Every TEFL teacher experiences awkward classroom moments. It may be an unanswerable question exposing knowledge gaps, or unkind comments directed by one student towards another, or even unsubtle criticism aimed at the teacher (I once heard of a student who remarked, “You are very boring today!” after the teacher yawned in class. “Bored,” the teacher corrected him, “You mean bored. Boring means I am boring you – you are bored by me.” “I know,” the student replied flatly, “that’s exactly what I mean.”)
Students using foul language is a constant source of discomfort in many a TEFL classroom. It’s not that we are particularly prudish or that we never swear ourselves, but there’s always an unsmiling student peering malevolently over ridiculously-shaped spectacles who you know is just itching to report any deviation from what she thinks a language class should be to your superiors and demand a refund, plus compensation for emotional damage suffered. There is also at least one larie smart arse who thinks he’s cool because he goes around calling classmates a variation of the term “motherlikers”, and reeling off a monologue of expletives he’s memorised from watching a video of Eddie Murphy doing stand-up. Generally, the best course of action is to smile wryly, but otherwise ignore the halfwit's stunt. That way, you look cool to the prat who’s turning the air blue, whilst at the same time effectively dismissing his behaviour to pacify the less rabelaisian elements of the group.
One such incident remains with me always. In a certain group there was a student from Oman, M, and a Spaniard, J. One morning I walked into class and M blurted, “J, he always wunking!” Quite why I and the rest of the class had to know about J’s self-abuse was unclear, as was exactly how M knew about it. I mean, the Latin races are known to be more open about all things carnal, but I found it hard to believe that a not unattractive twenty-something Spanish male would openly admit to relative strangers that he routinely strummed without a banjo.
Following my own advice, I smiled wryly and ignored the outburst. “He wunk all the time!” M continued, undaunted. “Really?” I offered lamely, and started writing words on the whiteboard. “He wunk at girls,” he stated obstinately, as if baiting me. I was surprised by this escalation involving the opposite sex, as M had hitherto been a model student, polite, easy-going, an all-round good egg. “That’s not very good, is it?” I mumbled, aware that some of the more poker-faced characters in the room were beginning to find M’s pronouncements, at best, confusing. “Wunk, wunk, wunk, J wunk all the time,” M announced, clearly getting a taste for the subject matter. I sensed the restlessness of the bespectacled spreading.
I don’t know why, but at that point I snapped. What I normally would have brushed off as a little adolescent banter suddenly became a point of principle, and I waded in waist-deep with a speech admonishing M for his unacceptable use of language in the classroom, and threatening that, if he didn’t desist, I would have to ask him to leave.
M gaped at me in utter astonishment. “What wrong? I just say J wunk at girls,” he offered pitifully, illustrating his innocence by winking repeatedly.