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A Cobra In My Classroom

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         In the Equatorial Zone, it is not just the heat that oppresses; it is the air you breathe. Sometimes, the humidity is so heavy you feel it as a weight on your arms and legs, pressing down on your lungs. It saps every ounce of energy you possess, and even as you go about your business, whatever it is you do to earn a living, you fantasize about stripping naked and passing out under a ceiling fan. If you earn your living teaching English in a Chinese high school in Borneo, you can indulge your fantasies while your students’ fantasies take the form of dreams — the kind you have when you’re fast asleep.

         It was one of the hottest, muggiest days of my second school year, when I sputtered my way up the hill on my tiny motorbike for my afternoon class. Most of the teachers and students were home by then, since Chinese teachers with seniority refused to conduct classes in the enervating wet heat of a mid-summer afternoon. But for us, the fung mau kui — the red headed devils — and our hapless students, the pronunciation and dialogue drills of the morning resumed at 2:00 p.m.

That morning, a student of mine had been reprimanded by another of his teachers, Mr. Chiew, for eating in class. I had heard of the altercation and, contrary to my usual posture — and my students’ expectations — I backed the teacher. The ban on eating and drinking in class was one I thoroughly approved and enforced. In fact, I went even further than the Chinese teachers by banning gum chewing as well. (There’s nothing like a wad of gum to gum up a good spoken English sentence.)

      In any case, when I walked into class that afternoon, already sticky with sweat, there was, toward the back of the room, a fierce argument in progress in Chinese. No one rose when I entered the room. In fact, no one paid any attention to me at all. Except for the verbal combatants, most of the rest of the class gazed listlessly out the windows (this was one of the newer classrooms with louvered glass panes, and not just open space to the ceiling above where the four-foot high walls stopped).

A Cobra In My Classroom

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