Very Bad Day

From: Michael Kanert

Subject: Customers may always be right...


... but that doesn't keep you from wanting to strangle them once in a while.  

Very Bad Day

I had my first "bad" day at work yesterday. While I usually manage to shrug off my egregious errors in the teaching process by observing the mantra, "Well, nobody died", yesterday it took quite some time before the words returned to my mind and I managed to calm down. It only took two little incidents, but they were more than enough to sour my mood for the day. The first was something that normally wouldn't be a problem, but ended up being disastrous. You see, I had an incredibly good student in a high-level class. I taught my first lesson in this level yesterday morning, and I pulled out a chapter on narrative descriptions that worked rather well and challenged the morning student - using things like "begged", "promised", "called", "murmured" and "whispered" rather than simply "said". So I tried it again on this student I had in the afternoon. I knew I was in trouble when she told me she knew all the words listed as "new" vocabulary for the chapter. I asked her to read a section of a narrative and summarize it in her own words. She got all the key points out in about two sentences. I started giving her cues and asking her to describe them as things I "whispered" or "called", and so forth. She went through half of my cues in three minutes. In the morning, it had taken about 20 minutes to do them all. I stopped and told her she didn't need that lesson and asked her what she wanted to do. She said she wanted to build vocabulary. I pulled out a book I'd noticed another teacher had used with her and flipped to a random page. It was simplistic. With the exception of the word "limp" there was nothing new to her. She asked to be taught slang. With the exception of the expression "gone all pear-shaped", which is purely a bit of trivia unless you're from England, I could teach her nothing. "Unbe-fucking-lievable" was already in her vocabulary. She understood me when I spoke at full storytelling speed, which has stumped native English speakers at times. She told me she spent a year in a Scottish boarding school, and quite frankly, I figure if she could comprehend the speed and dialect of speech in Scotland, there's not a lot I can do for her without giving her a literary work and letting her ask questions about anything she doesn't know. I didn't exactly have such a resource on hand. I tried just talking with her, but she wasn't inclined to expound on any lengthy topic, so I ended up talking most of the time. I basically wasted her time and money, and she'd paid \8000 to my company for a private session. That got the big mean medicine ball of my day rolling nicely.


Then I went to a free conversation class, which is usually a bit of a break since you can just serve as the initiator and then sit back and let the students talk, mediating as necessary. There were four people in the room, but I needed a minute to figure out what to talk about and who to pair with whom since I wasn't sure of their levels of ability, so I asked them to pair up and find three things they had in common, which I hoped to use as a spark for subjects that would be of interest to them. Except one woman in the class immediately said she didn't want to do that. I think I almost heard the smacking sound as my eyelids snapped back. I asked her what she wanted to do. She said she wanted to have a discussion about a specific subject. I asked her if she had one in mind. She said no. I contemplated homicide.


I wasn't particularly inclined to be nice to this woman any more. So I came up with the only other thing that I could recall having been on my mind of late, and vengefully proposed the following topic: "Are humans innately good or are they innately evil and forced to be good by rules imposed by society?" Whack.


Silence ensued until one of our most advanced students finally spoke up, and we proceeded to have a wonderfully awkward conversation that eventually all but excluded the two weaker students in the room. I tried asking them questions on occasion, but they said they couldn't understand what was going on. So I was quietly fuming at both this woman's petulance and my inability to use it for good rather than evil as I tried to deal with the mess I'd created.


I thankfully had a pair of wonderful students immediately afterward, but it was well into the night, long after I'd gone home and had dinner, before I calmed down. I'm still quite displeased about the whole situation, and I now have a newspaper stowed in my bag with articles highlighted for use in case I run into the need for topic stimulation. Positive: I'm trying to learn from past mistakes. Negative: I'm still incredibly irritated. Today looks like it's going to be lovely. Icing on the cake: I think I'm developing a delectable ear infection. If someone could bury me in a hole for a week until my brain and body settle down, I'd quite appreciate it.


*             *             *


Well, it's now two days later and this e-mail is approaching epic proportions. That was Monday. This is Wednesday. I'm feeling better, my ear is gradually healing, and I discovered that for some reason the topic of food will carry any free conversation for 40 minutes because everybody has something to say about Japanese food and everyone has different ways of doing things, so great discussions ensue. Go figure. And I still have this great article on personality being shaped by one's native language sitting in my bag that I've never used.


