Is This Thing On?

comedian bombsThere are two students in my afternoon class. Normally, there are about five, but it’s the first gorgeous week of spring and I suspect that some students are getting lost in the park on the way to school.

My two students are hard-working and pleasant women; they are sitting on either ends of a long set of desks with four chairs in between them.

A spritz of anxiety peppers my neck. They scan their phones as I organize my books.

We begin by checking the homework and I follow up with two discussion questions to transition to the class theme. As there are only two of them, I sit down and suggest we discuss them together.

They smile.

They shift a little, pointing their knees in the others’ general direction.

They do not say a word.

So…what do you think?” I say to one of them.

After a long, long, long moment of contemplation, she says: “It depends.”

“On what?”

Then comes another period of contemplation that destroys my soul. I look at the other one, who says: “I agree.”

Another spritz of anxiety.

A typical ESL lesson is not a lecture. It does not entail a ninety minute teacher-led talk on grammar like in grade school English, with the students doing occasional exercises in little workbooks and passing MASH notes. Ideally, the students are the focus of an ESL lesson, as it’s more important for them to use the language than for the teacher.

For this reason, there are lots of X factors that an ESL teacher must consider: number of students, different levels, room size, room outline, possible language difficulties. However, even after you consider everything and think that you are informed, ready, and prepared to lead a solid lesson, there are countless other little tidbits that can help your lesson explode in your face like an aerosol can in a fire.

Today it’s dynamic. Having a class of two students can be fantastic if those students jive well together and sociable. But today, the more opinionated and loquacious students are absent, and I have the two more reserved, quiet students. These students will get involved in discussions, but usually after it has been sparked by a more active classmate.

Today, there’s silence. If there’s one thing I hate it’s silence. Not all silence. Some silence is wonderful and surely there is a time for silence during a lesson. But silence when there’s supposed to be discussion has a way of climbing into my stomach and eating my bowel from the inside. That’s the silence today.

So I try to be the spark. I try prompts, hypothetical scenarios, devil’s advocate. I get one word answers and crickets singing at me in mockery. Then I try jokes and extreme opinions. Nada.

It’s clear that nothing is working. I begin to sweat, figuratively and literally. In the end, I must resemble a comedian who’s bombing in front of a hundred drunken rednecks at a gun festival. I am pulling out all the stops, singing and dancing, I think at one point I recite Beowulf in Pig-Latin.

When the class ends, they students say goodbye and leave in silence. They are surely on their way to the park to relate my disintegration to their classmates. I sit and breathe in the now pleasant silence. For the first time in ninety minutes the air is not being invaded by my annoying voice.

I close my eyes. Now, this is silence I enjoy.

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