Saturday, November 28, 2009

Bribery and corruption

On Thursday I almost convinced my last, naughty class that if they wanted to pass they would have to bribe me. As class was starting, one of the students was giving another student 1000 yen for something, and I pretended it was for me. I held out my hand for it.

"For me?" I asked. Then I added, scornfully, "That won't get you an A!" and turned it down.

The student gaped at me uncomprehendingly, but one of the other students, who always listens carefully (his English is very low level but he is learning fast) was paying close attention, and after a few minutes of thinking about it all asked me interestedly how much would get him an A. ¥10,000?

"About that," I said. "And ¥5000 for a B."

"C is ¥1000?" he asked.

"No. ¥1000 is fail," I told him.

His friend wanted to know what we were talking about, so he translated. They puzzled over why anyone would pay me ¥1000 to fail, and then decided between them that a C should cost ¥3000. The rest of the class was, by now, listening interestedly. The first student calculated how much I would get if the whole class wanted As, and told me it could be my bonus.

Two students pulled out their wallets.


In fact I'm still not sure if they were joking or not, but I made it clear that I was. At least I hope I did. Bribery is unethical and unprofessional, I told them, without actually using those words because they wouldn't have understood them.

On the other hand, I told one guy who is on the verge of failing (but I'm going to pass him because he's been trying, finally – I failed him first semester) that it was his job to erase the blackboard at the end of class every week from now on if he wanted to pass. I keep meaning to get students to do that anyway, but this is the first time I've actually managed to get someone to do it willingly. I'm hoping he will do it every week from now on. There are only four weeks left anyway, and I'd already decided to pass him so it's not really a bribe. He just thinks it is.

After class I bumped into my boss, who had been teaching in the room next to mine.

"Sometime I would like you to come into my class and yell at me," I told him.

"Why?" he asked.

"Well, I've been building you up all year as the Big Bad Bully Boss," I told him. "That class always wants to finish early, and I tell them I can't let them go yet because my scary boss is next door, and if he finds out he will fire me. If I let them go five minutes early I tell them to tiptoe out in the other direction, so they won't go past your classroom and you won't see. But last week I let them go ten minutes early, and now they don't believe me."

"TEN minutes early?" asked my boss, frowning.

"Yes," I said. "You can fire me if you like. I couldn't deal with them any longer without killing someone."

My boss thought for a moment.

"How about if I come in and start yelling at you and you yell back, only louder?" he suggested. "That would be funny, because I'm bigger than you."

"No," I told him sternly. "You have to yell at me, and I will cower."

What I didn't tell him is that I am also planning, when he yells at me, to yell back that I HAD to let my students go early because I was so upset that they were trying to bribe me. I know he will ask them about this in Japanese (he is a terrible teacher and uses mostly Japanese in his classes and his students don't need to know any English at all), and my students will have a wonderful time getting indignant and insisting that it was me and asking if he will REALLY fire me.

I have two reasons for wanting to do this. One reason is that if there is just one student in that class who didn't realize the bribery thing was a joke, at least I will have a reliable witness to the fact that it was, if that student complains to someone or even just tells someone (who tells someone else who tells someone else), and the next thing you know it has come up in a faculty meeting and I'm fired.

The other reason I want to do it is that I think it will be funny.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Silly old man

The other night I dreamed I was having a conversation with the Pope. He was doing all the talking. He told me all about his favourite woolly cardigan, in great detail.

I listened politely and thought,

What a silly old man.

It was one of my more boring dreams.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


One of the teachers I work with had an eye operation recently, for a detached retina. Today he brought into work the information pamphlet his doctor gave him, which was entitled 'Floaters and Flashes,' which I first read as 'Floaters and Flashers.'

These floaters were not what I thought they were. The pamphlet was about those unwanted bits of stuff that float around in your eye, not in your toilet.

But seeing the title of this pamphlet reminded me of when I first left home. I lived for a short time in an apartment in Wellington, and downstairs from me was a single mother and her daughter. The daughter was five years old, and was my first visitor. We became friends very quickly. She used to come to see me and dress up in my clothes.

One day she ran up the stairs to tell me she had done something amazing.

"Come and see what I did!" she shouted. "Quickly!"

I ran down the stairs, and she took me into the bathroom, over her mother's protests.

"Look!" she said. "I did a big one, and it keeps coming back! Mummy says it's a floater!"

"It's horrible," called her mother, who was sitting at the kitchen table reading a magazine. "And it won't go away. I don't know what to do."

