I learned, somewhere around the time when I was living with 6 male engineers in a slightly run-down house next to the university, that life will always have some tense moments. I also learned (being the only one in that house with any sense of domesticity) that if things are getting edgy, a clean livingroom and a loaf of bread in the oven go a long way to fixing many problems. Add a large pot of tea and some chocolate-chip cookies to that, and you’ve pretty much solved the world’s problems.
Naturally, I’ve applied that to my own family life. While I am, by no means, anything resembling Martha Stewart, the minute the kids start fighting and I start yelling is the minute I give orders to clean the main living areas and go bake something that tastes good. It is an almost infallible solution.
Our schooling area – at least, the place where we do the “book work” – always has scented candles and interesting things to look at, and is a gathering place for kids, adults and animals. When the math is not going well, sticking the hamster and a pile of strawberries in the middle of the table seems to break the tension, and allow life to continue.
I have no idea why I let my tutoring room at the centre remain boring for so long. I suppose I felt it was not my room, specifically, and therefore I should just let it be. It’s small, has a large desk and 4 folding chairs, white walls, and one sun-bleached print of some landscape so dull I can’t even remember what it is after 16 months of working there. There is also the limitation put on by the religion of most of my students: no false images (which I have no problem with, other than I really like looking at pictures of people).
I’ve adopted the room. It started with the owner of the centre fixing the hot water tap on the water dispenser, and a box of Celestial Seasonings Bengal Spice tea. The kids stood in my doorway, and sniffed. Just sniffed. When I finished drinking my tea, they would put the cup close to their noses and sniff. They whined the day I ran out of Bengal Spice and was drinking plain old Orange Spice. They tolerate the Cranberry, though, because it smells like candy.
They come to my door, even if they aren’t studying English that day, to smell the tea. While there, they might look at books, talk to the other students, get involved in whatever conversation is going on. They read the ingredients on the tea box, and decide which ingredient smells the best. They leave only when their teachers call them back.
I figured if tea could get them involved, what could decorated walls do? I printed off some quotes about education (Mark Twain’s “I never let my schooling interfere with my education”, and Mahatma Gandhi’s “Live as if you will die tomorrow, learn as if you will live forever”). I put up a colourful world map. I put some palindromes up on the wall. I made more tea, even though I wasn’t really thirsty.
Last Friday, I had 8 students in my room, when only 3 were supposed to be there. They were arguing the difference between “schooling” and “education”. I sat back and let them go, intervening only to hand them a dictionary. The manager of the centre said they were being too noisy and sent them off to their respective teachers. They were all back at some point during the evening, to add a remark to the conversation, or to copy down the quote, or to return the Beowulf graphic novel they had hidden in their science book.
On Saturday, a 12-year-old had hoisted a 6-year-old by the waist, and was showing him latitude and longitude on the map.
I remember, some years ago, about a Japanese factory increasing production dramatically by scenting the air with lavender. I also remember my favourite high-school English teacher’s room was lined with quotes. I remember my grade 6 teacher’s stuffed owl, perching on a shelf at ceiling-level and eye-balling us.
I’m adding, slowly, more things to the walls; there are many options which don’t involve false images. I’m purchasing multiple boxes of Bengal Spice. I’m letting my students’ education interfere with their schooling.