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The Key to Success

In my class, Friday was THINING- OUT –OF –THE BOX DAY. I used Out-of-the-Box Day to approach curriculum from a different angle and usually opened the session with a few brain teasers like:

With four straight lines connect all of the dots with four straight lines. One caveat.

You can’t take your pencil off the paper!

. . .

. . .

. . .

Usually, they would try something like this and realize they lifted their pencil off the paper. This is fun. Try it.

. . .

. . .

. . .

One of the favorite Out-Of-The-Box games was MAP ATTACKS. Depending on the field we were studying, I would make puzzle problems out of cities, countries and continents usually combining all three. Which segues to Soth Sopheap [you can’t make up a name like that] one of my favorite students. Sopheap was from Cambodia. You're probably asking why not call him Soth? Ah, ha. In Cambodian culture, its last name first, middle name, first name last. But you probably knew that. Sopheap was bright, impish, kind and hell bent on learning English.

We were a month into a new semester and my class was involved in a variation of an African Map Attack.’ Two free homework’s were the prize for the winning team. As the class melded into Map Attack, Sopheap approached my desk for a little assist with the English. We spread out a map of Africa and read the first question.

Part 1: If you wanted to go fishing in the largest lake in Africa, could you name it? Sopheap studied the map for a minute and put his finger smack dab in the middle of Lake Victoria. (You knew that didn’t you??) Part 1a: What country is this lake in? ( You might know this.)

Part 2: What three countries border this country? Quickly, he pointed to Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. (No way you knew that.)

It was my bonus question that set off the explosion.

BONUS: What is the general longitude and latitude of the lake?

“How you find the longitude and latitude thing?” Sopheap asked.

“Just use the key,” I explained.

There was an immediate change in his persona. Uncharacteristically, Sopheap tapped the side of my desk with several fingers. Veins in his forehead and neck pulsed. “English is stupid,” he said under his breath. “Where’s key?” His question came a bit louder and with a definite air of frustration.

Some of the students near my desk, who were supposed to be actively engaged in my engaging activity, became more engaged in my current engagement. I laid my fingers on the longitude and latitude keys at the side of the map. “These are the keys.”

“English stupid,” he repeated more lividly. The kind, proper and gentle young man from Cambodia was losing it. More of my students disengaged themselves from their Map Attacks. The conflict in front of the room was definitely more interesting. Mutterings leaped from desk to desk. I was as dismayed as my class. Angry, frustrated behavior was not the norm for Sopheap.

“English stupid,” Sopheap repeated in a loud voice.

“Why is English stupid?” I asked in a low voice.

“I hate English.” Came a voice from the rear of the class.

“Mrs. Weitmeyer hates me,” said a female voice.

“Mrs. Weitmeyer hates everybody,” another added.

Feeling the class’s support, Sopheap did a little Cambodian version of the Michael Jackson ‘Moonwalk.’

“I hate gerunds.” Cried Tiffany Lin a Stanford bound Mensa candidate.

Deep inside I felt a sense of dread.

“Yeah, and prepositional phrases.”

I was losing control.

“And what about adverbs?”

“Yeah, what about adverbs?’

A full scale revolt was near. In desperation I whacked the top of my desk and reverted to my Drill Instructor persona. “Okay, okay, at ease, Marines.” I said to the class. Then I gently brought Sopheap to a halt. “Why is English stupid?”

Apparently I’d passed him a baton, because Sopheap sucked in a big gulp of air and was off and running. “I go to music class and Mr. Creelman told me the piano thing keys.”

“Mr. Creelman’s hot,” one of my female seniors whispered.

“Then we get music sheet,” Sophead continued. “Mr. Creelman say music is in the key of A

with the little…” He grabbed a piece of chalk and made a little

# on the blackboard. “What you call this … ticky tacky toe game tingies?”

“A sharp.” I said.

"Scissor sharp. This –“ again he pointed to the # “ticky toe.”

I felt his frustration, but he kept right on.

“I go gym class. Coach Hendrick call for attendance roll. Everyone quiet. He say to some of us ‘go stand on key’. I look all over for piano or keys. Everywhere look. No piano. No keys. Nothing. I don’t know what he wants me to stand on? Then I see he has a big lot of keys on his belt so I go stand next to him. He gave me a look. I smiled. He gave me a push and told me to go stand on the key with the rest of kids…” Sopheap stood with his hands akimbo.

None of my students were attacking the Map Attack. There was a general sense of mirth. I was trapped like a rat in a maze. I knew my students wanted to watch me get out of the box. Sopheap wasn’t done.

He grabbed a piece of chalk from my desk and at the blackboard drew a rough version of basketball court.

Using the chalk as a pointer he made an x on the foul line. “You see a key here?” He looked directly at me. I thought about explaining how the basketball key was designed after the old skeleton key hole, but then I would have had to explain skeleton keys and why they were called skeleton keys and why would a skeleton need a key in the first place, so I dropped it.

Sopheap shuffled to the giant map of the United States hanging on a side wall. Sopheap pointed to Florida. “What’s this?” Smugness disappeared from his voice. This was a simple question. “Miami, Florida,” came a voice near the window. Sopheap nodded, and then ran his fingers along the black dots that trailed southward from Florida. “What’s this?” I looked around my classroom. Suddenly my 32 Double Jeopardy candidates went silent...

“The Florida Keys,” I offered lamely.

“And buttons on Computer?”

“Keys.” Three members of our volleyball team chorused.

Non-pulsed, Sopheap reached in his pocket, extracted a ring of house keys and jingled them above his head, “and these?”

“KEYS” the class shouted as one. Sopheap had a following. A definite future as a television evangelist.

He folded his arms across his diminutive chest and gave a triumphant ‘I-rest-my-case’ head bow. My class broke into applause and collective laughter.

"Well, done," I said.

Sopheap and I exchanged high fives just as the bell rang.

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