Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Black holes

Recently I heard from a friend about someone who was hospitalized during the summer after being stung by giant Japanese hornets. This reminded me of something that happened towards the end of last semester. I was teaching a class i'd had problems with all semester. Every semester there's at least one problem class, and this one was it. They were not a problem class because they behaved badly, though. I wished they would behave badly. That would have been easier to deal with. You can harness that kind of energy. Instead, they behaved well, and boringly. It was a small class, and getting them to talk to each other in English was almost impossible. They didn't even want to talk to each other in Japanese.

I don't know what the problem was. I worked hard all semester, trying every trick in the book (and a few not in the book) and made no progress at all. They just didn't seem to LIKE each other, and had nothing to say to each other, and that was that.

On this particular day they were all sitting in groups, as I'd placed them (otherwise they'd be scattered around the room as far from each other as possible), and the window was open, and a very large hornet flew in. It was a crazed hornet. It flew around the room fast and erratically, and at head height. That meant that as it flew towards them the students ducked their heads. From the vantage point of the  where I was standing it was easy to spot where the hornet was because it caused a bizarre sort of Mexican wave around the room. It flew around madly, and students ducked.

The hornet eventually landed on a window, and I used a laminated card to ease it outside. This took a little time and and some scary moments, but eventually it zoomed off outside. In any other class I would have been cheered for my achievement, but in this class everybody just stared blankly as I risked my life to tackle the hornet. I'm allergic to bees. I don't know whether I'm allergic to those long-legged monsters and didn't really want to find out, but nobody volunteered to help (but someone ALWAYS volunteers to help! That was a class of ZOMBIES!) and I wasn't going to risk a student's life. I was the teacher. I was in charge. I didn't really have a choice.

When I went back to the front of the class I remembered how the class had looked when heads were ducking, and started laughing.

The students stared blankly, so I told them why I was laughing. I told them they'd done a rather amazing Mexican head-wave and it had looked really, really funny.

They continued to stare at me blankly.

Around about then I gave up trying to get some sort of connection with the class. One student had a look in his eye that told me he would have responded if he could have extricated himself from the classroom atmosphere. He was the student who would have been a 'problem' student if only there was another student for him to be a problem with, but there wasn't. The others were all too sunk into their own little worlds and didn't communicate enough to be problem students.

(Oh, how I love problem students! But there has to be two.) 

That head-wave was the most entertainment that class provided me all semester. I had never seen them as animated as they were when that hornet flew straight at their faces and they ducked.

And I have never had a class where the classroom dynamics were quite as impossible as that one was. I put students in groups, pairs, in every possible combination, changing them around all the time, hoping that once they knew each other they'd wake up a bit, but nothing worked. They simply didn't want to talk to each other. Every other class that has started like that has eventually ended up with the usual problems of getting them to shut up because they've all become friends and want to chat (in Japanese) all the time. But in that class it never changed. They didn't become friends with each other. They didn't even unite against me, the ENEMY AUTHORITY. They were a constellation of individual black holes.

It was the hornet that made me realize there was nothing more I could do. It was towards the end of semester anyway, and I realized that if that didn't finally bring them together as a group nothing would. Any kind of large insect getting into a classroom is more or less guaranteed to create an uproar, but that one didn't cause anything except a bizarre visual effect.

I had a couple of classes this semester at the same university which threatened to be similar, but after the first couple of weeks they degenerated into the usual chaos of making friends, gossip, teasing, yelling at me, yelling from me, and the odd bit of learning.

This has made me happy. I thought I'd lost my touch.

No comments: