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Archive for January, 2009

Clothes I'm Wearing... by englishbanana.com

Recently, I was teaching a lesson on clothing to beginner students.  We worked through the standard vocabulary and associated verb structures fairly quickly, so I pushed them to begin describing the clothes.  We reviewed the use of adjectives and I taught them more descriptive vocabulary words (ie.  plaid, striped, checkered); the results, in class, were quite pleasing.

For homework, then, I asked them to write a paragraph detailing their favourite item of clothing.  This they happily did, returning the next day with some rather extensive descriptions of their wardrobes.  One of my students, evidently at a loss for words at home,  had most definitely turned to her technological translator for help.  The result was a somewhat confusing paragraph,  perhaps best proved by the following abstracted sentence:

My white hoody and pink checkered skirt is each other compound is good and cute.

And while I’m on the subject of lessons on clothing, I thought I would include the following open letter to the people of Happy House Publishing:

Dear Happy House Publishing, Department of Curriculum Development

If you hope to guide students through a “delightfully imaginative learning environment,” as is your stated goal, might I suggest not including images of young girls in their undergarments?  What Is She Wearing?

It really causes unnecessary turmoil, what with nine year old boys clawing at their eyes, crawling under their desks, and screeching horrifically all the while.  The braver ones always venture to re-open their books, tentatively and by peripheral vision,  to page 54 only to slide it in front of the unsuspecting eyes of another boy, resulting in, quite obviously, a complete repetition of the aforementioned actions.

As you might intuit from the above description, the sum total of newly  acquired English verges on absolutely nil.  Granted some of the students are yelling, “ahh my gawd!” which does pass for spoken English, but I think you see my point.

Thank you for weighing my recommendations and I look forward to working with your revised editions.

Sincerely,
Geoff Martin

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White Pine Sentinel (photo by Geoff Martin)

White Pine Sentinel (photo by Geoff Martin)

Ever have those days when everyone about you screams forth your name and demands your undivided attention?  Ever have those days when you feel like no one speaks your language?  When the cacophony is so great you can’t hear yourself think?

There are a good many such days here in Korea.

Amidst all the noise (and I am, admittedly, often a contributor and/or instigator of it), there is an underlying awareness that silence will be all the sweeter when the noise has died, the children have fled, and I am alone in my classroom again.  Often, this is the only thing standing between my forced patience and my screaming “SHUT UP” in the faces of eight year olds.

To really know and value silence, to describe that splendid sense of relief when experienced, it is best to work from a negative definition.  Silence, then, is best described as not noise; it is the sheer absence of sound.  Much like John Milton’s assertion that what is Good is best defined against its opposite, Evil, so too are silence and noise co-dependents; two sides to the same coin, as the saying goes.  We depend on both to see our way and to strike a balance.  Without periods of near-deafening noise, silence would be stripped of its harbour-like quality.  In fact, silence, endured for too long, is its own kind of madness (think, Wilson, the volleyball).

A Veritable Wasteland (photo by an anonymous Haveman Brothers planter)

A Veritable Wasteland

One moment, in particular, stands out in my memory as the first time I experienced the tangible weight of silence.  To this day, four years on, that surreal moment remains my “safe place” (in psycho-speak); that place I imagine when I need to get away, to escape the chaos around me (ie. my classroom with twelve pairs of hands grasping at my shirt and an infinite number of vocal chords shouting out my name).

I spent the spring of 2005 working on a tree planting contract in Northern Ontario. We were flown into a veritable wasteland by helicopter and abandoned in an updraft of ash and dirt.  A forest fire had ravaged the landscape two years previous, churning on oxygen and engorging itself on combustible softwood and accumulated deadfall.  Our arrival, immediately following the spring thaw, meant that the natural color palate varied between off-yellow grasses and blackened soot.  It was lifeless in sight and post-apocalyptic in feel.  We pitched our tents against scattered outcroppings of Canadian Shield, beneath the wraith-like silhouettes of charred and limbless tree trunks– their exposed roots twisted about like fingers clawing from a grave.  A low, damp fog clung to the landscape, crawling up off the slender lake, cold as a corpse, and wrapping through the cleavage of two rounded hills in the distance.  The Dolly Partons, as the rock formations were affectionately called, dominated our view, poking up through the cloudy blanket, re-situating us whenever we were turned about.

This environment, dead to life below and blanketed in from above, would seem the best candidate for an uncanny, isolated silence.  And it would have been, had it not been for one small machine.

