By Heather Mallett

My father gave me a pencil sharpener one Christmas. No rinky-dink dollar-store item, it was the real McCoy: stainless steel crank and casing with five twist-turn gauges for different sized pencils. It had a screw-off canister to hold shavings, and a screw-on base so that it could be permanently attached to a sturdy surface — desk, work bench or shelf — provided one had a power drill, which I did because my father had given me one as a birthday gift several years before. I was in my 40s at the time, and renovating an old house for which I needed good tools, pencils among them. I used pencils to write messages to the future, à la songwriter James Keelaghan, on the wallboard before laying in the insulation, or behind the light plates before fitting them in place.

That pencil sharpener took me back to grade two in Mrs. Ward’s class in rural Alberta where we were learning to read English in reading circles of different abilities, and where the pencil sharpener was near the coat rack at the back of the room. Garth, the pupil most likely to be diagnosed ADHD were he in grade two today, sat across from me. He would get up to use the pencil sharpener — grinding, grinding, grinding, grinding, grinding — whenever the lesson got too intense. That sharpener was a five gauger too. I suppose Garth sharpened every pencil in his pencil case. Mrs. Ward would call him to sit down when she couldn’t talk over the grinding.

Now, I too am an English teacher, but I teach in Japan. The other day while thinking about those pencil sharpeners of my past, I discovered I have a metaphor for students unable or unwilling to open their minds to English language learning. Some digital natives, the cohort of students who sit in my classes, do a lot of grinding. When not in willing-to-learn mode, students grind away at all the behaviours that make their future learning harder. If a student doesn’t understand gerunds, rather than ask a question, he excuses himself to use the washroom with his mobile phone in his back pocket. If a student doesn’t comprehend subordinating conjunctions, she rummages in her bottomless designer bag for an eraser. Playing with a classmate’s hair — only the girls do this — is a display of inattention and boredom. What these behaviours do, message to the future here, is wear a path to that metaphorical sharpener at the back of the classroom. The linoleum loses its shine trodden by many feet, and the next lesson becomes more difficult.

The metaphor is stretched a little because, in Japan, students use mechanical pencils with refillable leads, not the durable HBs I used at school, but the problem is the same: how does a teacher hold the attention of a classroom filled with students who are used to constant stimulation, constant change.

I have been pondering how to keep students from sharpening every pencil in their pencil cases, and introducing prefixes is one of my favourite ways to enliven a classroom with wordplay while helping students broaden their vocabularies.

Negative prefixes. Let’s see. We have in-, as in incomprehensible, inexperienced, inept. Then there is im-, as in impossible, implausible, impasse.

Ir-, as in irrelevant, irresponsive, irreparable.

Non-, as in nonstandard, nonsense, nonstop.

And what about no as in nothing? Nothing comes of nothing. Two negatives do not always make a positive, I forget, as I try multiple ways of teaching a grammar point. Surely the lesson will make sense to the students now! With each difficult teaching task, I will not be unconcerned. With each class that finishes, I become unconvinced. “Just keep trying,” I tell students when I begin a new English grammar lesson; “Just try harder,” I tell myself when I think I’m losing them.

Mis-, as in misunderstanding, misguided, misfortune, misspent.

Un-, as in unnecessary, unreliable, unruly.

Introducing prefixes to my classes is a favourite way to change my thinking too, helping me broaden my perspective on education and my world. To my shock, I turned 60 years old last year. I am suddenly unyoung, negative prefix on the remaining years of my life. However, the Japanese believe 60 years old is an auspicious age, an age of rebirth. Undefiled. Misspent youth? Misfortune indeed as I cope with troubles that occur with aging, some that affect classroom teaching. Undaunted, the unyoung teacher talks on to the end of each lesson, spectacles in hand.

Recently a student in a composition class wrote about a time when he had to make a difficult personal change. He expressed his discouragement by telling me it was an unfunny time in his life. His experience had not been humourous at all! Unfunny. Unyoung. Are these neologisms perfect expressions of the condition of the time or semantic mistakes? They fit the rules but don’t sound natural to a native speaker. Incorrect. Unacceptable? The student had engaged in the lesson — no pencil sharpening for him — and used the prefixes given him.

“Unfunny.” I left it uncorrected.