Sunday, October 10, 2010

The ears have it

Here teacher.
Here sir.
Good afternoon Mister V.

As I continued to read the afternoon roll of Saudi students, through the various Abduls, Alis and Mohammeds, the noise level in the classroom of 30 variously interested English language learners continued to rise.

Having read the roster list thrice already that day for my other classes, I could feel my voice starting to get scratchy and a little hoarse as I raised my volume to reach over the din. And we hadn't even gotten into the annoying business of gerunds and past continuous tense.

Then it occurred to me. They're teaching me. And what they were teaching is that their attendance meant more to me than to them.

Which is patently untrue.

Whether a particular Khalid or Majed was in class that particular period really made no substantive difference to me. It was just a check mark (present) or a zero (absent) and a possible argument later in the week when they'd come to my office to ask for help (student code for "Please don't mark me absent"). They wouldn't win the argument.

The fact is, an absence means a lot more to Hussam than to me. Once he goes over the rather generous allowance of absences he is afforded in order to keep earning his stipend, it's all over for him.

So why was I shouting to be heard over the pre-gerund clamor?

I tried a little experiment. I started lowering my voice...

Here, Mister V.
Right here teacher.

I lowered it further...


By the end of the alphabet I was practically whispering. No kidding. My voice was low enough that I could barely hear myself!

Without a noise meter I couldn't say whether the ambient noise had gone down. If so, I don't think it was by much. But some of these 21- and 22-year-olds were sitting in the very back row of the room and they could hear me just as well as if the room had one of those acoustic domes where you can hear someone whisper from 30 meters.

It was eerie. A face--Muadh, Nasser, Omar--would pop up from behind a screen of students saying "Here Mister V!"

From this I draw two conclusions:

1) Never underestimate the ability of young-eared Saudis to hear at a distance.
2) People hear what they need to hear.

It's nice to get a lesson from the students.

If only we have ears to hear it.