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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Speaking Test, Continued

Speaking Test, Part Three: ‘In this part of the test we’re going to discuss something together…
Johnny Cash

Sia was at least wearing a hat when he opened the door for her the next week. As they sat down, Jim reached into his satchel as Sia rummaged through her bag and pulled out the clutch of CDs. He turned round, his arm outstretched and found Sia in exactly the same pose, to the point where they almost, as the kids called it, ‘knuckle bumped.’ In her hand was a pen drive.

“Music?” He said, looking at it; it wasn’t even as big as a pen, more a stubby pencil. There was probably enough room to store his entire record collection on there, Jim thought. The CDs in his hands suddenly felt like antiques.

“Music,” she said, accepting the discs and pushing the stick into Jim’s hand. “I don’t have these,” she said, beaming. Before he could answer, she listed what was on the drive; Jim knew about fifty percent of the bands.

“Thank you,” he said, holding it up, like it was some sort of ray gun and feeling about one hundred years old. He wondered if she’d ever seen a vinyl record. He thought about explaining it to her, then got himself out of it by pretending it would be too hard to explain.

“In part three, you actually keep the paper; on it is information that we have to discuss…” Jim was usually pretty positive about this part of the exam; if it was pictures, it was safe ground; written details were a lot trickier. The only problem with the visuals were when they weren’t made clear on the sheet-one student, on ‘The Birthday Present Question,’ seeing a picture of an animal, mistook the idea of a cuddly toy for a real pet and explained how a live-gorilla would be the best birthday present ever: he passed with flying colours and quite right, too Jim thought.

The two of them bounced through the sheets in good time; Sia chose CDs as ‘A Birthday Gift,’ bought a band t-shirt with ‘Christmas Money,’ and chose a concert for ‘A School Trip.’ With ‘Excursions,’ she picked ‘Hard Rock Cafe,’ and for a film night she chose ‘I’m Not There’ and ‘Moulin Rouge.’ Jim hoped to Christ music was going to feature heavily in the exam.


Speaking Test, Part Four: ‘You are going to talk on your own…’
Jeff Buckley

“Okay, Sia, now Part Four is a bit more difficult; most of the students find it the hardest part of the test. You have to talk on your own for about a minute about a topic. Now you get paper to make notes and thirty seconds to plan it, so try and make bullet points, okay?” Jim looked round from the board and Sia nodded. During the break, when he usually ate a satsuma and drank a cup of coffee, he had written up bullet points for the fifteen odd topics that had come up so far in the past papers.

“Obviously, I’ll try to pick the one most suitable for you (music, music, please god music) but we’ll cover all of them just in case, okay? And also, you can adapt the topic to suit you; for instance, what you care passionately about…” he left it hanging in the air and watched her smile.

“Music,” she said, tapping the CDs.

“My Hobbies, Spare Time, The future…”

“Music, music, music,” Sia answered and Jim smiled, hearing her voice relax as she spoke; since they began talking about the songs, her way of speaking had changed noticeably; it was less formal and steadier. Jim had laughed thinking about it; he had been exactly the same, losing the mannered accent and letting himself relax enough to talk passionately about the bands and singers.

“So let’s go through them, one by one and write down the notes as we go.” He handed over a sheath of scrap paper and then looked down the list of topics. “Something you care about…”

In the movie version of the lesson, Jim would have allowed them to play one of the CDs in the background but unfortunately this was real life. Sia found a couple of the topics difficult and they had to go back over it once or twice. The lesson over ran a little and by the end of it Sia looked as tired as Jim felt. He cleaned the board after he checked she had copied down all the notes and she began to scoop the CDs up into her bag.

“Johnny Cash?” She said, holding up the last CD; the one Jim had been unsure whether to include or not. He reasoned that he could include it because he wasn’t inflicting Tom Waits on her.

“He covers one of my favourite songs, ‘Satisfied Mind.’ Great song.” He looked over and expected her to nod or shrug; instead her eyes lit up.

“I’ve given you Jeff Buckley. He sings that song.” She nodded, smiling.

“I heard his version first,” he said and spun back round to the board to write. When he was done, he stood back, shoulder to shoulder with her.

“‘How many times have you heard someone say, ‘If I had money, I would do things my way?’” He looked over to her. “You finish it off, Sia.” She cleared her throat.

“‘But the wealthiest person, is a pauper at times, compared to the man, with a satisfied mind.” She looked over. “Pauper?” He walked back to the board.

“It means ‘poor man.’” He wrote over the top of it. His handwriting was a mess compared to hers. Jim looked round. “Well, you’ve done great and I think you’ll do fine next week, okay?”