In the evenings, I was charged with maintaining the camp’s water system and electrical generator.  That generator, parked on a skid beneath a rotting, plywood A-frame, dominated camp-life.  It signaled our camp’s location while we were still two kilometers off; it pounded loud through our morning and evening meals; it threaded its way between every conversation, ceaselessly combating the rising decibels of our weary voices.  We lived under its full dominance of sound—because nothing was louder, we heard nothing else.  But as with all things constant, we grew somewhat accustomed to its grating, in that we ceased to really hear it– the irritation having shifted to our unconscious.

Andean Lamplight, Peru 2007 (photo by Geoff Martin)

Andean Lamplight, Peru 2007 (photo by Geoff Martin)

On the first night, I waited until the last voices floated through the darkness past the membrane of my tent, and then crawled out from my cocoon of fleece and goose-down.  I slipped through the door flap and stood beneath the full arch of a star-lit sky.  Casting my eyes down, I felt my way through the loose rock and dry twitch, laying out the beginnings of a worn pathway to the dining tent, the outhouse, and the still-hammering generator.

I stopped by the dining tent to see who might still be up.  A few toasted bodies were sitting in muffled silence about the woodstove, tilted bottles of Blue sticking up between their legs and resting against their gloved hands.

“I’m cutting power,” I called in to them.

They mumbled their acknowledgment through layers of wool. There was a slight shifting.  Their cigarettes flared red in the night, as they sucked in the evening’s last inhale and resigned themselves to abandoning the warmth of the fire for the cold of their tent.  The generator, ruling complete in the night against the lesser noises of a sleeping camp, now churned wildly, echoing loud off the rock face across the lake and resounding throughout the naked, treeless valley.

With the cold night air biting at my exposed hand, I hurried in a bundle to the A-frame and promptly flipped the switch, not wanting to delay my return to the pile of blankets within my tent.  The motor idled down, muttering as though beaten unfairly and too easily, before gasping out its last exhaustive breath and clanking, matter-of-factly, to its death.

In the sudden vacuum of noise, a deeper silence than any I had ever felt, washed in around me; thick, like corn syrup.  It caught me off guard.  I could hear nothing, as if my ears were stuffed tight with cotton balls; the usual noises of the night were ten kilometers off, at least. In the chambers of my ears there still echoed the pounding intensity of the generator’s whirling groan.  The sheer noise of it all, I began to worry, had permanently affected my ability to hear.

Though minutes seemed to have passed, sound finally began to creep forward with the slow lethargy of a sloth.  I heard the world infinitesimally; each strand of sound identifiable and unique: the sound of a single cricket beyond the A-frame; the scuff of my boot against cold dirt, as I stood back to look about; the crinkle of my jacket shell.

And gradually, each strand was overlaid by another equally unique sound.  Overlaid and cross-stitched, as if the world, though sundered, was now, piece by piece, being sutured back together: my sense of the aural universe expanding exponentially; concentric circles of noise and life pulsating out from the A-frame. The point of origin. The Absolute.  Like a rock tossed into a placid lake, the ripples of sound fanned out across the barren landscape, spilling forward through the undulations of terrain.  The single cricket’s call was now returned by a colossal wave of chirps.  Twitters of life, where none seemed to exist before, twisted out anew from the brittle charcoal and ash-strewn earth.  All appearances to the contrary, this place was very much alive– its root system stretching out, like the awakening of youth; its animal life microscopic but multiplying; its collective noise much louder than any mechanical roar.

Spruced Up (photo by Geoff Martin)

Spruced Up (photo by Geoff Martin)

I imagined myself the progenitor of it all; at the flip of the switch I could roll out sound like Aslan’s roar.  This pleasure in sound greatly outweighed the inconvenience of my nightly task.  In fact, I very quickly came to relish the act.  Each evening thereafter, I would rest my finger on the switch and then stop for a moment, filling the chamber of my head with the generator’s blaring rage, numbing myself so that the supreme absence of sound, and nature’s virtuoso chorus that followed after, might be all the greater, all the more incredible.  Although alone and without an audience, I would drop my finger with the showmanship and confidence of a magician with his wand.   Just as the generator sputtered through its final breath, I would suck in the cold air through my teeth, filling my lungs to capacity so that not even my breathing could disturb that saturated, soundless peace.  Silence, at last, would permeate the night.  Then, with my ears quickened to the pleasure of sound, I would stand straight and hear the wind off the lake, the sputtering hiss of gasoline in the funnel, the infinite chorus of insects.  I would drink in the palpable sound of a world created new.

The Creeping Advance of Green (photo by Geoff Martin)

Creeping Advance of Green (photo by Geoff Martin)

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