The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

The telephone dance

There’s a little girl I haven’t mentioned.  We had lessons at the kitchen table.  It was a heavy one, with a solid glass top, the sort you might find in a dining room.

When we sat down, her uncle wiped the surface with a damp cloth.  Despite the curry stains, it was quite handy sitting in the kitchen.  The little girl – let’s call her Priya – had access to the food cupboards, and the fridge for drinks.  She was only seven.  The glasses were on a high shelf.  To get them, she had to climb on a cupboard, then reach up even further.  She was very small.  To me, waiting at the table, it looked like rock climbing. 

I remember one lesson.  She had made her favourite drink – she mixed things together – and kept it in the fridge.  She had drunk almost all of it.  There was only enough for one glass, but she wanted me to try it, so she filled a glass, and gave it to me.  She kept saying how yummy it was.

“Are you sure you want me to have it?” I asked.  She nodded, but I left the glass on the table.  I thought she might change her mind.  I wasn’t tempting her. 

“Sure?” I repeated, a moment later.  It was too much.  Without a word, she reached across, and pulled the glass back in front of her. 

At one time or other, I tutored the whole family, the child portion. They came in two lots: Priya and her parents (she was an only child), and her aunt and uncle, plus two teenage cousins.  In the kitchen, there were three large plants, one for each child, explained Priya, put into pots when they were born.  The sort you can grow inside.  They had done quite well in the sunny kitchen, turning into trees and bushes, but I couldn’t help thinking: What happens when they die?  I didn’t mention it to Priya.

“Did R– behave himself?” she asked, after one of his lessons.  R– was thirteen.  She actually said: “Did W– behave himself?”  She hadn’t mastered the letter r.  It was another cute thing I’d discovered.

S–, the other child, had turned sixteen.  Priya came in once during the older girl’s lesson.  She brought a pile of books, and sat opposite, in silence, with a pencil in her hand, looking studious.

“You’re peeking,” I observed.  It was true.  She was keeping an eye on us.

At the start of her own lessons, Priya was usually asleep.  When I arrived, I’d find her on the sofa, out cold, at five-thirty in the afternoon.  She cried when she had to wake up.  She was, I think, the perfect bawling, little sister, or cousin in this case.  If you lived with her, it might be annoying.  

Once, before the lesson, she slipped and fell on the stairs.  They were steep and narrow.

“Did you cry?” I asked.


“I bet you did.”

She confessed.  When she was fully awake, the fun began.  There was a telephone on the cupboard by the sink.  It rang at least once every lesson.  It had a special melody, and was very loud.  She did a dance, “My telephone dance,” she called it.  She used to practise during the lesson, when the phone wasn’t ringing, near one of the big plants.  Sometimes, she climbed on the table, and danced there, in front of me.  There was more room.  It must have felt like a stage.

One day, R– came in late from school, looking for food.  Priya was working.

“She did her telephone dance,” I said.

R– didn’t know what it was.  

“I only come once a week,” I pointed out.  “You live with her, and you haven’t seen her telephone dance!” 

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Money well spent

Kirin told me to say the letter x five times.  I did as he wanted, with modest pauses in between.  He understood, I could tell, but he tried again.  He’s only seven.

“Say it quickly!”

“I used to be a boy, you know.”

He started singing in a baby voice.

“Kirin!” Mummy called.  She was in the kitchen, monitoring as usual.  We went back to work.  After a while, Kirin said, softly: “Are you gay?”

It was, I should point out, ‘apropos of nothing,’ as people used to say when I was seven.  In his homework, and my behaviour, there was no sexual content.  It doesn’t feature greatly in Year 3, not in the syllabus, anyway.  But I had to say something.
“Have you been talking to the bad boys at school?”  
“They’re just boys.”
“You don’t talk to girls, do you?  Not at your age.”
At least he’d spoken softly. 
For comprehension, there was an extract from a play.  A group of children were watching a magic show.  A rude boy was trying to spoil things, making comments which he thought were clever.  The magician would surely take revenge.  That was the last question: What’s going to happen next?  Tricky for Year 3.  We began our answers.  The first question was about the setting.  The first question is meant to be easy, but I wasn’t sure.  I have trouble with easy questions.  I should stick to Maths.  I said to Kirin, “You’re good with questions.  What’s the setting for the play?”
He wasn’t sure either.  I had a few ideas. 
“In the text, a floor is mentioned, so they must be inside a building, which is all we can tell for certain.  There are balloons in the illustration, and the word party appears in question two, so it’s probably a children’s party.  Still, the balloons could be part of the magic show, and the whole point of doing comprehension is to find answers in a written text.  You shouldn’t have to look at the next question, or the illustration.  In other words, it’s a stupid question.  One more thing.  If the characters are gay, it doesn’t matter.” 

