“What is the most important thing you learnt in primary school?”
That was the look of the teenagers faces staring back at me. After a second or two, they asked me to repeat the question.
They understand the English, but they were not sure that they had heard right. It was afterall a bit of an odd question. Not typical small talk, nor even the sort of question you might receive in a job interview. It was a practice exam question, and some of the exam questions are plain weird. To answer them you don’t only need language skills, you need an imagination too.
Take a question I had to ask today about a photograph
It was in reference to a picture of a smiling girl stacking supermarket shelves. She wore a green apron and had her blonde hair tied high in a neat pony-tail.
“What do you think this girl enjoys about her job?”
I smiled at the teenagers who looked up at me and blinked. It’s an expression I am becoming rather familiar with as I reach the odder questions of the Cambridge speaking exam list.
“I know, it’s a ridiculous question, use your imagination.”
They concluded that the girl in question did not actually enjoy her job, it seemed implausible that her career ambition was to stack shelves. However, she was smiling. So, my students hypothesised that she had plans for after work, a party perhaps.
I let my imagination go wild when I was faced with a picture of a man in a black t-shirt singing with great enthusiasm. I needed to encourage the students to spew out English words. Sitting dumbfounded by the awful photography won’t give them a mark that reflects their language skills. I pointed to a dower looking woman in the audience. This, I suggested, was the singer’s sister. I suggested that she would have preferred to be in bed, but instead she was at a rock concert supporting her brother. Furthermore, the event had come about as a result of a mid-life crisis. The man, fearing the best of his life was behind him, had decided to take to the stage. One of the students pointed out a nearby member of the concert audience, who wore a grimace, and suggested that this was the brother-in-law. We all laughed.
But back to the primary school question
Some students gave answers involving academic subjects.
“I think that the most important thing I learnt in primary school was basic maths.”
Others focused on describing their language skills. Particularly their foundation in Spanish and beginnings in English.
However, the ones who had more time to think tended to vie away from the subject orientated answer. They prefered something that was more orientated around social skills. One explained primary school had taught him to behave and equipped him with the skills to study. Others mentioned working with others.
Then there was the pair who decided to explain what, in their opinion primary school should have taught them.
“No, not emotion… not my emotion, to understand your emotion… more… I don’t know the word… empathetic”
The student’s concern was that there are too many extreme views in the world. People causing problems because of a lack of empathy and understanding of others. Empathy, she believed, was something that needed teaching at primary school. They should be learning to relate to one another and develop more moderate views.
I asked for an example
“I am,” she told me, “a feminist.”
And she proceeded to go on to explain that some people thought that by this word she meant that that she thought women were superior to men. She was adamant that this was not her belief. Her tone was calm, but had an edge to it suggesting that this was personal.
Gender equality, and tackling gender based violence is a big thing here. The other week, the students went on strike as part of a campaign for gender equality. On Sunday I cut through a march against gender based violence as I headed across town with my parents.
In the school corridor we talked for a while about the word feminist
I explained how my father (I quote him often) is a feminist but that he avoids the word. He prefers, I explained, to choose a terms that are more obvious in their promotion of the equal value of both sexes and all genders.
The more I speak to these teenagers the more I find them remarkable
I’m lucky that I get to have this odd, privileged opportunity to hear the individual, intriguing, complex beliefs of these young people. Often, they fight with the limits of their English vocabulary to express themselves and their opinions. It’s impressive. I’m tired when I come home from work, because it’s not a job where I sit back and let it happen around me. That wouldn’t be within my character and the teenagers deserve more than that. They deserve empathy.