Thursday, 7 October 2010

Thursday, the Khyber Pass

Normally (whenever that is if not this particular Thursday afternoon), I would be teaching my Support Class. I wouldn’t be in the garden staring at the spiders. Normally, though, there are lots of big spiders at this time of year, all swaying on their webs patiently waiting for a bite. I wouldn’t normally be poaching fish either. Regular visitors to these electric paragraphs might remember that Stan comes on Thursdays to sell fresh fish out of the back of his van. So we would normally be having fish on Thursday, just that I wouldn’t be making kedgeree in the middle of the afternoon and sending Fruitcake bonkers. If you haven’t met Fruitcake yet, welcome to Fruitcake Miniature College.

Normally, as I say, I would be in my Support Class. This was a couple of hours a week for students doing all kinds of subjects but who happened to be from other countries and whose only formal language learning was coming to me. They were mostly teenage boys. Their task would be, for instance, to produce coherent paragraphs of measured argument based on graphs derived from a survey. So, right now Ricardo would be seeking to establish for the benefit of classmates that Bruno was gay. Bruno would be engaged in stating that it was the other way about. Some of the class would be asking me if we could talk about football instead, which sometimes we did if they could accept I knew little about it. The lad from Switzerland would be working intently on improving his score vis-à-vis bits of paper and the bin. He called it Physics.

I never had to intervene physically, and if you accepted that a class of fifteen or so teenage boys would tend to feel and sound like a BBC wildlife programme, it was all quite pleasant, and they were some of my favourite lessons. Only the class and I had any views on what might be useful for them to practise, and it’s very rare to have that much freedom in teaching these days. Consequently, I took a fairly random approach to course design. I remember fondly a write-up that demonstrated with insane graphics that the older you are the more likely you are to believe in Father Christmas. To this day I don’t understand where the inhabitants from below the surface of an unpronounceable planet came in. But that’s the joy of teaching the young, they take you to places you’ve never been yourself. So, I have now seen the clips of Blue Man Group on You Tube. They’re worth a look.

I accept that this isn’t a scientific approach, for which I would both like to apologise to and commend Ben Goldacre, an intellectual hero of mine. Look him up too, at

I also wouldn’t normally be informed by the BBC until much later this evening that the Khyber Pass is closed at the moment. Those versed in Cockney rhyming slang may think I’m talking about constipation. Actually I mean a nasty situation on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Once it was explained to them, the lads in Language Support would have hugely enjoyed that possible ambiguity.

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