I taught my students the words ‘suicide bombing’ on Saturday.
The news from Paris broke just as I was waking up in Shanghai. On Saturday mornings I have to drag myself out of bed at 6:30, a feat which has grown infinitely harder now that the weather is cold. I have a habit of checking the news in the morning to help me wake up, and I almost always listen to All Things Considered from NPR.
Scanning headlines. Not much, not much, not much…60 dead? Paris? I immediately thought of our family and friends in London, only two hours away from that Grande Ville. I sent several messages with our mobile numbers in case anyone needed to get in touch quickly.
As the day unfolded, I was in classes. I teach English, but my highest-level classes are more like a combination of Language Arts, Civics, History, and current affairs rolled into one. I push my students hard, and they are old enough to benefit from intense discussions as well as witticisms (mostly on their part, as I am old and lame 🙂 ).
In my afternoon class, filled with 13-15 year olds, we had a great discussion. We joke a lot during our two hours together, and my segue into a serious discussion was preceded by exclamations of ‘Oh my Lady Gaga!’ and copious fart jokes. They have been my students for six months now, and they trust me. I lowered my voice and asked them to talk with me about something serious.
I put the BBC live updates up on our interactive board. I asked if they had heard of big news.
‘Terrorists,’ said Jerry.
‘Yes. What do you know about it?’
I try to use the Socratic method in my classes as much as possible. I cycle through endless questions, hardly ever giving a direct answer. I ask, ‘Why? Why? Why? Ok, Why?’ like a suddenly-conscious three year old.
They gave details. We read the summary on the live feed. 160 feared dead (at the time). Concert hall attacked. Stade de France. My notes were in red by accident, but it seemed somehow appropriate. I wrote the words ‘suicide bombing’ on the board and asked what they meant.
They looked confused.
‘Ok, break it down into smaller parts. Just like always.’
I drew parentheses around ‘sui’ and ‘cide’.
‘You know the word bomb, yes?’ Nodding heads.
‘Ok, so what does ‘cide’ mean?’ I asked. ‘Have you heard the word genocide before?’ Utter confusion. No nodding heads.
‘Ok, how about homicide?’
Michael pipes up: ‘Yes, but I don’t know what it means.’
‘Ok, well ‘homi’ means human. ‘Cide’ means….’ I mimed Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Jerry: ‘Strong? Muscle?’
All the girls’ eyes widened, and I knew they knew what the words meant already. I wrote ‘kill’ above ‘cide’ on the board.
‘Who is ‘sui,’ then?’
Jeffery, who is very good at guessing the meanings of words, says very quietly, ‘Self.’
‘A little louder, Jeffery!’
The realisation of what those two words meant was palpable in the room. All the students were suddenly really paying attention. I explained that a suicide bomber is someone who straps a bomb to their body and blows themselves up in order to kill other people.
‘Crazy,’ said Jerry.
I wrote 7/7 on the board.
‘Do you know this?’ No nodding heads. ‘Jerry, what year were you born in?’
‘Oh my Lady Gaga, I’m so ollllld!’ They all laughed.
I explained that this was the date of another terrorist attack, in London. I wrote 9/11 on the board. Lambert, the eldest, spoke through chewing his t-shirt to bits. Interestingly, he looks like my teeniest preschoolers when he does that. They eat their clothes out of anxiety, too. I asked what happened on 9/11/2001.
Silence for a little while. Most of them were not even born. It’s like asking me to remember my own experience of the Berlin Wall falling as a toddler. I don’t remember it, except through history class.
‘But you have studied US History!!!’ Jerry pleaded with Lambert. ‘We haven’t yet!’
‘Some planes caught on fire,’ Lambert said.
‘No, they did not catch on fire.’
Jerry: ‘They, uh, exploded?’
Through his t-shirt, Lambert: ‘They were hijacked.’
The students know that word, probably from video games.
‘The were! Very good. People took four planes full of people and flew them into buildings on purpose.’
Their eyes were so wide. Terrorist attacks sound crazy in simplified English, stripped as they appear when layers of euphemism are thus removed. They all confirmed with me again, ‘On purpose?’
I wrote Charlie Hebdo on the board, and asked if they knew about the previous attacks this year in Paris. I brought the discussion back to Friday’s attacks by asking who did this.
‘IS,’ said Lambert through his t-shirt.
‘Maybe,’ I said (it was not confirmed at the time). ‘But we don’t call them that, because it seems to give them legitimacy. We call them Daesh (I wrote it on the board), because it insults them. Who did these?’ I pointed to the other attacks.
Jerry: ‘The same?’
‘Sort of.’ A necessary oversimplification, for the purposes of an ESL classroom. I added Al Qaeda. They all attempted, and failed, to pronounce it. I drew a massive pink circle connecting the attacks.
‘They are all connected. But now what is happening with these two groups?’
‘They are fighting!’ jokes Lambert, removing the tee from his teeth temporarily. Everyone laughed. How ridiculous.
‘They are! They are fighting!’ I drew a black explosion between the two on the board.
‘WHAAAAT?’ They all said.
Every week, we take the BBC’s 7 Days, 7 Questions news quiz. They work in teams and can bet fake money on the answers. Most of the time, the quiz has bizarre, funny, or obscure news. We always talk about current affairs before the game. I asked them why we always do the news quiz, taking a seat for once in an empty desk. They shrug, still laughing about how two terrorist groups could declare war on one another.
‘This is why. Does anyone know someone in Paris? One of the teachers here has a friend who could hear the gunfire from her hotel room.’ I pointed to the board. ‘Imagine if this were Shanghai.’
All the air suddenly went out of the laughs. They looked at me with genuine concern and sadness, in that typical way of teens who just realised how serious a situation would be. Suddenly it was real to them.
‘Would we be in class?’
‘Would we all be safe?’
‘Maybe. But maybe not.’
‘This is why we do the news quiz. This is why you must pay attention to the news,’ I said. ‘Because something like this could reach into our lives without warning, and change everything. You have to pay attention to what is happening in the world. It is important. Does anyone have any questions I can answer?’ A pause.
‘Are you all ok?’ Nodding heads.
‘Oh, it’s break time. Thank you for the great talk, guys. See you in 15 minutes.’