Sweet and Sour; Funny and Dour

October 28, 2008

This is another Canterbury Tale from my classes. I’ll warn you right from the start; there’s nothing funny about it. In fact, it’s downright depressing. If you’re not in the mood for depressing, move on to a post on someone else’s blog.
The class was one of a series I teach for computer beginners. Three of the students had taken the previous class from me; one was new to my classes.

I am using initials now because my employer is terrified I will bring some poor student to public notice; I am terrified I will get fired before I retire in three months.

C and D are a married couple in their fifties. D had worked for the post office, been laid off, and is looking for another job. He was hoping that I would help him with his Internet skills so he can find and apply for jobs online.

 F is an Iranian woman in her fifties. Although she has lived in the United States for a number of years, her English is not very good. She asked me to find her a tutor to help with her English. She is sure she can get a better job if she can read, write, and speak English better. I am working on finding a tutor for her, though it’s not really part of my job.

R is retired after working on a ground job for an airline. Although he told me he owned two computers, a desktop and a laptop, within a few minutes of the class, I could see that his computer skills were close to nil. His demeanor was rather dour and serious, which I attributed to his anxiety about computers (a common characteristic of students in my classes). I am usually pretty good at getting anxious students to relax. One of my tools for doing so is using a bit of comedy to get students to relax about their fear and embarrassment of computers and to convey points about how computers work and don’t work very well (which is one of my points).There are days when this technique works well. On this day, things headed in a different direction.

To break the ice and get the class warmed up, I had been talking a little bit about children and grandchildren, telling a joke or two about my granddaughter (the famous Random Granddaughter-RG as I call her on my blog). C and D told me that they had several adult children and several grandchildren. R said he had one adult son.

Suddenly R said with some force, “It’s been 105 days. It has not gotten any easier at all.”

I looked at him inquiringly.

“It’s been 105 days since my grandson drowned. He was five years old. He was on a boat with his father on a fishing trip. They weren’t watching him closely enough. I don’t know how I will ever get over it.”

Awkwardly, I expressed my condolences.

R continued, “My no-good son caused his my grandson’s death” A heavy pall hung over the room where I was teaching. I felt as if I had just read a tragic memoir, conveyed in a few minutes of conversation.

D (the husband of the married couple) said, “Our son was 15 days old when he died. He was born with a birth defect. I have not gotten over it, either.”

I mentioned that the death of my cousin Joanna from breast cancer, who had become a millionaire from learning Chinese, had affected me rather strongly. I was on a grim wave-length with R. He told us that his wife had been Chinese. “She died of lung cancer. She had never smoked a day in her life. Actually, she had breast cancer. At first they thought the treatment was successful, but the cancer went to her lungs, so that was what she died of. ”

As Iran had come up during the class because F is from Iran, C and D mentioned that a close friend of theirs (no longer alive) had been a tutor to the children of the Shah of Iran. F, the student from Iran, indicated that that the Shah of Iran was not a favorite topic of hers. As she is very polite, and her English is not very good, she did not elaborate.

Despite the general atmosphere of being at a United Nations sponsored wake, I did actually get on with doing some computer instruction, which went quite well. However, I taught in a very sober and subdued manner, my usual comedic approach completely put to rest for the remainder of the class.

As we reached the end of the class, R had a last few words for me. He told me that he was not very well, either. His lungs are failing (though his ailment is different than the lung cancer that killed his wife). He provided a technical explanation of his illness, which I forget. I think my capacity for taking in depressing information had reached its limit.

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11 Responses to “Sweet and Sour; Funny and Dour”

  1. I think that this class, if they engage in it, has a lot of possibility for distracting them from their thought loops, at least for a little while at a time. It’s remarkable, given R’s difficulties, that he’s chosen to do this — he’s really reaching out, that announcement of his means he’s reached a comfort level it sounds like he doesn’t have elsewhere.

  2. modestypress Says:

    That’s an interesting point, fluffy. I will now take a minute to concentrate on my thought loops.