I was speaking softly too.  To finish off, I raised my voice. 

“Put all that in your own words,”

He began to write his answer.  With his free hand, he covered his work, the way a child does in a test, so no one can see what he’s writing.  It didn’t take him long.  When I looked, he had written: “It’s a stupid question.”

At the end of the lesson, Mummy came in, as usual, and announced: “He didn’t behave well today.”  Then she spoke to Kirin: “I heard everything.  Everything.”

He grinned.

“He’s a lot better than he used to be,” I said.  I was protecting myself.  But she agreed.

“The school said he’s improving.  He’s in the top group for English now, the same as Maths.”

I remembered something which he’d told me at the start of the lesson, about his recent homework.   

“My teacher asked, ‘Where do all these crazy, fabulous sentences come from?’"  

“What did you say?”

“I said I’ve got a tutor.”

“What did she say?”

“She was pleased.”

told Mummy – she hadn’t heard that – adding, “His teacher’s happy because she’ll take the credit for his improvement.  The head teacher will love her.  Everybody’s happy.”

“Everybody’s happy,” echoed Mummy.  "It’s money well spent,”

I realised she was thanking me; that this was the closest I would get to hearing the two words thank you.  It took a moment for all this realising.  Again, I had to say something.  I just said, “Thank you.”

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

A naughtymatic

“I have to write a letter,” Kirin said.

“Did your teacher tell you how to write a letter?”


I turned to Mummy.

“How can he do it, then?”

“That’s how they teach these days.  They don’t go through everything.”

“Good teachers do.”

The letter was addressed to an astronaut, a real one, a woman.  It was breaking down barriers in gender, if not in learning.  There were other barriers. 

“You could ask her if it’s nice in space.”

Nice is a banned word,” said Kirin.

The literacy lady had banned words like nice, big and little.  And happy – that’s a good one.  (Good was banned too.)  She meant well.  She wanted to improve the children’s writing.  She’d been banning words for the whole of Year 3.  Now, she was banning them in space.

“OK,” I said.  “Ask about the space jellyfish.”

We talked about floating in space; if a jellyfish would move the same way in space as it did in water; and, if you didn’t make it back to your spacecraft, how you might feel if you had to float forever. 

“I can see you in a space suit,” I said, “your little face at the window, but I can’t hear a word you’re saying.”

When Kirin falls silent, and he’s not writing, he’s either sad or asleep.  I can’t always tell.  The letter was finished.  He put his pencil down.

“That’s a nice, big paragraph,” I said.

Time for comprehension.  A beggar knocked on an old woman’s door.  Did she have some water? For nail soup.  He had the nail already.  He showed it to her.  He only needed water.  She couldn’t refuse such a small request, so she boiled some water, and he added the nail.  He let it cook for a while, then tried a spoonful.  It could do with some seasoning, he said.  Well, she could spare a little seasoning.  She added salt.  It went on cooking.  He tasted it again.  Some vegetables wouldn’t hurt.  A little meat. Tasting each time.  In the end, a delicious bowl of soup was ready.  The beggar shared it with her.

Kirin had to write about the old lady.  We agreed that she was stupid.  We also agreed that he couldn’t write that in his book.  His teacher mightn’t like it.  Dumb, foolish, and idiotic didn’t sound so good either.  In the end, he just wrote that she wasn’t very clever, and played with a couple of toy cars.  It wasn’t very clever either.  Mummy was still banning them.  We discussed whether he could trick her the way the beggar had tricked the old lady.  Kirin thought not.  We also discussed where he could hide the cars if she came in unexpectedly.  Then he talked about them.

“This one’s an automatic.”

“A naughtymatic,” I said.

He chuckled. 

