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Rated: E · Letter/Memo · Cultural · #2036528
A different way to test speaking ability
Hello dear family and friends,

I never meant to make her cry! 

After all, it was exam time for my Oral English class in a good size Chinese University. My exams were designed to evaluate their fluency with vocabulary, grammar, listening skills, fluency and voice. It may sound involved and complicated but it was simple.  I ask them to come out of the classroom one at a time and walk with me in the hallway, I ask a question and I let them talk. Instead of two to three minutes, they got seven or eight; instead of the classroom, we were walking the hall alone, instead of a randomly selected topic, I looked for a deeply personal choice, and this is how I tried to get them to talk about anything that was close to their heart. My rationale was that if they were passionate about something, they could talk easily for a long time. And as a rule, it worked beautifully.

And talk… they did! Some of them talked like they never talked before, with words they didn’t know they had and with personal stories I didn’t know they had! Many of those stories are still with me years later.

One of those students came out into the hall because it was her turn to “walk and talk”. She seemed uneasy.  I looked at her and I could sense a great discomfort.  I didn’t expect this from her. She was smart, self-assured, with “tough” friends, sometimes late for class but not the leader of the group. So, I started differently with her. I looked at her and asked.

How are you?



Because I don’t want to talk about what I love!

Why not?

Because it makes me sad!

This is where I fully expected that a boy was involved.  So I had a choice.  Do I pry or do I stay away from this subject? I decided that I didn’t have the time for a relationship talk and I didn’t want her to be sad. So I decided to use a prepared question to change the subject and I jumped in with both feet.

Okay, then why don’t you tell me why you decided to pick this university?

Arghhhh!!! I didn’t decide!!!

The ‘arghhhh’ of her answer told me it was too late, too deep, too emotional and that I had stepped right into that hurting place.  I just shut up and let her decide to talk or to be silent. She talked.

“I didn’t want to come here! When I was young and it was time to go to high school (grades 10, 11 and 12 in China), I sat down with my parents and insisted I wanted to study at a famous high school in our city. I wanted to study chemistry and I wanted to enroll in the best school for chemistry. They said yes.  So I studied chemistry because I loved it.  I read everything I could find about chemistry and I learned the symbols and the formulas and I bothered my parents until they bought me a chemistry set and I did some experiments and I could do university problems and I found it easy and I loved to study.  I studied lots of chemicals but what I loved to study most was water: H2O. I loved to study water. Did you know that water is one of the only substances that expands when it cools? The others get smaller. Water is soft but they use it to cut through rocks.  Water can climb a small wet rope and crawl out of a container? It is so strange and I love to study it.  I was good in high school, I studied very hard and I wanted to go to a famous university.

I got very high scores in the university entrance examinations and so I could go to the best university in China. My parents then sat down with me and told me that since I had chosen my high school, it was their turn to choose a university and because there is no future or money for girls in chemistry, they chose this University of Finance and Economics so that I can earn a living after I graduate and maybe support them when they are old. It is my duty!

Now I study here.”

Now she was in a university where she could not even take an optional chemistry class even if she wanted to. Our school was all about economics and money. We walked and she was hurt and so I wanted to encourage her to keep this passion, even if it was a secret and hidden at this time. I wanted her to keep this passion, because later, somewhere, somehow, this passion could be revived and she could find a way to bring it back into her life.  I wanted to encourage her by telling her that in my own life, all the things that interested me when I was younger are now all interrelated and what I learn from one often applies to the others. So I asked about her chemistry set because maybe it was still a physical link to her dream and she could still use it during her holidays.

And she started to cry.

Now I had done it! How many feet can I put in my mouth?

Then she said:

“Before I left for university I gave my chemistry set to my younger sister. When I went home during the Spring Festival break I asked about all my chemistry things and she said she did not know what to do with them so she threw them all away.”

She then said:

“Can we do the exam now?”

I said: “This was the exam; we just did it!”

“But I didn’t want to talk about what I loved.”

I told her: “You were perfect. You spoke in English, with no difficulty, you even forgot you were speaking English, so you spoke from the heart and that is what I wanted, I understood you perfectly and you get a high score. I know you don’t feel good now and I am sorry about what happened.  Maybe we can talk again sometime when we walk on campus. Now maybe you need a little bit of time before you go back to the classroom. Go back only when you are ready.”

From a school where the hallway is where we sometimes learn more than in a classroom!

Djay Pee

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