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De-VINE Ret-ri-Bu-shun

When you're teaching adults English, it's not what you say but how you say it.



I made a nun cry the other day. I felt bad. Then I felt an evil flash of vindication for all the times nuns had made me cry as a boy in school. Then I felt bad again.

Sister Carmella was repeating a level-two English language class, and she was using the same workbook--which had all the answers filled in. I warned her not to come to class again without erasing them. The next week, before class began, I asked to see her book. The answers were still written in.

"I no have time," she stammered.

"You had a whole week," I said. "You erase the answers now, or you march upstairs to the bookstore and buy a new workbook."

"I no have money."

"Then erase," I said. "Now. Before class begins."

"I no have rubber on pencil."

"'Eraser.' 'Rubber' is the British word. If you say 'rubber' here, people think of something else." I raised an eyebrow without elaborating and handed her my pencil.

As I started taking attendance, I noticed that Sister Carmella was blubbering as she erased the answers from her book. Not knowing what else to do, I opened the bottom drawer of my desk and reached into my stash of snacks. I walked over to her desk and handed her a pretzel rod. She looked up, laughed, then began crying again.

We were working on the past tense and the correct pronunciation of "ed" endings. At this level, students tend to add an extra syllable to every past-tense verb, saying things liked "pass-id" and "look-kid." They also have trouble getting out the final D sound on words like "avenged" and "humiliated." So we go over the rules and run through the exercises. We figure out the right sounds and whether or not the words get an extra syllable. Then we work with flash cards. It becomes a game of sorts. For each word they say correctly they get one point. If they make a mistake I make a loud buzzing sound. If they don't get it right after two more tries, I pronounce the word for them, going way over the top in emphasizing the final sound: burnDDD, dreamDDD, enjoyDDD. Instruction turns into theater, but they seem to enjoy it--and it helps drive the point home.

Sometimes too well. That day one student started putting DDD on everything: stopDDD, fixDDD, pushDDD.

"No," I said. "Not pushDDD--pushTTT. Try it again."

"PushDDD," he said.

"No, no, no! PushTTT! PushTTT! PushTTT!"

"PushDDD," he said.

For dramatic effect, I swept my arm in front of me, bowed at the waist, and spat out the word as hard as I could: "PushTTTTTTTTTT!"

Simultaneously I farted.

No one heard it except the only student sitting in the front row, Sister Carmella. She started laughing so hard I thought she might fall out of her chair. She covered her face with both hands. She was bright red--we both were--and her whole body rocked back and forth with laughter. None of the other students could figure out what she was laughing at, and I pretended nothing had happened. It was the fastest payback I'd ever had in my life.

I passed Sister Carmella in the corridor later that day. We briefly made eye contact, then she looked down, covered her mouth, tittered, and quickly walked past me.

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