  3. Pete Says:

    Call me sick (I’m sure you all have, at least once) but I thought that was pretty funny, only in the way that you told it. More the irony, I suppose. I am sorry for the tragic losses, but as always Mr R, you know how to tell a story!!

  4. pandemonic Says:

    Sounds perfectly horrible. Oh, well. You can learn a lot from the lives of others.

  5. truce Says:

    Opening up to strangers often seems so much easier than doing so with friends. But that’s a heck of a lot of ‘down’ to lay on you, man.

    I hope you had chocolate cake and a half hour’s skipping (jumping rope) afterwards with RG to compensate.

  6. I’m on the same page as Pete, having had a guilty laugh at this priceless line: Despite the general atmosphere of being at a United Nations sponsored wake,

    I wonder why all these people ended up in a class together? If this were an ABC Very Special Movie, there’d be some heartwarming conclusion. Since it’s your blog, somehow I doubt this will be the case.

  7. spectrum2 Says:

    One time I tried to teach my older co-workers a computer class in the afternoons. No charge, just a benefit of me not having to clean up their “computer problems.” Anyway, this experience was not that good for me. It was a very difficult task, and a lot of the people lost interest and quit coming because they had other things to do. The ones that stayed kept me on the verge of insanity. It seems that you are good at what you do, and occasionally need a breather from craziness. I handle a lot in my daily job, but for some reason, teaching adults computers is rather a difficult task for me to master. It was much easier when I had a class full of pre-teen boys one time. Once we got past the tomfoolery, they were very technology savvy. I did not have to explain which button on the mouse to push or that double-clicking meant hitting the left mouse button twice. Wow! This is a long comment. In all, thanks for all you do in the way of educating the adult community on computers. Huzzah! to Random

  8. modestypress Says:

    I am trying to find a tutor who will help the Iranian lady learn English.

    She made a positive impression on me, and I thought improving her English will tangibly improve her life.

    For the other people, I had no miracles to deliver.

    One of my wife’s favorite folksingers was Steve Goodman, best known for “City of New Orleans” recorded by Arlo Guthrie.

    Another song he wrote, applicable to my post, is:

    (Steve Goodman)

    Yesterday I went downtown and saw an old-time picture show
    And the hero got a pie in the face;
    He didn’t like that, and he stormed around the screen.
    Everybody else was laughin’ in that place.

    Cho: That’s ’cause it ain’t hard
    To get along with somebody else’s troubles,
    And they don’t make you lose any sleep at night.
    Just as long as fate is there bustin’ somebody else’s bubbles,
    Everything’s gonna be all right.
    Everything’s gonna be all right.

    Tell me, Did you ever have to pay for something that you didn’t do,
    Did you ever figure out the reason why?
    When the doctor says this is gonna hurt me a lot more than this hurts you
    Did you ever figure out that, that’s a lie?

    And I saw the boss come a-walking down along that factory line,
    He said, “We all have to tighten up our belts.”
    But he didn’t look any thinner than he did a year ago,
    And I wonder just how hungry that man felt.

    Now, I asked that undertaker what it took to make him laugh
    When all he ever saw is people crying,
    First he hands me a bunch of flowers that he’d received on my behalf,
    And said, “Steve, business just gets better all the time

    Goodman died of leukemia in his 30s.

  9. modestypress Says:


    Good to see you dropping in.

    I am very good at what I do because:

    a) I often felt dumb and had trouble learning as a child. By helping others who are having trouble, I feel in a way that I am helping my own earlier self who so often felt lost.

    b) I practiced and practiced and gradually got better at it.

    c) I try to be honest with myself when I make mistakes and when something doesn’t work and keep working at improving.

    Also, I very much appreciate anybody who is skillful and shows craftsmanship and skill at what they do. I think watching anybody work skillfully at anything is one of the great pleasure ofs life.

  10. “I think watching anybody work skillfully at anything is one of the great pleasure of life.”

    This is why we love you. 🙂 Among other reasons.

  11. Corina Says:

    As you found out, there are certain things that unify us even if we are seemingly very different.

    Grief and death. Everyone feels them. Everyone everywhere.

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