It certainly was a big one. It floated like a fat dumpling in the toilet bowl, and looked far too large to have been produced by a girl so small.

"Are you sure that's yours?" I asked.

"Yes!" mother and daughter chorused, and I'm not sure who was more indignant.

"Watch!" the little girl said, proudly, and flushed the toilet.

The floater turned a few lazy circles and dived languidly. We peered into the swirling water, but it had gone.

"Wait!" she said. "It'll come back! I promise!"

I waited.

Sure enough, after a few seconds the floater peeked slyly round the bend. It wiggled a bit, bobbed back to the surface, and bounced gently. It seemed to have become larger. The little girl laughed with delight.

I don't know how many times we flushed before it finally departed for good. That was a VERY PERSISTENT floater, and an amazing achievement for a five-year-old.

I would have been proud, too.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


The other day as I was waiting for a delayed train a man limped past me along the platform, and I got the inspiration for a series of children's books. Well, a series of titles for children's books, actually. I didn't get as far as thinking of the actual stories.

A couple of nights ago I told The Man about them.

"I had an idea for a series of children's books about disabled animals," I said. "For example, a book called, The Short-Sighted Eagle. And another called, The Dog Who Couldn't Smell Anything."

"Eh?" said The Man, unimpressed.

"The Three-Legged Cheetah," I enthused. "The Fly Who Didn't Like Shit!"

"I think it's a stupid idea," said The Man, sensibly. "What would they be about? Who would want to read them?"

I had to agree, but new titles kept popping into my mind as I fell asleep.

The Noisy Mouse
The Cross-Dressing Lion, Queen of the Jungle
The Slender Pig
The Stupid Owl
The Clean Cockroach
The Weeping Hyena

The Man was right. It was not one of my brighter ideas.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

How to pick your nose

I took this picture in my local supermarket, next to the checkout. It is not, in fact, instructions on how to pick your nose (as my friend suggested when I sent it to him).

But can you guess what it is?

Sunday, November 08, 2009


Thursday, November 05, 2009


I spent a couple of hours today constructing a test for my last Friday class, which is a very large and troublesome one in a too small room. Normally it does not take me long to make these tests, because I tell the students the questions and the answers the week before. The tests are just a way to ensure the students are paying attention at the end of class and that they come on time at the beginning. They are also a way for me to give points, since we were told that we are not allowed to use 'subjective' grades, and therefore cannot grade for attendance or participation.

These tests are a way for me to grade for both attendance and participation (both of which are important in oral language classes) under a different name. I give grades on TESTS. They love tests here. It is not all of their grade, but it is quite a large hunk.

The tests work pretty well, in the sense that the ones who attend and participate usually do quite well on them, whereas those who don't, don't. I get a pretty accurate spread of points. The same ones who behave badly in class tend to also do badly on the tests.

But although it is a 'pretty accurate' spread, in the first semester it was not entirely accurate. In fact there were a few students who did a lot better than they should have. That is because they cheat.

I have never caught anyone at it (until now) but I know they cheat, because I have experimented with standing next to one I suspect during tests, at which times he (usually, but not always – sometimes it's she) does very badly indeed. The problem is that I can only stand over one cheater at a time. They are dispersed throughout the classroom, and due to the shape and size of the room I cannot oversee all of them at once. I can stand near one, who frowns earnestly and struggles with the questions (which I told them the week before, along with the answers), and then I go to stand near another, at which point the first one miraculously remembers the answers and writes them down.

This has been annoying the crap out of me, because these are generally the same students who cause me so much grief during class time. They never do the class work, and are ridiculously disruptive, chatting with students who are actually trying to study and claiming, when I finally get to them to see if they need help with an activity, that they do not understand what they are supposed to be doing. They are always attentive and polite when I go over and explain something directly to them, but ignore me completely when I am explaining something to the class as a whole. Nor do they read the instructions I write on the board unless I stand beside them and point and tell them to read it, at which time they understand and do what they're supposed to be doing. Apparently they cannot read unless I point and hover. By the time I have them started on the activity (which is always something they can do – they just haven't been paying attention) the rest of the class has finished and it's time to start on something else.

Before you tell me I should start with the bad students, that doesn't work either, because they are scattered all over the classroom, and when I try to do this I am generally waylaid on my way down the aisle by a good student with a question, and since the good students deserve my attention more than the bad students do I take care of them first. Meanwhile the bad students are distracting the reasonably good (but easily distracted) students all around them. It is particularly annoying that when I get to them and explain to them personally what to do, my explanation is exactly the same as the one I gave the entire class, which they did not listen to. (When I say 'bad' students I do not mean 'low-level' students.)

