So Irritating (A Short Story) - Day Fourteen Online

Is this the most irritating sound in the world? Or is it hearing an echo on Zoom?

After a refreshing break, I've pondered over the best way to share these online teaching experiences. With the class motto "show, don't tell" already being repeated back to me by the new students, I have a strong desire to do just that. So instead of telling you what happened in the lesson I'm covering today, I'll list the key moments and write a rough story inspired by them. (We'll see if I can keep it up in future posts.) Based on true events, but completely made up, including characters, here is: "So Irritating".

The events:

1. Roll call - sounds that make us quiver.
2. Task - developing prose and reviewing skills.
3. Exercise - describe setting, describe action, then bring it together.

The story:

Student 1 entered the Zoom room five minutes early and immediately regretted initiating her camera. Professor B wasn't even there yet. Student 2 was, though. And he always keeps his camera on. Which made it a little rude to disappear and leave him on his own. It's not like she didn't want to watch his every gesture and memorise it for later daydreams, but her fear of stumbling over her words or having to clear a blush while talking to him way outweighed that pleasure. He didn't have his microphone on, so S1 took the chance to look in her mug and pretend she needed a refill before he had a chance to possibly greet her.

Away from the camera, she watched as Professor B arrived, along with Students 3 through 7, until she felt safe enough to sit and listen without pressure to contribute. Professor B, however, had another plan and immediately asked what was in her mug. Pressing the space bar for a temporary unmute, she answered, "coffee" and hoped there wouldn't be a follow up to that. She really had tea, but knew she'd be asked what type and then maybe if it had milk or something strange like that, because the British professor was obsessed with finding out if any students drank it her way. Not the Korean way.

The two minute verbal warning passed and then the professor asked the question of the day: what sound makes you quiver? Thankfully she immediately explained and spelled out that new word while shaking her body in example. Student 1 took a note. If she could add it to a story, maybe it'd subtly encourage generous grading. She got to the 'e' when she heard her name. First today? She had to think quick, "um... the morning alarm". Everyone's expression grew weary just at the thought. A few more answers caused the same or even worse tension: S4 said, "screeching on a board"; S7 added, "snoring", and somehow the last became the most impressive with S9 giving them, "that certain pitch my mum has when calling me for dinner". Thinking about it after a little laugh, S1 remembered that S9 always spoke for the longest time during the first activity, but nothing had made quite as much sense as today's comment. Not even when he discussed ideas in whichever language in the breakout rooms.

The screen flicked over to a plot list. "You might remember this." S1 read the first line and her lungs immediately filled as if she was back to last week, planning how to use any type of metaphor, simile or even onomatopoeic word to help her grade. "Yes, it's from your mid-term test. We'll use these points to create something new today." S1 knew there was a perfect word to describe this moment. She scanned back in her notes. There it was: cruel. "We've focused on senses for description, talked about characters and we know about plot. Today we're going to think about how to put these together more professionally. It's not easy!" 

Professor B was right about that. Even though the task was broken down (setting, then action, then merge together) and they had plenty of time in breakout rooms to freely chat, Student 1 found herself dropped in the same group as Student 9. To begin with, she was thought he'd take over and lead everything to his own confused thinking. That would have been fine with her! Especially since he'd probably be happy to take on the sharing role back in the main room. In reality, he was lovely. He asked her her thoughts and ran with them to add new things. They layered on top of each other, almost sounding like a ping pong rally, until each word was typed and the timer appeared to warn that they'd be forced back into the main room in one minute. Having to concentrate that hard with someone who actually cared about her ideas was tough and embarrassing. "So how do we present?" S1 asked, only so they could confirm it wouldn't be her job. "How about a paragraph each? Professor B said it'd be nice to work as a team in presenting as well as writing." 10 seconds left. A nod was all she could muster.

Back with the whole class, thankfully S9 had enough sense not to volunteer first. Professor B was careful to give praise to each team, "nice use of metaphor there", "well done in building the tension for the thriller genre", "I didn't expect that explosion!". But she also highlighted the weak areas, "watch out for change of tense", "since you made the child your narrator, it might be better to have more simple vocabulary". 

And then, it was their turn. Professor B smiled at their description of the smell of the cookies and relating it to the mother's hugs. She did warn against spending too long on the sound of the wind from the open window upstairs, but her compliment over the smile on the boy's face melting to show his fear made both S1 and S9 sit up in pride.

There was still one more task, though. And it was much more awkward than reading their own words out loud. 10 minutes to read another group's work and highlight two things to share with the class: areas that showed nice writing and others that needed improvement. It wasn't too hard to find examples of each. But they had to share criticism in front of everyone? S9 cleared his throat, "I guess we just say that it would be better here to use some sounds or smells to add the senses?" He was right and it even helped S1 think of more, "And in that dialogue, they could make it shorter by just an exclamation reaction, not describing the image again."

This time S1 was first to raise her hand and ask to go first. She didn't want to forget their ideas. Professor B was pleased, saying she didn't have anything to add and was impressed with their respectful expressions. S1 and S9 would never know if the other students took inspiration from them or already had their thoughts as well put together. It didn't matter: the joint success in this nasty task felt amazing and unifying for the whole class.

So when Professor B reminded them of the upcoming "workshops" and said that this was exactly what they needed to do for each story in those sessions, the class wasn't totally overwhelmed with dread. Only moderately concerned.