August 26, 2008
I use a lot of humor in my teaching. Over time, I have developed routines that work pretty well, both in making students laugh, in getting them to relax, and in conveying useful concepts, such as the desirability of arriving on time for a class. My humor is edgy; although I am fairly careful, occasionally I make a mistake. If I realize I have done so, I apologize profusely. Most people seem to take it in strike; they just say, “Oh, that’s Random; he’s an elderly idiot; don’t mind him.” One day, a student will shoot me because I offended his or her culture.
I meet a lot of people from around the world. I encounter names unfamiliar to me in spelling and pronunciation. I ask how to pronounce their name and practice saying it a few times. I ask where the name comes from. Generally, people are happy to tell me. I never know where this is going. A few weeks ago, I encountered a name that struck me as unusual. As usual, I asked him how to pronounce it and where it came from. He told me that it came from Nepal. I said (this is true), that a friend of mine had gone trekking in Nepal. She and her guide fell in love, even though he spoke little English and she spoke little Nepalese. They are now married, living in Portland, and have two children.
In the next class of that day, the gentleman from Nepal sat down; evidently I had not offended him so much that he avoided taking a second class with me. A woman with an unusual name sat down next to him. I asked her the usual questions. “I am from Nepal,” she said.
I asked (in some astonishment), do you know each other? I do not get that many people from Nepal in my classes; the odds against their taking the same class and randomly sitting next to each other strike me as great. They immediately began chatting in Nepali.
I asked them, “Do you both speak the same dialect?”
They said, “Yes.”
As I have no tact, I asked, “Are there any clashes or feuds between different groups in Nepal I need to worry about, or will you get along fine?”
They told me they were fine, so I left them to their conversation. For all I know they are married by now, or have decided never to have anything to do with each other again, or both.
In the same class as the brain-damaged woman, a woman sat in a back row with a scowl on her face. I notice scowls at the beginning of a class and watch the scowler carefully. The computer she was trying to use was malfunctioning and refused to let her log in. Her scowl deepened. I moved her to a computer in the front row and helped her log in.
Her name was unusual to my eye. I asked her how to pronounce it, practiced a few times until she said I was getting it correct, and then asked where the name came from. She scowled even more at me and said, “Asia. That’s enough; leave it at that.” I figured I was in deep doo by then.
Nevertheless, I continued with my introduction and with telling jokes. All of sudden, the scowling woman laughed uproariously at one of my jokes. Surreptitiously, I looked at her with astonishment. It was as if a switch had been pulled; she was now cheerful and engaged. I breathed a sigh of relief. About that time I became aware of the problems the woman who had lost much of her short term memory and stopped worrying about (..) as I shall call the woman from Asia.
[To be continued]