As you may have concluded by now, this class almost never goes well, and nobody learns very much. But in the first semester I was forced to pass students I did not think should have passed because they'd done well in tests, and I was not able to check all the work they did in class (for an oral language class there are too many students to get around to all of them) so this semester I was determined to stop the cheating so that the students who did not at least memorize the test answers would not get good grades.

Trying harder to police the tests did not work. It just isn't possible when the room isn't big enough to separate the students. I finally decided that, even though it was far more work than I wanted to do, I would mount a sneak attack. I spent an entire weekend constructing a test that was exactly the same as the one I had told the class I would give them, but which had three different versions. It was a multiple choice test. I made all three versions appear to be the same (if you just happened to glance at your neighbour's paper) but they weren't the same. I labelled them with a tiny a, b or c at the bottom of the page so that I could distinguish the three versions, and when I handed them out I made sure that each student in a row of three got a different test, and that nobody was sitting behind someone with the same test.

The biggest surprise for me was that it was a couple of the good (or rather, goodish) students near the front who first noticed the tests were different. I heard them whispering agitatedly and snuck up behind them to explain quietly that yes, the tests were different, and it was because there was too much cheating. They looked guilty and nodded seriously. (And one of them did MUCH worse than she usually does.)

Three or four of the bad students whom I suspected of cheating (but had never caught) scored zero on the tests, having mysteriously managed to write 'a' answers on 'b' tests, or whichever way around it was. A few other students whom I had not suspected also scored alarmingly low, with some (but not all) of their answers being answers from different tests.

All in all, the time I spent constructing this test turned out to be well spent. I have identified exactly how many students I need to keep an eye on, i.e. FAR MORE THAN I HAD SUSPECTED.

(When I told a colleague about my sneak test a few days after the first one she laughed so hard I thought she was going to choke on her curry. She is using the same textbook I am using, and when she finally stopped laughing she asked for copies.)

The next time I gave a test in that class, two weeks ago, I did the same thing again, but this time I only made two versions (because I didn't have time to make three). These were not multiple choice and it was more obvious that they were different, but I thought since word had probably got around about my new tactic it wasn't necessary to conceal the trick.

But it turned out they didn't all know. There was one student who has always been charming and apparently cooperative to my face, distracting and disruptive when he thinks I'm not looking, and who never does any work at all if he can help it. He always sits at the back if I don't move them around (which I don't always do because it takes so long) and had been sitting at the back when I gave the first sneak test. He scored zero on that one, and I assumed he knew all about it.

But apparently he hadn't checked the scores on the back of his name card at the beginning of class, because sometime during the second sneak test I heard him mutter urgently to the student sitting beside him,

"Our tests are different!"

"Yes," his neighbour muttered back. Then he added, "They were different last time, too."

Silence reigned for a moment (as it should during tests), then the cheater yelped loudly,

"WHAT?" He turned over his name card and stared at the numbers tragically.

"SHHHH!" I hissed. (At that moment I totally understood why people become librarians.)

The cheater only attempted one of the questions. He got it wrong. If only he'd paid attention the week before! He might have noticed that I'd told him the answers already.

The next week (last Friday) he did not come to class. The entire class went a little better than usual, which may or may not have been related.

Tomorrow they'll be getting another one of my sneak tests. The questions – and answers – are exactly what I said they would be, although the answers are slightly differently arranged. And while I am a little annoyed at having to spend so much time constructing these tests, I must admit it's kind of fun, too. It's like making something that is at the same time a logic puzzle (for me, making it work), a practical joke, a trap, and a perfectly fair and easy test.

I almost hope the chronic cheater comes back.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


We are having a cold snap. Just before this cold snap (which started on Tuesday) we still had one frog left in the garden, but now it's gone. I called it Rose. (Because it was the Last Frog of Summer.)

It has probably underground now. Did you know that these little guys bury themselves and hibernate during the winter? I didn't, until one year I decided to put in some spring bulbs, and accidentally dug one up. I held the limp, clammy little body in my hand, and said, "Oh, poor wee thing, it's dead..." and then its leg twitched, and it went from deep hibernation to the discovery of flight in a split second.

It probably was a fairly traumatic experience for the frog, but it was for me, too. I have never planted bulbs again.

Sunday, November 01, 2009


Overheard in the teachers' room:

"You smell nice, Paul. What have you got on?"

"Eh?" (Vague frown.) "I don't know. I just sat in the car with Dan."

