Teaching eighth graders, who are pubescent pundits, is challenging no matter where you are. But when you are teaching in a new country and you don’t know their slang, it’s just plain brutal.
I discovered this the hard way when, as an exchange teacher, I bumbled my way through one year of instructing Year 8’s in Adelaide, Australia.
I already knew a few tidbits before I arrived. For example, never say, “I root for the team.” The connotation of that statement would be that I do way more than cheer for my team to keep their spirits up. I also knew not to freak out when kids would say that they wore their thongs to the beach; they meant flip flops not G-strings.
As an English teacher, I quite enjoyed learning the different meanings. It’s amazing that Americans and Australians speak the same language, but there are vast variations in word usage and definitions. For example, I discovered that “feral” is a wonderful and completely underused adjective in American English.
I first heard it when a student advised me not to go to a certain mall at night. “Miss, you don’t want to go to West Lakes at night. It’s feral, really.” What a perfect word! I hadn’t even been to West Lakes, but I knew exactly what she was talking about — major white trash. In fact, I knew of a feral mall in my own hometown.
And 13-year-olds weren’t the only Aussies who incorporated “feral” into their standard vocabulary. Adults used feral with just as much precision. “Oh, yes,” one of my colleagues began. “That class of Year 8s you have, 8B, is feral.” Despite its extreme and limited connotation in American English, “feral,” according to Aussies, is a very matter-of-fact and versatile descriptor.
On many occasions, however, I did not guess the correct meaning of a new piece of slang that I heard in class. One day, a student, who needed approval for everything he did, asked a question: “Miss, can I use my texta?”
“Michael…what have I told you before? NO texting. I’m going to have to take your phone.” I held my hand out and was rather surprised because I couldn’t believe he would ask for permission to text.
The rest of the kids, who usually came to the defense of anyone who was about to have his or her phone taken, said, “Miss, he means his texta.”
“Yes, and you guys know my policy on text messaging!”
“No, Miss TEXTA!” Michael held up a highlighter and the kids clarified, “you WRITE with a texta.”
“Oh, you mean a marker? Sorry, Michael. Yes, that is fine.”
The texta misunderstanding was quite mild. It’s when I gave a lesson on punctuation that things became quite awkward. I began the discussion like this:
“Okay, I’ve noticed that several of you are not using commas, capital letters or periods when you write.” Immediately, after stating this fact, I knew I had said something that was related to sex. The kids erupted with embarrassed laughter. Three very cooperative girls, who always raised their hands when I asked questions, turned a reddish purplish color. Both outright and stifled giggles came from the whole room. The boys elbowed each other and the class clown, Mitchell, poked the girl in front of him.
“Excuse me, Miss, could you say that again?” he asked.
I stood there tapping my fingers along my crossed arms. “I said you guys need to capitalize your letters, use commas and put a period at the end of your sentences.” After saying the word aloud again, I knew exactly why they were in such a frenzy.
“So, what do you call a period?” I asked. Seconds later, it was quite evident that was the wrong way to approach the situation as more laughter and snickering ensued.
“Um, Miss, don’t you know what it is?” Mitchell eagerly continued the discussion. “It’s this thing that happens to girls each month when they bleed heaps — all over the place.”
“Yes, I know what it is,” I responded as I tapped my fingers along my arms again. “So, then, what do you call this?” I went over to the white board with my texta and drew a black dot.
“That’s a full stop, Miss!”
“A full stop?”
“Yes, full stop…because it comes at the end, and then it stops the sentence.”
Actually, it made a good deal of sense. From then on, although it’s difficult when your job involves promoting punctuation, I made a conscious effort to remember to say “full stop” vs. period.
I had successfully avoided saying “root” in the classroom, but more challenges awaited since Aussie English, like every other language on Earth, is a minefield full different terms for sex and sexual acts. Again, I would find this out with my Year 8’s, who were boiling cauldrons of hormones.
We were working on verbs and the difference between active verbs and linking verbs. The assignment involved filling in blanks with verbs to complete sentences. Who knew this lesson would become scandalous?
In the United States, I taught older kids — juniors and seniors in high school. Consequently, I was constantly overestimating the maturity of my year 8’s. “I’m so glad you guys are working on this assignment,” I tried to encourage them. “You can fill in the blanks with any verb of your choosing. But let’s avoid verbs that are synonymous with sex or doing drugs.”
Mitchell called me over to his table and asked if he could use “wank” as a verb. At the time, I had not heard him correctly and thought he said, “wag.” I learned early on what it meant “to wag” since every day at least one kid decided to ditch class.
So, I told Mitchell, sure, wag was an active verb and I didn’t see anything wrong with using it for the exercise.
“No, Miss, not wag — WANK,” Mitchell corrected. Of course, he enunciated the word so all heads turned to watch my reaction.
Since I was used to teaching teenaged boys and it’s pretty obvious that they spend vast amounts of time thinking about sex. I didn’t need a clarification of “wank.” I got it.
“Are you referring to masturbation?” I asked. Normally, pointing out something in a straight forward, factual manner shuts up an 11th or 12th grader if they are being immature.
This approach doesn’t work with year 8’s. Again, the whole class lost control. “Did you hear what Miss Glaser said?”
“Oh my lord, really guys?” I responded, rolling my eyes.
In the end, I really think I was the one who was learning more about English than my students. They schooled me, big time.