That was the topic of a recent lesson I taught my level 2 ESL class. Actually, I was teaching them to use past progressive, e.g., “What were you doing at 9:18 p.m. last night?” But if I’d told them what they were really doing, they’d have risen up en masse and tossed me out a window.

I was using a book called American Streamlines, which offers illustrations of an unfortunate high school principal being hit over the head with a blackjack or something. At first blush, the kids enjoyed it. But the story specifically stated that the police thought the attacker was a student, and that all students would be questioned, be they male or female.

The male/ female distinction is an important one, particularly when you’ve got a large group of Chinese speakers. In Chinese, they tell me, they do not distinguish between male and female in third person pronouns, so many of my kids call everyone “he.” I’m forever drawing stick figures and explaining how dangerous it can be to refer to women as “he.”

As far as dangerous women go, I have one right next door, in the adjacent trailer. That would be Ms. Rena Sum, Chinese teacher extraordinaire. I met her about five years ago, when she was assigned to co-teach my oversized beginning ESL class. Our partnership did not begin well. An assistant principal, beaming, announced, “Guess what?  Your new co-teacher speaks Chinese!”

I said, “Most of the kids speak Chinese already.  I’d rather have a co-teacher who speaks English.” The AP was thoroughly mystified by this remark.

Fortunately, Ms. Sum spoke both Chinese and English, and proved to be a great asset. Ms. Sum has the enviable and inscrutable gift of “the look.” That is, whatever a kid may be doing at any given time, she need only make direct eye contact — even if it’s a kid double her size and weight, he will instantly slink back into his chair and try to disappear into a ball of nothingness. No one understands exactly how this works, but it’s an incredibly useful skill for high school teachers.

I believe her look transcends language. I, for example, don’t speak a word of Chinese, yet I’m quite frightened of Ms. Sum. When the Chinese kids are safely out of range, they sometimes call her “lady tiger.” If that doesn’t make her dangerous, I’m not sure what does.

For my lesson, I asked kids what they were doing at 9:18 p.m., and listed their activities on the board. I’d then cross-examine them mercilessly. Who was with you? Can I call right now and find out if it was true? You were sleeping? Did you dream in English? Why not? You know you need to practice your English.

Some kids offered persuasive responses, and I crossed their names off the board. The second round of questioning became a little more contentious, with me shouting things like, “You did it!  Just admit it!”

After a few minutes of this, I said, “Well, I was in the teachers’ room at 9:18 p.m., but I didn’t hear anything.”

At that point, the kids turned on me instantly. 

“Who saw you?”

“What were you doing?”

You want to be principal!”

It got pretty loud in my room, at that point. I tried to give them “the look,” but they weren’t having it. Finally I used a teacher trick — I started speaking in a very low voice and made them quiet down to listen. I pointed toward the interlocking door of the adjacent trailer and whispered, “It was Ms. Sum.  I think she hit the principal.”

Several Chinese girls were plainly horrified, and their eyes showed it. How could this teacher make such an awful accusation? But the kid who took the most umbrage was a Spanish speaker.

“I’m gonna tell her, Mister,” he threatened.

“You wouldn’t,” I challenged.

He walked to the back of the room to the door that separates our trailers. He peered nervously at the Chinese class. He saw thirty-four kids speaking a language he didn’t understand at all. He hesitated. Should he walk in there? He looked back and forth. Then he mastered his doubts, walked in, and told her the entire horrible story, ending with my accusation.

Ms. Sum burst in and began waving a finger at me. “MISTER Goldstein, how DARE you accuse me of such an awful thing? I would NEVER do such a thing. Everyone here knows YOU did it, and you will be hearing from my lawyer. Don’t you EVER tell the students such awful lies about me again! You will PAY for this!”

She walked back into her classroom, the bell rang, and my band of newcomers marched out of the trailer into the free world, delighted to see that reprehensible English teacher, the one who gives homework on Fridays, put in his place for once.