But here's the reason for the perpetuation of this e-mail: last week I went to the Shizuoka Prefectural Art Museum with my language exchange partner. He'd just bought a car (a virtually new mini-SUV loaded with GPS and an LCD screen for about $6000 Canadian... what do cars sell for new in this country?) and I'd made a point of hitting the museum, so he punched it into the GPS tracker and off we went. I'd discovered from one of my students that the museum has a wing dedicated to Rodin sculptures, featuring the Thinker, the Burghers of Calais, and the Gates of Hell among others, so I had to go check it out. Well, the first part of the museum was dedicated to traditional Japanese art and variations on scenes of the 52 Stations of the Tokaido, which is this ancient and apparently storied roadway in Japan, and about a half dozen artists had their own renditions of all 52 bloody stations. It quickly went from "novel" to "not another one!" So we spent a bit too much time on the Tokaido, and we had to breeze through the two rooms of European and European-influenced art so we could get to the Rodin exhibit before the place closed. Immediately prior to the Rodin exhibit they have a room of post-Rodin sculpture featuring one piece by each of the major artists influenced by his work, and I realized that they were all people I'd studied in art class in high school and subsequently forgotten about. Guys like Brancusi, Giacometti, Moore... why have I paid so little attention to sculpture? These things were great. But on to Rodin.


My language exchange partner got us each one of those little info-listening devices you get at big museum exhibits, and I was pleased to find that an English option existed. The commentary was rather long-winded for people in a rush, however.


The room was set up in a five-tier system under a huge skylit oval-domed roof. As we walked in, the Gates of Hell was directly ahead of us on the bottom tier, and three intermediate tiers expanded downward on either side leading to the lower level. From looking at art books, I'd never realized exactly what was so revolutionary about Rodin. From a distance, his sculptures don't look particularly special. But when I got close to them, I was awed by his ability to translate the sense of impressionistic painting to sculpture: the figures almost have fuzzy edges, and yet at the same time their bodies seem to be made of incredible pulsating muscle, with huge hands and feet that impart an intense sense of power. The Thinker is just sitting there, but he looks like he could tear down a mountain. Even the mournful Burghers of Calais look like lamenting titans. It's amazing that Rodin was able to achieve a sense of emotional sensitivity and vulnerability coupled with such raw physicality.


The Gates of Hell


I'd never even seen a picture of this thing before. I knew that the Thinker was somehow supposed to be a component of it, but I didn't know how it really related. Well, it's an actual gate. It's a giant doorway (about 15 feet high) that was commissioned to be the entrance to some art museum that was never actually constructed. I wonder if the museum people would have wanted their patrons to enter their establishment by passing through the Gates of Hell? I've got a feeling it wasn't what they'd had in mind...


The Thinker is incorporated into the Gates of Hell as a two-foot-high figure sitting on the lintel pondering the fates of the condemned below him. The doors themselves are covered with dozens upon dozens of figures, some of them in high relief, some of them almost completely separate, with only a hand and foot attached, as if they're physically trying to pull themselves out of the door. One of the most disturbing aspects is a large figure, almost completely separate from the sculpture itself, who is upside down trying desperately to climb over the lintel from underneath. Another striking figure is a very small man writhing on the outside edge of the door frame itself - he's completely alone in an area where there are no other figures. The giant door frame seems to surround a set of doors that is undulating and writhing with a virtual sea of people in various states of anguish. I know I might not be able to make an accurate comparison based purely on photographs, but I would compare Rodin's Gates of Hell to Michelangelo's Last Judgement for pure awe-inspiring terror and mastery. I'd put them side-by-side.


Incidentally, Rodin apparently wanted the Thinker to be placed over his grave. That guy must have had a wonderfully morbid sense of humour.


My language exchange partner took a picture of me in front of the Gates. More irony?


The Shizuoka casting of the Gates of Hell is unique in that it is the only one that was completed in a single piece. I'm not sure how much of a difference it makes, but I can say that the single gigantic slab of metal makes quite an impression.


So that's my news for now: art and frustration. Things have happened and are happening since, but there'll be time for all that later.

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