Saturday, December 5, 2015

Exploding Students

Part of my duties as foreign teacher calls for my involvement in competitions, specifically judging student competitions. To tell the truth I don't like seeing my students pitted against one another, nor do I like being put in the position to affirm one's ability over another's. As a teacher, I believe I should promote all of my students equally. How must a poorly performing competitor feel when their beloved foreign teacher deems him/her less capable than others? 

Conversely, one aspect of these extracurricular activities I enjoy is interacting with students in a non-classroom setting. We get to laugh and play together, and pose for the inevitable pictures. It is nice to see these kids in a non-traditional setting, where they feel free to let down their hair and laugh a little. They make the most of the occasion, festooning the room with balloons and streamers, drawing on the board and playing music.

As English club activities are organized and hosted strictly by students, I have the additional pleasure of working with kids who might be taciturn and recalcitrant in class, but flourish in managing a competition. Felix is such a student. He is bright and handsome but shy and soft-spoken. As a member of my largest class, I seldom have time to talk only with him. So, judging the Non-English majors talent competition, put together and engineered by Felix, gave us a chance to hang out and just talk.

Usually, other teachers form the judging panel along with me but this week, all of the other teachers had prior commitments. Felix and two other students judged the affair with me. That put  me in a bind because all of the competition information was in Chinese: judging criteria, rules and what talents would be displayed. Normally, other teachers translate these documents for me but this time, there was only Felix.

I was able to read some of the criteria. Felix translated everything else. “This column is for performance, this one is for talent, this one for feeling and this one for... (he checks his phone for translation)... exploding.” he said, earnestly.

Explosion? Really?

Really! Apparently, there is a Chinese phrase that means something like: 'come out of the box with a shining performance', like a sprinter bursting out of the starting blocks and rocketing down the track. It might be akin to what English speakers would call 'a shooting star' – someone who really performs well. Or: giving an explosive performance.

My fuzzy head never made it past 'exploding'. As you might remember from the Misunderstandings entry posted last March, sometimes my brain visualizes something very different from what is actually being said. By the time Felix explained the 'sprinter out of starting blocks' meaning of 'explode', I was already laughing to tears at the idea of having to rank students on the violence of their explosions.

“OH, blood spatter on the ceiling! Great explosion! You get 30 points.”

As always when I laugh like a demented person, the poor hapless person next to me - in this case, Felix gaped at me, wondering what he had said wrong to cause such mirth. When I was finally able to tell him what I had imagined, he too succumbed to gales of merriment.

It was the first time I'd seen him laugh so unabashedly.  It was wonderful to behold: a great bonding moment.

Others now looked at us slack-jawed while we mopped tears from our eyes and tried to stifle our giggles. As the first competitor stepped onstage, he whispered: “Please don't tell my classmates about this!” I could understand he would be mortified if his peers knew, but I don't think he would mind me telling you about it.

Especially because, at the end of the competition, while I was still posing for pictures at the back of the room, Felix and others were taking down the decorations at the front. What to do with a bunch of balloons but pop them once they are no longer needed?

“Hey, Sophia!” Felix shouted, from across the room.


“Look! Explosion!” and he popped a balloon.

“OOH! Great explosion! You get 30 points!” and again, we succumbed to our private joke.

Such moments of camaraderie with students are so rare! These kids' demeanor is usually reverential, perhaps because I am a foreigner and most likely in part because I'm far older than they are. Seldom do I get to connect with a kid in such a way that we can share a joke. 'Exploding students' is no longer just a joke for me. It was a moment of closeness with a great kid who will go on to do great things. What a treasure!

I guess I should let you know that nobody actually exploded, but there was some fine talent on stage. A beautiful girl with a devoted boyfriend who brought her her violin. She then proceeded to wow us with her skill. Another pretty who read movie lines with such feeling I thought I was hearing the movie's actual soundtrack. A fine young man with a golden voice, and a couple who also dubbed a movie soundtrack, so seamlessly I had to keep looking at them to make sure they were talking, and hadn't turned out the movie's sound.

Yes, there's a lot of talent here. But... wouldn't you agree it takes talent to form bonds? In  my opinion, Felix was the most talented person in the room that day.

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