When you look back over your past, you have a collection of isolated moments, and some shine more brightly because they are the memories you’ve shared a number of times. The story of Darlene and haiku poetry is one of my favourite memories because no one can ever see ”the punchline” coming.
I had only been teaching a few years, and I had a Grade 7 Language Arts class. One of the students was a lovely girl, named Darlene. She was a hard worker who had neat, clear hand-writing, and she always tried to meet the expectations of the teacher. On this particular day, I was teaching the class haiku poetry, and they copied the notes from the board. Traditional Japanese poetry form, often about nature or the seasons. Line one – 5 syllables. Line two – 7 syllables. Line three – 5 syllables. I showed the kids an example, and then I gave them the rest of the class to work on their own haikus.
After about ten minutes, Darlene was at my desk. I smiled and said, “Yes, Darlene?”
She said, “Ms McGregor, I don’t understand.”
I said, “Oh. Well. Do you know what a syllable is, Darlene?”
She said, “Yes.”
Had I been a more experienced teacher, I would have tested her right then, but I took her word for it, and I said, “Well, your first line is 5 syllables. Okay?”
“Your second line is 7 syllables. Okay?”
“And your third line is 5 syllables. Okay?”
I smiled, and Darlene went back to her desk and sat down. I was pleased that I’d finally gotten through to her by simply repeating what I’d already written on the board. I went back to whatever terribly important thing I had been doing, and about ten minutes later, Darlene was back at my desk.
“Ms McGregor, I still don’t understand.”
I said, “Darlene, are you sure you know what a syllable is?”
“Yes,” she assured me.
“Darlene, how many syllables does ‘donkey’ have?”
“How many syllables does ‘important’ have?”
I tested a few more words, and Darlene got each word right. I was mystified. She really had an impressive grasp of syllables. Slowly, I said, “Okay then. The first line has 5 syllables – okay?”
More slowly I said, “The second line has 7 syllables – okay?”
Even more slowly, I said, “The third line has 5 syllables – okay?”
“Okay,” she said.
I smiled. I didn’t know what else to do or say at this point. Was third time really the charm?
Then Darlene said the words I will never forget, “But Ms McGregor, I don’t know Japanese.”
I’ll lay money you didn’t see that one coming! I sure didn’t, and I tried to wipe the stunned look off my face as quickly as possible, hoping not to embarrass the poor child, and then I said calmly, “Well, Darlene, you write it in English.” I hoped I’d given her the impression I was accustomed to kids mistakenly thinking they had to write poems in Japanese in my English class.
Looking relieved and possibly somewhat embarrassed, she said, “Oh. Okay,” and she went back to her desk.
Naturally, the example of the haiku I’d written on the board had been in English, since I — like Darlene — don’t know Japanese. Hadn’t she thought about the example at all? Furthermore, I supposed that she must have been thinking, until I set her straight, that the rest of the kids were writing in Japanese since their pens were moving. After all, what else would she have concluded? Yes indeed, what else?