It was not easy to deliver an engaging grammar lesson to a group of thirteen-year-old students at a small secondary school on an island in the northwest of the Malaysian peninsula, especially not to this particular class. Despite being smaller than typical secondary school classes, these students required a bit of taming. Before teaching the first unit of the textbook or the infamous first unit of the literature component, Shakespeare’s Life’s Brief Candle, I needed to earn their trust.
I was given three Form One classes and two Form Two classes. One of the Form One class was the last class. As a new teacher who had just graduated from university, it was expected of me to be given that last class. The previous teacher passed on his record book, and I was surprised to see his beautiful penmanship and colored ink. However, I did not have the chance to meet him to ask for advice on how to teach this whimsical bunch of students.
The first class with the students was a religious experience. The boys were boisterous, and there were only two girls, one of whom was academically challenged. The other girl played the role of an older sister, being taller and calmer than the other girl, who was clingy and rather temperamental. One of the boys was referred to as the character “Giant” in the Japanese anime Doraemon, and he was a real bully.
The lesson started with the usual instructions for an English language grammar lesson. The students were well-behaved during the first period of the lesson. However, by the second period, the boys began to lose interest, and the smallest boy started calling the largest boy names that the latter obviously loathed. Their yelling grew louder, and I had to come up with something quickly to prevent the situation from escalating.
I remembered a novel that I had read a few months ago and quickly decided to tell the students a story to calm them down. I made a deal with them that if they were quiet and returned to their seats, I would tell them a story. The two boys suddenly stopped running, and all eyes were on me. The tall girl told the two boys to go back to their seats quickly so that I could start telling them a story.
The chaos subsided in a matter of seconds.
I started to tell them one of the chapters of the novel The Smoke Jumper by Nicholas Evans.
Since the two boys had been behaving rather unruly earlier, I decided to tell them a story about a wolf and a chipmunk in the hope that they would learn a lesson from it. It was an Indian tale that one of the characters in the novel was telling a teenage girl, another character in the novel, who was always getting into all sorts of trouble.
The tale started with a pack of wolf pups which were all playful and feisty. They spent most of their days chasing a wild rabbit or a chipmunk in the woods. But their favourite activity was zigzagging through a rocky trail in the woods.
One morning, one of the largest wolf pups dared the other pups to run as fast as they could along the trail. All the pups were trembling in fear at the thought of crashing into the rocks and ending up injuring themselves. One of the pups, however, accepted the dare. The wolf pup wanted to prove that he was one brave wolf to the other pups. So, he dashed through the rocky trail and kept increasing his speed. The other pups started to howl, cheering him to run faster. He was doing quite well, and all the other pups were quite impressed with his ability, thinking that the pup was probably the bravest of them all.
All of a sudden, he lost his footing and went crashing into the rocks. His front leg was badly injured, and he was barely able to walk back to his den. Weeks later, he managed to recover, but he was still limping. He wanted to play with the other pups, but because he was too slow, they began to ignore him. He isolated himself in his den, and due to his injury, he could not hunt for food. He became so weak, and if that persisted any longer, he could die of hunger.
One morning, when the pup opened his eyes, he saw a pile of acorns on the ground. He was so hungry that he quickly gobbled up all the acorns and went back to sleep. The next morning, he found another pile of acorns right in front of his nose. He was so grateful that he had something to eat for two days in a row. The pup was so curious and wondered who would have left him the food.
So, the following morning, he decided to wake up early and wait for his food. Suddenly, he heard a strange noise, a loud puffing and huffing sound, and he saw a large pile of acorns approaching from the entrance of his den. The acorn pile then dropped to the ground, and the pup saw a chipmunk, the same chipmunk that he and the other pups were chasing just a few weeks earlier.
The chipmunk was terrified as the wolf pup was wide awake and was staring down at him. The wolf pup, however, did not pounce and instead stood there, frozen to the ground. The pup then nodded to the chipmunk, thanking him for the acorns that he had been bringing to his den.
The chipmunk made a little squeal and quickly left the den. The next day, and for days after that, the chipmunk kept bringing a pile of acorns for the pup until he regained his strength. Obviously, both of them became good friends. The other wolf pups had also stopped chasing the chipmunk because he would growl at them if they attempted to start a chase.
The school bell rang as if on cue. Another lesson would begin soon, and before the teacher for the next period appeared at the door, I quickly asked what lesson they could learn from the story. They gave many answers, but one stood out. It was from one of the girls, the taller one.
She said that even though the chipmunk was always being chased by the wolf pup, he still helped the injured wolf, risking his life because he knew kindness pays off in the end.
I quickly ended the lesson and packed my things. The students said they could not wait for another English lesson. I told them I would tell them another story if they promised to do all the exercises given to them. They nodded, and I smiled at them before walking out of the class.
As I walked back to the staffroom, I realized that the novel by Nicholas Evans, The Smoke Jumper, had saved my life, literally.