In the weeks leading up to my departure for Beijing, I often used to indulge myself in a kind of daydreaming about what it would be like -- the city, the food, the people, the teaching. I pictured a lot of different scenarios, especially concerning the teaching, and I'd often find myself playing them out in my head, like short film clips. I pictured reading with the children, introducing them to a few of my own early childhood favorites -- Charlotte's Web, for example, or Down, Down the Mountain -- and teaching them the songs and poems I loved when I was small. I guess all that's pretty understandable.
What is less understandable -- in fact, it's pretty seriously obtuse when you come to think of it -- is that it never once occurred to me that I would spend any time discussing the prevailing meteorological conditions on the Iberian peninsula.
I refer, of course, to words involving the long "a" sound, such as "wait," "afraid," "table," "danger" and "weigh." And, of course, "rain," "Spain," "stay," "mainly" and "plain."
What began as an exercise in spelling ('sort these words into groups spelled with ai, a, ay, ey and eigh") evolved into an exercise in pronounciation, as I found that when the students spoke the words aloud the "a" sound was so corrupted as to make the words themselves essentially unintelligible.
Well, as I coaxed one of my students towards the long "a" in "rain," something funny happened. Somewhere during the process, she just spontaneously started to practice a vowel continuum, beginning with a sound just longer than "ah" and moving towards, but stopping short of "ee." I don't know where she picked it up; I certainly had not taught it to her.
She sounded uncannily like the phonograph recording in Professor Higgins's studio.
Well, after that, you could almost say I had no choice. Nature had clearly decided to imitate Art -- who was I to gainsay it? I wrote it up on the blackboard for everyone to practice:
The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.
The hardest part was trying not to laugh. Children are such mimics. In fact, these particular children have far from exceptional ears, and I won't be taking anyone to Ascot anytime soon, but, on the whole, I'd say they got it.