Characters

japanese boy

If I close my eyes, I can visualize the scene. There are seventy high school students crammed into this one classroom. The students in the very last row have their own culture, oblivious to what has just happened here in the front of the classroom. Most of them are unconscious. The penultimate row is more attentive, but half of them are make-up artists or doodlers. Some of them are unconscious. But I can’t see the last two rows. I just know they are there. I can’t see them because there are twenty students standing and pointing at the blackboard. Another two dozen sets of human arms and hands obscure my view in a confused display of the  various manifestations of incredulity. Some students lean forward over their desks with hands outstretched, spectacles dangling on the tips of their noses. A thin boy in the front row, face now ruddy with glee, is balancing all of his weight on his tailbone as his feet are suspended in the air. But this will only last for an instant: the next laughter induced convulsion will liberate him from this precarious position on his chair, and land him in the paper littered aisle. No matter. The floor is as good a place as any. My eardrums are throbbing. Amid incessant peals of laughter and a hubbub of imperatives, exclamations, and choice expletives coming from the students, I cannot begin to think of speaking out and being heard. So I will wait my turn, or hope it comes. What has provoked this eruption of noise and exuberant expression?  Only moments earlier, I had written a sentence on the board in English and asked my students to translate it into their native tongue: Chinese. A grinning boy in the third row had practically jumped out of his chair and declared himself best suited for the task. The grinning boy had seized the chalk from my hand, rolled up the sleeves of his uniform, and begun meticulously writing the characters on the board. But no sooner had he written the fourth character than erased and rewritten it. He had seemed poised to write the next character, but he had paused, looking dubiously at it for some moments and then erased it again with his hand. Then he had stood scratching his head with his chalk covered hand. Then the imperatives. But there were too many; he couldn’t possibly have understood what they were saying. He had remained there looking pensively at the board. So I had demonstrated for him how to write the character. Now the peals of laughter. Now the shaming.

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