It was hopeless.
Not even the fourth time taking our conversation final was going to do it for poor Eric, a 1st year English major in my Freshman Class 2.
From day 1, I knew Eric (Wu Tao) should have changed his major. Not only couldn’t he respond to "What’s your name?" or read a simple sentence in English, but the entire class he spent huddled next to the monitor (class leader) for constant translation.
His demeanor screamed "Countryside!" from the moment I saw him: darkened, leathery skin from working in the fields, disheveled hair from not grooming, rumpled clothes, and his daily "deer in the headlight" look of being caught in an academic environment quite foreign from his rural lifestyle and limited educational background.
I became very used to his Jethrow-like confused, wide-eyed wonder and vacant expressions both in and out of class.
Despite being lost a majority of the time, he always had a grin on his face and an eager jump to erase the board or hand out papers to the other students. And his classmates were so kind and patient. They sat next to him, trying to lead him through the lesson or explain in Chinese what was going on.
Yet when it came to the conversation final, not even his classmates could help.
For 5 weeks, we had practiced in class the group conversation final which would count for 70% of everyone’s grade. In groups of 3, students practiced asking one another questions about the lessons we’d done. In total, there were 20 questions which students had ahead of time to prepare for. During the test, all 20 went into a pot. Each student drew a question to ask his other two group-mates. The last question was mine, a free-for-all which no one knew although I prepared them with the subjects beforehand. Each student’s grade was based upon the answers given and also their group dynamics, such as helping one another, giving positive feedback and showing interest in each other’s replies.
The test was designed so if everyone practiced, if everyone participated, if everyone prepared, all could pass.
At least, that’s until Eric showed up.
Although his classmates openly gave him the answers during the test, Eric just couldn’t manage. He couldn’t read the question to lead his group. He couldn’t understand the questions he was asked. He couldn’t even repeat what his friends told him to say. Mostly, he just sat in silence, looking around the room for signs of the holy spirit of English to descend upon him and bless him with something to say in this alien language he chose as his major.
"I try again! Try again!" were Eric’s parting words every time I announced his failure to pass.
But by the fourth time, Eric was just getting worse (if that’s possible), not better. Part of his problem had to do with his group-mates who were so frustrated by his inability to be helped that they snapped at him or sighed in utter exasperation.
In the end, we all had to laugh, including Eric himself. We knew it was impossible. For Eric, English was an alien tongue and would most likely remain so for the rest of his life, no matter how hard he tried.
The sympathetic teacher in me wasn’t able to give the poor guy a 0 so I gave him 10% for each test he took, a total of 40%. I added to that a bag of candy to share with his testing group, dorm roommates and friends.
The last I saw of him was on January 1st, New Year’s Day, after failing my test a fourth time. Tucking his candy stash under his arm, he bounded excitedly down the steps to pack up his belongings for the 9-hour busride home. The holidays had begun. Tests were behind him. Time to return home to see his parents and hometown, which I’m sure were greatly missed this semester.
I do wish Eric a happy holiday but I sure hope he decides to change his major next semester. For this upcoming Chinese Year of the Ox, he might have the strength of a bull to survive our college but he certainly doesn’t have the English language ability to do it.
At present, I am in Lanzhou, the capital city of Gansu Province, to attend our winter Amity teacher’s conference. The conference lasts for a week and will include teaching workshops given by Amity teachers as well as site visits to Amity rural development projects in the area. Little Flower is at her babysitter’s home, Mrs. He, in Chengdu and will remain there for a month. After the conference, I’ll be returning to the States to check up on my parents.
This week, more reports on Lanzhou to follow!
From China, wishing you "Ping An!" (peace) for your Sunday.