Competition entry for Writer's Cramp
Of Pumpkins and Labradors
A funny thing happened at work the other day, which got me thinking about all the various innocent misapprehensions that can so subtly skew our understanding of the world we inhabit and fill our minds with the most colourful dreams, theories and ambitions. Such mistakes are most commonly made as children, first setting out on our life's journey and encountering a vast multitude of new facts, characters and settings with an imagination, as yet, untarnished by too much experience. It is often the case that when our mistake is revealed to us, we condemn our selves as utterly blind and ridiculous, for missing something so obvious; for believing something (now) so apparently incorrect. And, yet, we persist in making these errors of comprehension. What is it in our young minds that allows us to so readily accept our strange and marvellous imaginings, alongside the more rational facts revealed to us, without so much as a thimbleful of cynicism? Perhaps it's an inadequacy in our powers of reasoning,..or perhaps it is only when we are young that we have perfectly adequate powers of the imagination. By berating ourselves for our mistakes, we gradually beat our imaginations into submission and grow into realistic, grounded, practical adults. It is my opinion that marvellous mistakes in understanding should be encouraged in our children, for a strong, healthy imagination can often serve us far better than riches or rationalisation in later life. It's the tool through which the world is imbued with magic sweet, beautiful, terrible and tragic.
It is my good fortune to have the opportunity to tend and cultivate young imaginations, in my work as an English language teacher. It can be tricky, but I take care to listen to all my students' wonderings and never to let a child suffer embarrassment or ridicule on account of any mistake they make. I say this can be tricky, but sometimes it can be down right impossible, when an error is made so public and immediately obvious, that there is no easy way to save face in front of a critical crowd of their peers. The only thing you can do is laugh about it and hope the student accepts that as the best course of action too!
The event that began this train of thought was just such a situation. I teach English in China and, though I have a basic grasp of the language, I am far from being a perfect speaker. In my defence it must be admitted that Mandarin is a particularly difficult language to master. Not only do they not have an alphabet, but there are four different meanings for each word, depending on the intonation used when pronouncing it, plus thousands upon thousands of intricate, squiggly, little characters to learn to read. As if this is not enough, it is further complicated by the fact that some words have the same character and intonation, but completely different meanings. For instance 'mian' can be used to mean both 'face' and 'noodles'. It may be quickly apparent to you, from this snippet of information, what the mistake made by my student was, if I now tell you that I was teaching a lesson all about Halloween.
As October was drawing to a close, we had been learning all about this frightful festival. At the end of the lesson, I had a very special homework assignment for the class. I explained in broken Chinese how at Halloween, it is a Western tradition to make a Jack-o'-lantern by hollowing out a pumpkin and putting a face and a candle in it. As I explained I opened a large bag that had been sitting discreetly in the corner of the classroom throughout the lesson and dished out to each student a great big, juicy pumpkin. Their homework was, of course, to make their very own Jack-o'-lantern and bring it to class next lesson, which rather conveniently happened to fall on Halloween.
As time for class drew near, on all Hallows Eve, the corridor outside the classroom filled with excited chatter, as students filtered in and began to compare their creations. There were pumpkins that looked like vampires, clowns and all sorts of monsters being lined up at the front of the room, when all of a sudden the chatter fell dead and a strange, stunned silence filled the room. I turned and looked to the door, as laughter exploded around me, and my eyes met with a totally unexpected sight. One of the girls in my class stood in the doorway looking forlorn and abashed, holding in her hands a large pumpkin, carefully hollowed out and filled to the brim with steaming noodles. On top of the noodle pile was perilously perched a small glowing tea-light candle that I had given out with the pumpkins. Halloween is not celebrated in China, so it is easy to understand with hindsight, how the oh so familiar face of a Jack-o'-lantern could have failed to gain a place in the girl's ontology, though I had certainly not anticipated such a thing up until that moment.
I have to say, I feel for the girl. I have made my share of silly mistakes in my lifetime, even when given information in my mother tongue. For some time I believed that Equator was a large, fiery lion that ran laps round the centre of the Earth and that liver, served up at the school canteen, was, in fact, tiger meat! Perhaps my greatest moment of childish folly, though, was convincing my friends to stage a break in, on hearing that my neighbour had bought a tremendous new Labrador on which he rode to work each morning! I'd heard he kept it locked up in his garage and of course we had to see it. Imagine my neighbour's shock when he looked up from cleaning his shiny, new lambretta to see five small, red faces peering down at him through his skylight...and just imagine my friends ridicule!