“You’re not the only bad boy in the world.”

“Me not bad.”

“Me not stupid.”

I told him about a trick I’d played at school, on a girl called Precious.  It was Year 6, ICT.  I was standing in front of the class.  I asked her what the opposite of shut down was.  She thought for a moment. 

“Log on?”  But she knew it wasn’t right.  I pushed my hand down in the air: “If this is shut down,” and lifted it again: “this is –”

“Shut up!” Precious cried.

“Tut, tut, tut.”  I shook my head.  “Precious told me to shut up.  I’m telling Miss.”

Kirin chuckled.  Then he asked, quite seriously, “Did you tell Miss?”

I shook my head again.  You can’t always tell on a child.  Kirin was still thinking.

“What did Precious do?”

She groaned, ‘Oh, sir!’ in a very deep voice.  But she knew I was joking.”

After the lesson, the one with Precious, we all walked off to lunch.  At the end of the corridor, one of the boys went: “What’s the opposite of shut down?” to the first adult he saw.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Do it quickly, and slowly

Kirin wanted to play in the lesson.

“You know I like you.  I wish I could play, but I can’t.  Mummy’s paying for the lesson.”

In a private lesson, if a child misbehaves, there’s not much you can do.  You’re not at school.  You can tell mummy, but, whatever she says, she’s not the Head teacher.  And you can’t keep a naughty one in, not sensibly – the lesson takes place in their home.  With Kirin, I tried: “If you’re not careful, I’ll stay another hour.” 

“I want you to stay for four or five hours!”

There was something grown-up about that – the imprecision, maybe.  He wasn’t exaggerating.

For literacy, Kirin doesn’t have Miss So-and-so.  He has a specialist in the subject.  It’s nice to be taught by an expert, however old you are.  Kirin got a comma wrong doing his homework.  When I told him, he replied, “Our literacy teacher said that commas mean and.” 

I forget what he wrote, but the rule would have worked in his sentence.  A fable, The Fox and the Sparrow, was for comprehension.  Mrs –, the teaching assistant, had reduced four pages to one, to save paper, I suppose.  It was admirable, but the print was too small.  I asked him to read it aloud. 

“Do it quickly, and slowly,” I said.  He read for a moment, then looked up.

“How can I read it quickly and slowly?”

“Just checking you were listening.”

He continued reading.  My mind wandered off immediately.

“I wasn’t listening,” I said.  “Please repeat that for me.” 

My confession interested Kirin.  He pointed out that it was he who normally didn’t listen.  I agreed.  I now owed him.  Whenever I make a mistake, and it happens quite often, I give him a ‘life.’  Given the size of this mistake, I awarded two and a half.  He grinned.  He needed all the lives he could get.

In the fable, in this version, anyway, a fox sees some grapes on a wall, and tries to reach them.  The more he tries, the more aggressive he becomes.   In the end, he gives up, and says he never wanted them.  A bird lands lightly on the wall, next to the grapes, and eats them.  In the comprehension, a question asked: Why lightly?  It was an excellent question.  I didn’t know the answer.  For a start, I’ve never seen a bird land heavily.  But this was Year 3.  There had to be a reason.  Was she trying not to knock them off the wall, and lose them to her old enemy, or was she just trying to make him feel worse: Look how easy it is, you clumsy fool!  Or both, or something else?  After I’d gone through it with Kirin, I still wasn’t sure, so I told him to write it all down, and say he wasn’t sure.  I smiled when I thought about his teacher.    

For Maths, the expanded column method.  Again.  It was easy.  We were getting bored, so I thought I’d improvise.

“If Farmer Brown” – I was reading from his book – “had 137 sheep in the field and 214 in the yard and 306 in the bathroom, what was the total?”

It’s a risk being silly.  Kirin can either wake up, or stop trying completely.  Now, he kept making mistakes, and rubbing them out.  The slightest error, and he’d rub out the whole line before I could stop him.  We weren’t going to finish.  He made one mistake too many.  I took his page, and corrected it myself.  I didn’t think I’d snatched it, but, straightaway, there were tears in his eyes. 

“You snatched my work.”

“I didn’t” – the pool of tears was growing – “mean to.”

It was too late.

“I still had a life!” Kirin said, and a big drop rolled down his cheek.