isn't the way I had planned for this lesson to unfold, yet I am of a mind to cut my losses and call it good. "Please go now Charlotte."
She does.
I am relieved.


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