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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Speaking Test, Chris Castle

Speaking Test, Part One: ‘In the first part of the test I’m going to ask you some questions about yourself…’
John Lennon

Jim sat in the reception waiting for the new student. The Dayton school for English was covered in snow today and his new student, Sia, was almost late. He re-read his letter from his sister back in London, smiled at the news of his nephew’s birthday party, the faulty remote controlled plane and folded up the letter. The bang on the door made him jump and he looked up to see the girl, right on time, standing by the glass door.

It was three weeks until the speaking test and Sia had applied at the last minute and subsequently been taken ill. Her school was now closed because of the pig/bird/monkey flu and Jim’s boss had offered to help out.

“So the English speaking test is split into four parts,” Jim said, going over the rules for the nth time. In his first and only year of teaching, he had managed to pass every student in the school. It was a combination of encouragement, patience, cheating and blind luck. It was also the only thing he was good at. “Part one means I ask you some questions, usually three from five, never more than one from each section. So today, we’ll just do that section to get you used to it, okay?” he looked up and smiled his best neutral, non-creepy-to-girl-students-smile. In all matters of school he tried to think neutral: like Switzerland.

“Yes,” the girl replied, not looking up and immediately screening the notes for the questions. She was interested at least, thought Jim. He had kids who repeatedly looked under the sheets to their mobile phones, their eye-lines clearly nowhere near the papers; they would make rubbish spies, Jim had thought with a rueful smile. Looking at them, so excited at the prospect of each message and so clearly not thrilled with the prospect of learning, Jimmy, at the age of thirty-two, had begun to feel old for the first time.

“So, let’s start with lessons at school, or education,” he said and looked up. He felt himself blush a little as he began to speak. He felt ridiculous at having to put on his slow, ‘amateur dramatics’ voice for each question, but knew it was necessary for first time students who, being Greek, wouldn’t have a clue what to make of a slightly rough, outskirts of London male voice; a male voice that was incredibly deep, to boot. Jim sighed inwardly; he’d always hated drama at school and had got out of it with a sick-note at every chance.

The oral tests had been a success all the same; he had had managed to pass the lad who had, at the start of the test, very politely asked Jim to come round to his flat when he was away and eat his dog. They were good kids, all in all; even the ones who were a pain in the ass weren’t spiteful. Each week he read the news websites about back home, knives in school, falling standards and realised how lucky he was to be confronted, at the worst of times, with a couple of verses from Hannah Montana.

“Let’s go on with family, Sia. How important is family to you?” She was good, if slightly uninterested; Jimmy guessed she was probably smart at the things which took her interest and suspected being here and talking to a man with clipped English tones wasn’t one of them.

He tried to ask as many varied questions as he could to see if he could see any spark in her answers, but had little joy. It was a trick he used for all the students; find out what they were interested in, then try to incorporate it into the questions in the exams, so they would feel more comfortable talking about something they understood. So far, it had paid dividends in the real tests; one girl, who in class was painfully shy, spoke for over two minutes about the latest ‘Harry Potter’ film; another boy, who had spent most of Jim’s lessons talking, singing and generally giving him a headache, turned in an eloquent debate about which football team was better to support, Olympiakos or Panathanikos (for him it was always going to be Olympiakos).

The hour trundled on until five o’ clock came about. He watched her as he told her it was time to finish up and smiled as all the energy, absent from the previous hour, rushed through her as she sprang out of the seat. It was a good thing, really; what teenager would really choose to be in class on the fringes of a Saturday night? She scrambled up her books and pencils into the bag as Jim wiped the board cleaned of the few words he had put up.

“Do you have any plans for the weekend Sia?” he said, as he cleaned down the date and the ‘Mr. Jim’ he had written at the start.

“I was supposed to go out but I think that’s changed,” she said carefully, making sure each word was right. Jim understood from the off, that most of the students’ biggest concern was not passing or failing but looking or sounding foolish in front of other people. If there was one thing Jim had learned quickly here; never underestimate how grown-up teenagers were about practical matters.

“‘Life is what happens when you’re making other plans,’ I guess” Jim said without thinking. The whiteboard was clear. He looked at it; when he was at school, they still had blackboards and teachers were still allowed to throw chalk at noisy students. Good times.

“John Lennon,” she said as she hauled her bag onto her shoulder. Jim turned round and smiled. “Good night, Mr. Jim.”

