Recently, at a family wedding, I was very distressed to find out that my year and a bit worth of teaching experience has not improved my ability to talk to children. I met a rather cool three year old (he could talk three languages and sing most of Frere Jacques) and, when called upon to talk to him, I decided to try and employ some of the tricks that I had no doubt mastered in my time as a teaching assistant.
None came to mind.
I think part of the problem here is that all my tricks are specifically for interacting with Japanese children. Their Japanese-ness, the fact that they don’t speak English as a first language, supercedes their youth in my mind: any time that I interact with them, I am accutely aware that most of what I say will go over their heads, in fact I’m counting on it.
If you’ve met me in real life, and I hope for your sake that you haven’t, you’ll know that most of my conversation is made up of rote, base and wholly unwarranted sarcasm. In a Jane Austen novel, I’d be the undesirable lout of only five thousand a year who thinks he’s top drawer; in a Young Adult franchise, I’d the bitchy first teen that the protagonist meets, who later learns a lesson or gets torn apart by werewolves or something; in a Joss Whedon film…I think I’d actually do okay.
Most adults can understand my conversation and thus tolerate it- children, however, don’t really get what I’m doing (I promise that I understand that that’s my fault and not theirs). I remember once saying to my neighbour’s son that I lived on Mars and he immediately made plans to follow me in my rocket ship home.
I am ashamed to confess that I have not really altered this conversational tactic at all for when I am speaking with the little Japanese children. I still say things that are blatantly untrue in an unwavering deadpan- the good thing is, most of the time they don’t listen. Normally, they just want to hold my hand or pull my hair.
But this three-year-old at the wedding spoke English (and German and Danish!) and he wasn’t one for just ignoring what the adults in his vicinity said. I tried to watch what I was saying (another favourite conversational trope of mine is profuse swearing), but it just meant that I ended up finding nothing at all to talk about and that I just didn’t feel like myself.
I think sarcasm is now the load-bearing wall of my existence- without it, there’s no structure, just ego and drywall. The children at the wedding all thought me horribly dull because, unlike the other adults, I really couldn’t offer them anything. The parents, of course, were all prepared with a battalion of games and distractions- I wondered if I should try some of my standard time-fillers from the classroom, but they generally need a chalk board or some passing familiarity with Anpanman. Even the other childless grown-ups could at least find something fun to point out in the environs; my go-to dialogue set-piece with children is to say they have pretty hair (years ago, a kid responded to this with ‘I know’. I imagine he went on to great things.)
When I saw some of my younger students after the wedding, I resolved to be better from there on out and not to use sarcasm anymore. I tried talking to them about the game they were playing and they responded with blank looks before jabbing me in the stomach, causing me to remark “yep, that’s what I thought.”
Oh well, some habits die hard.