Tales for Exam-takers….
Christina Chorianopolou is our inspired guest blogger today. She unwittingly got roped into this by sharing a top ten book list challenge with me on facebook. This is an example of how we come close to missing opportunities for deep communication online.
If Christina hadn’t shared her story of how one book “The Diary Of A Nobody” transformed her exam preparation, in this discussion I’ve tagged here, we never would have had the chance to bring it to a wider audience of teachers and learners who can be encouraged by her experience.
” I felt the world had shifted. What had the book done? It had opened a door. And outside the door, there were dozens of paths, all swirling and vanishing in the distance. Everything was there already, I just needed to take a step and discover it. And then another, and another.”
Christina’s story exemplifies so much about different kinds of learners, and how schooling can hinder rather than help us. I hope this inspires other teachers and learners out there as much as it inspired me.
Take it away, Christina:
Learning English has been one of my life’s favourite adventures. A journey that started when I was about six and will hopefully continue for many more years to come. I might be teaching English, but I’m also learning it every day, and that’s what I love the most about languages; they’re as alive as we stand.
A slice of history
So let’s go a few years back; ok, more than a few. 1997, Athens, Greece. I used to be a teacher’s dream in those days; the days when your teacher could be anything from a stiff-upper-lip academic to a random backpacking tourist who thought they’d earn some cash. Yes, I was perfect for both those kinds, and every other in between, as I was very quiet, organised, clear about my goals and never protested against the endless grammar exercises and vocabulary lists. I had only a year ahead to prepare for my C2 exam, as I was in the advanced group with nine 20-year olds. At the time, it didn’t seem possible that my fourteen-and-something years of age could be enough to live up to the course, not to me anyway. But my teachers said so and I complied. And that brought the most studious part of me to surface. The only advantage I had over those nine classmates was that I actually loved the language. None of them wanted to be there really, while for me it was the best part of the day.
Days and weeks and months went by, with two different course books, dictionaries scattered about, and tests, so many tests. I was left to myself mostly. There was some sort of an unwritten rule that the class would only discuss and work on the issues of the weaker students – I was not in that sub group. I ‘had it’, they said, whatever ‘it’ was. Again, I complied. I had questions, I had issues to discuss, but I kept them for me, since I ‘had it’. Until we reached two months before the exam. I think a lot of negative feelings had been piling up and, as it normally happens in such cases, they all rushed out simultaneously. I was beside myself with fury, towards my teachers, my classmates, my books and tests, my parents. I couldn’t find a single reason why I had gone through a year of relentless studying and everything seemed absolutely pointless. Why did I need to take this exam anyway? I knew I was good at English, my teachers all said so, I was using the language almost daily. What made that certificate so important?
The turning point I had a huge fight with one of my teachers. I recall screaming at him that I wouldn’t pass the exam and it would all be his fault. Dearest me, if one of my students ever told me this, I’d be looking for the highest ground to jump off from. My teacher though, cool as a cucumber, simply replied ‘You’re being unreasonable’. Now, I don’t think that’s the appropriate thing to say to a teenager. Teens have a reasoning of their own. But it pushed a button in the back of my head. A rather strange ‘click’, that made my walk home a very dream-like experience. There was a lot of inner dialogue, I remember that as if it’s just happened. The first thing I noticed when I walked into the living room was a brown and yellow parcel, on the table, with all the world’s stamps on it. A gift from my uncle, from the US where he worked. A battered book, ‘The diary of a nobody’**, and a note ordering ‘διάβασέ το’ – ‘read it’. I simply dismissed it. It was a book and I’d had my share of them – I wanted other things, I needed other things. That ’being unreasonable’ had marked me and I’d just found myself craving to prove I could do anything, even if it was just passing an exam. While I was doing science homework for school, another clicking sound popped in my head. My uncle knew me. He was a 40-year-old teen and everything he said was gospel. Why was I not reading that book?
So I dropped the science for the fiction. And English studying for English reading. The ‘Diary of a Nobody’, by George and Weedon Grossmith, is the fictional diary of Charles Pooter. Tracing fifteen months of his unreal life, it took me through a brand new journey. How do you look when you’re ‘full of yourself’? And does it make a difference to the world around you? How do social gatherings form your world and why is the opinion of others so significant? Are amateur theatricals different from professional ones? Are all Americans loud and over-opinionated? How could occasions become shabby or sour?
And red enamel paint covering every surface. Numerous questions simply flying out of the pages, when all (I thought) I needed was answers. Over the hill I read that book that same night. And by ‘read’, I mean just that: I read every single word in it, front to back. It took me one week to decide to explore and analyse what I’d read that night. As I began to look up the varied meanings, the references, the incidents, I felt the world had shifted. What had the book done? It had opened a door. And outside the door, there were dozens of paths, all swirling and vanishing in the distance. Everything was there already, I just needed to take a step and discover it. And then another, and another.
I went to take the exam, having read mostly my book and selected notes of grammar points I struggled with. And I passed. Because I was curious and persistent. And admittedly very well prepared. The importance of a certificate lies only in the goals you’ve set for yourself. It is a remarkable achievement. But it is the road you choose to travel upon that matters. What skipping the endless word lists and focusing on the literature did for me, was to fire up my need for exploration and discovery. And I discovered many things: That being over confident and certain can be dangerous. That your classmates are not higher or lower than you; you’re in this together. That you will not get an answer unless you ask a question. That silence and compliance are not always the best options. That even in the darkest point, there is always light That there are people who know you, who want you to excel and push you towards that. That teachers have at some point been students themselves and they are merely human. And that red enamel paint can come off quite easily. Here’s my favourite memory from the Diary
A conversation with Mr. Merton on Society. Mr. and Mrs. James, of Sutton, come up. A miserable evening at the Tank Theatre. Experiments with enamel paint. I make another good joke; but Gowing and Cummings are unnecessarily offended. I paint the bath red, with unexpected result. April 19.—Cummings called, bringing with him his friend Merton, who is in the wine trade. Gowing also called. Mr. Merton made himself at home at once, and Carrie and I were both struck with him immediately, and thoroughly approved of his sentiments. He leaned back in his chair and said: “You must take me as I am;” and I replied: “Yes—and you must take us as we are. We’re homely people, we are not swells. ”He answered: “No, I can see that,” and Gowing roared with laughter; but Merton in a most gentlemanly manner said to Gowing: “I don’t think you quite understand me. I intended to convey that our charming host and hostess were superior to the follies of fashion, and preferred leading a simple and wholesome life to gadding about to twopenny-halfpenny tea-drinking afternoons, and living above their incomes.” I was immensely pleased with these sensible remarks of Merton’s, and concluded that subject by saying: “No, candidly, Mr. Merton, we don’t go into Society, because we do not care for it; and what with the expense of cabs here and cabs there, and white gloves and white ties, etc., it doesn’t seem worth the money.” And an invitation to explore: What does ‘pooterish’ mean? ** You can also find ‘The diary of a Nobody’ on Project Gutenberg
Special thanks to Christina Chorianopolou for inspiring us and *Happy Birthday Wishes* on this special day;)