Me: Hello! How are you today?
Student 1: I am…happy.
Me: That is good to hear. Hi! How are you?
Student 2: I am happy.
Me: You are also happy?
Student 2: Shen ma? (translation: What?)
Me: You are also happy? She (gesture to student 1) is happy. I (gesture to me) am happy. You are also happy? (gesture to student 2)
Student 2: Hao – yes.
Me: Good. Hi? How are you feeling?
Student 3: I am happy.
Me: (to myself) Of course you are…
15 happy students. When I studied to get my CELTA, I remember learning about ruts. Students understand one word, and so they will use that word even if it only sort of applies. If you can’t remember how to say “annoyed” then you might as well say “happy” because you at least know what that word means. Happy is this all-encompassing word for “not bad.” And it is, apparently, the one emotion my students feel comfortable using. Except for my slightly sarcastic student who will use “sleepy” and “hungry” on occasion. It’s my own fault – I didn’t emphasize neutral words during vocabulary building.
So today, I started class with a mini-vocab building lesson. On the board, I wrote “I am HAPPY.” with happy circled and underlined. Then I re-enacted the beginning of class. I am happy. I am happy. I am happy. I am happy. With each repetition, I slumped a little more. Giggles meant I was understood. I then started to write other words around HAPPY – great, good, alright, fine, ok, in a good mood. These words, stemming from happy, will hopefully work their way into my class’ vocabulary system. And I am aware that feeling ok and feeling happy are not quite the same thing, but that is the point. Nuances are crucial, and happy is a good starting point to explain that.
This is not to say I would not be thrilled if my students were all, each and every one, happy. What a great way to be – authentically happy all the time. Except they’re high schoolers, so I know for a fact that this is not true. They’re probably bored, and tired, and angsty, and frustrated, and in love, and overworked, and melancholy, and excited, and jealous, and chilly (it’s not quite warm out), and a hundred other emotions. Happy, as a catchall, belies the depth of feeling. It is also is a buffer – my students don’t have responses to “Why are you happy?” But it is a safe word for “even keel” – and I get that.
Douglas Adams says it best: “…the best way not to be unhappy is not to have a word for it.”Perhaps if I don’t teach them how to express negative emotions, they’ll never have them in English…
Then again, today I asked a student “How are you?”
“TERRIBLE!” She exclaimed dramatically.
“Terrible?!” I imitated. “Why are you terrible?”
“Because…teacher give me…many vocab work!”