“Good night, Sia,” he replied, not wanting to patronise her by saying how impressed he was by her knowledge. He walked her to the front door, holding it open for her and then locking it up as she stepped onto the street. She strode off, bracing herself against the cold; obviously, she didn’t have a hat, gloves or a scarf. It was music she was into: Jackpot.

Speaking Test, Part Two: ‘I’m going to read some situations. I want you to start or respond as necessary…’
Jimi Hendrix

It was important not to push it straight away; trying to openly start a conversation about a hobby, or look to enthusiastic, could sometimes backfire. Jim looked up with the tap and unlocked the door; the snow had eased down but it was still cold as hell; he saw Sia’s knuckles were white, her cheeks flush. He tried to remember from his old science classes whether teenagers were impervious to cold. He thought back on it; no, it was only homework. They said hello and walked down to the classroom. Jim asked about her week, the weekend and they settled down in the chairs.

“The second part of the test, Sia, is the conversations. In ‘A’ I start the conversation, in ‘B’ you start, okay?” She nodded and the two of them almost simultaneously cleared their throats.

This part of the exam, Jim noticed, was sometimes the most difficult. Some students were mortified at the idea of having to talk to their teacher as a friend and the concept of going to the cinema or a restaurant usually meant descending into a fit of giggles or horrified silence. Jim couldn’t say he blamed them all that much; for his part he tried to keep it as light and as simple as he could, achingly aware he didn’t want to come across as the ‘hip’ teacher. Jim remembered from his own school days the substitute teachers who pulled out the guitar and asked everyone to call them by them first names; it usually ended with them in tears and a galaxy of spit-balls on their back: painful.

“‘We’re friends. I want to go to the beach this weekend...’” To her credit, Sia seemed to take the whole thing good-humouredly, smiling in that half-amused, half-bemused style that only teenagers could get away with.

The trick, Jim had decided, was to use ‘W’ words: where, when, who, what…to make it easier for the students to answer. Tragically, Jimmy remembered how happy he was to come up with the idea and even found himself making a ‘W’ with his hands as he explained it and wrote it up on the board. He looked round to see if they were following his instructions; of course one of the boys was making a ‘L’ for Loser sign with his hand. Still, it had been a help.

“Now, with part ‘B’ of the test, you’re going to start the conversation. First situation: ‘You are at a restaurant…’” Jim waited for a few seconds; this part, he thought was the toughest. It was hard enough for a teenager to strike up a conversation, let alone in a second language. Jim had a default setting if it got really tricky; just to say ‘hi, how are you, Jim?’ and then let him take it over. But to her credit, Sia got through them, stopping once or twice, but on the whole doing well.

“That’s good work, Sia, well done. Remember, as well; if you want to think about something, try and make it a pause rather than a hesitation, okay? Maybe say ‘let me think…’ or something like that, okay?” Jim saw her jot it down. A student actually using their notebook for notes; was there any finer sight? He stole a quick glance at his phone for the time—never let students see you check the time; don’t let them think you’re as bored as they are—and was surprised to see it was almost time to go.

“You like music, Mr. Jim?” Sia said, making him look up from his own notebook.

“Yes I do. English music mainly, rock. How about you?” He watched her set herself in the chair and fought against smiling; for all the speaking, she was ready to talk.

“I love English music; rock, punk. My favourite bands are The Clash, The Arctic Monkeys and the Cure.” Her eyes lit up when she spoke and Jimmy saw her in the cafes in town; holding a coffee with both hands, talking animatedly to friends about songs, films and all the other things that really mattered.

The two of them talked for a few minutes; Jim tried out a few bands and nodded when she came back with album titles and lyrics. When she glanced down to her watch and politely reached for her bag, Jim drew himself out of his chair.

“Do you mind…” she said, looking to the whiteboard and pointing to the pen. Jim waved her on and stepped back as she stood by the board. Carefully, she moved across the space, her writing neat—better than Jim’s, whose first month of writing on the boards had almost slanted clean off them—and then stood back. Without turning round she cleared her throat.

“‘When the power of love is stronger than the love of power, the world will be at peace.’” She looked over her shoulder. “Jimi Hendrix,” she said and smiled, nodded and then walked out the door, in the effortlessly cool way that only a teenager could manage.



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