I don't know why we all found that so funny.

Also overheard in the teachers' room, after a long rant about some investment gone bad:

"The good news is that financially I'm set for life if I die next Tuesday."

One of the teachers gave me a little present yesterday (Friday). It was in a paper bag, wrapped carefully in tissue paper. I took the bag and looked inside.

"Ooh, thank you!" I said. "Is this what I think it is? A little something to help me get through the day?"

"NO!" he said, laughing in horror. "It's for you to take home."

"But it could help ENORMOUSLY," I said. "Especially for my last class."

"Don't open it until you get home!" he said, sternly.

It was a bottle of home-made umeshu. I still think it would have gone down quite nicely before, or perhaps during, my last class.

In the classroom, dictation can get some interesting results. I took notes of three that made me smile. The first two I can understand, but I took these notes so long ago that now I can't remember what that third one was supposed to be.

Who nose?

He is wearing boring grobe.

He has just panching.

Two weeks ago on Friday my first class started to turn into a horror movie. I gave the students a little test first – something I frequently do at beginning of class to encourage punctuality (and alertness). Right after the test, one of the best students, who was looking very pale, excused himself to go to the toilet.

Twenty minutes later he had still not come back, and I was starting to worry. I knew he had planned to come back, as his bag was on his chair and in any case if he had to leave he is the sort of person who would have informed me.

When half an hour had passed and the pale student had still not come back, I asked his friend to go and check that he was all right. His friend tried to phone him first, but although he got a ringing tone there was no answer. This worried me even more. Usually when students disappear to the 'toilet' for long periods it's because they want to chat with someone on their phone. (I have a student in my last class on Fridays I have nicknamed (but not to her face) Toilet Girl because she used to 'go to the toilet' for thirty minutes every week, during class. She stopped doing this when she realized that I was noticing and adjusting her class points accordingly, but the nickname has stuck.)

The pale student's friend went down the corridor to see what was going on.

Ten minutes later he hadn't come back, either.

I wondered what to do. I poked my head out the door and peered down the corridor. It was empty. I turned back to the class, which had fallen silent. The students were looking as spooked as I was feeling.

We all stared at each other, frowning worriedly.

"Well," I said, finally. "That's two gone. Who wants to be number three?"

Nobody volunteered. We resumed the class, somewhat subdued.

A couple of minutes later the pale student's friend came back.

"Is he all right?" I asked, anxiously.

"Yes," said the student. "Er, no. He drank too much last night."

That was a relief. I picked up the pale student's name card, and on the back, where I usually write their absences and test grades and things like that, I wrote the date and the word, "Hungover."

He is a good student, and I am impressed that he managed to turn up for a nine o'clock class if he was feeling that bad. He scored well on the test, too, but I guess that was all he could manage before his stomach rebelled. He is a quick learner, and I expect he learned something quite valuable.

Student trying to figure out the past form of the verb 'check'.

"Chook?" he asks his friend, who looks doubtful.

There was a question in the text about sleeping habits. Out of sixteen students, only three got more than five hours sleep a night. When I asked them why, it turned out they were mostly watching TV or talking on the phone with friends. One or two were working at their part-time jobs.

I suspect them of napping frequently during the day. In fact I know they nap frequently. They are napping when I walk into the classroom and inconsiderately wake them up.

We have talked about this in the teachers' room. None of us can remember ever falling asleep during class at university, or even wanting to, no matter how sleep-deprived we were, and none of us could remember wanting to nap during the day, anyway. Even as ratbag students we felt that the whole purpose of being in class was to learn something, and it never occurred to us to go to a class and then sleep through it.

But here it is normal behaviour, especially during lectures. (Less so in our classes because we annoying English language teachers always insist on our students doing stuff.)

The hungover student returned yesterday, looking much better. When I handed out the name cards he took his and went back to his seat near the back. He looked on the back of the card and saw what I'd written.

"Hungover?" I heard him say. "What does that mean?"

His friend looked at the card, and shrugged. "Look it up," he suggested.

I continued calling names and handing out cards, feeling happy. That class is lovely. There is one teeth-grindingly horrible student but he comes so infrequently it doesn't matter.

It took the two guys a little research to find out what 'hungover' meant ('hungover' is not in the dictionary, but eventually they hit on 'hangover'). I had forgotten all about it when I heard the hoots and shouts of laughter from the back of the room.

I always start that class with conversations, and heard the word 'hangover' being used a LOT yesterday. There was a lot of teasing.

New vocabulary is always remembered better in context.