“Do you think I will pass?” She blushed suddenly and looked down to her bag. Her voice returned to that first day, uncertain tone. It was the time when Jim had to be a real person and not a teacher.

“I’ll be with you as the examiner, so there’s no need to worry. And anyway, it’s not about passing or failing but doing you’re best. That’s all I ask, Okay? I’m sure you’ll do fine.” Jimmy always said that: He always meant it, too. He lifted up her bag and handed it to her. “Thanks for the music, too.”

The two of them walked to the door. Jim held it open for her; as she pulled on her hat he reached into his bag and pulled out some gloves. She waved them away, so he kept waving them at her, until she was exasperated enough to take them.

“Give them back next week, okay?” Jim was careful not to say ‘at the exam.’

“Okay,” Sia said and walked out to the street. She reached the street and looked back; she waved. Jim waved back and then closed the door as she turned round the corner.

Exam Day

Sia was seventh of the list of eight; the curse of having a surname beginning with ‘T’. Jim got into the exam room and prepared himself; he checked the Dictaphone was working and the batteries were at full strength. He filled out the paperwork and opened the exam paper itself. Jim read through it and highlighted the questions he was going to ask. Jim made himself go through all of it part by part, reaching four last of all. He highlighted the topic he was going to use. After two cups of coffee from his flask, he walked to the door and called the first student in.

“Can you spell your family name for me please?” He said and looked over to Sia. She was pale and when she began to spell the first two letters her voice trembled. Jim smiled to try and calm her down but she wasn’t looking at him; instead she was staring at the small Dictaphone as if it had horns and a forked tongue. Next to it were the returned CDs and her pen drive.

“And where are you from?” Jim went on, hearing her voice steady as she answered. “Okay, now in part one…”

Sia did well in part one and part two. The information was terrible for the third part and Jim steered it a little, hoping the examiners didn’t go any deeper than ‘processing and using’ the information. She did fine, even though she forgot to use her own ideas, as every student had done that day, having been faced with the tough subject matter.

“Okay, now in part four of the test…” Jim heard her take a deep breath and ready herself. “Your chosen topic is… ‘What I would do if I won the lottery.’” There was the few seconds of silence that always followed him reading out the topic, when the student quickly tried to figure out if they were going to sink or swim. Sia looked straight at Jim and then looked down to the blank piece of paper, which Jim took as a good sign.

The other two topics were terrible and Jim had thought this one was the best choice. On his question sheet he had doodled; ‘record collection, stereo, concerts, start band.’ If she froze completely he was prepared to silently hold it up for her to follow. That didn’t seem necessary though; before he had the chance to repeat the topic, she looked up, her eyes alert.

“If I won the lottery…” He said.

“If I won the lottery, I would find the man in town who sells the tickets. I always remember him because the other men are always loud and pushy and he is always friendly and polite. I would find him and I would give him some money and say thank you for taking-sorry, selling- me the ticket. I would then give him some money because he seems sad to me; sometimes when I see him I think he’s talking to himself. I don’t think he’s a crazy person, I think maybe he’s just lonely. When he goes into cafes a lot of people ignore him and don’t speak to him, so maybe he just talks to himself and pretends it’s the voice of other people who are kind. Maybe, people he knew when he was my age. I would also give him some money because his eye looks bad and I would want him to go to the hospital to get it fixed. If I won the lottery I would give this man some of my money because I want to show to him that somebody notices him and he is not all forgotten like a shadow but a real human, like me and everybody else.”

No music: Absolutely perfect.

“And just a follow up question;” Jim cleared his own throat, close to speechless. He read the highlighted question on autopilot. “‘Do you think money always makes people happy?’” He looked up; for the first time that day, she smiled.

“‘How many times have you heard someone say…’” she began to say and Jim almost started to laugh; he hadn’t even had that in mind when he’d highlighted it. He listened to her as she spoke, her voice relaxing for the first time in the exam. “Poor man-sorry- pauper at times, compared to the man with a satisfied mind.’ ”

“Sia Tarrou, that is the end of the test…” Jim said and pressed the stop button.


Jim tidied up the paperwork and handed it over to the examiner who was waiting in the bar. He looked around but Sia had long gone; Jim knew she had passed and he would not see her again and that was okay. He ordered a coffee and put everything in his satchel in order. When he left, she would be one of the students that he would remember. Jim sipped his coffee; he looked out of the window and saw the snow was starting up again, falling in quick, wild flurries. He finished his coffee and slipped on the earbuds of his mp3; the music she had given him was good and furious. Jim walked out into the snow; he was tired but he felt good. He was pleased for all of them of course, but most of all, Sia. As he stepped into the snow and pulled up his collar, he jammed his hands into his pockets and laughed; she had forgotten to return his gloves.

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