My student looked down at his book, full of shame. I’d just told him to enunciate more clearly, as his TOEFL speaking answer had been a mush of vowels for sixty seconds straight. I always ask the students to listen to their classmates and to give constructive criticism.
“I couldn’t understand,” says one of the other students. The first is still staring at his book.
“But why? You’re a good student! You just have to say the consonants a little harder.”
He looked up at me, and pointed briefly at his braces. Back to staring at the book in shame.
“Oh, I had braces, too! For two and a half years. Do you have rubber bands?” I lean in to inspect the braces more carefully. “Ah, nope! You’re lucky! And maybe it’s a little bit harder now, but that just means you have to work a little harder.”
He looks up again and looks sad.
“I really can’t.”
“Here’s the thing: Have you ever been to a baseball game?”
They all stare at me, confused. What do baseball and braces have in common?
“Have you ever seen someone warming up for batting?” I mime warming up, taking practice swings with an invisible bat. “What do they put on the bat?”
The new student, whose English has been perfected in the furnace of an international school in Dubai, chimes in. His eyes have lit up like stars.
“They put a weight!”
“Precisely! Why do they do that?”
“When they take it off, they can swing faster and the bat feels lighter.”
I look back at the student whose braces are hindering his speech.
“That’s exactly what the braces are doing. You are warming up. You have to work harder now to pronounce all the words properly. It’s more work.”
I step back and mime batting again, waiting for the invisible pitch with moving hands.
“But when those things come off, you’re going to hit it right out of the park.”
I swing the bat, pointing the trajectory of the ball over the fences far away. The students follow my hand in its arc, for the moment distracted from the mundane trials of teenage years.