What Story Was Brian Trying To Tell?

(read by Kristine Hoang)

(French Catalogues by Brian Eno)

Some time ago I told you about the many speeches we teachers at Shenzhen Senior High had to listen to.  The topic was “What’s your dream school?”  Many answered with Harvard or Berkeley or UCLA.  One answered with “The grade school I’d like to open for the poor in Africa.”  It was easily the best speech of the night even if one of the judges wasn’t able to recognize it.  I’m still disappointed he didn’t give it the highest grade but his mistake is his and not mine.

Today, I had a telling of that similar story retold.  It wasn’t the same question but it was a similar answer.  During my first week of school teaching in China, I used what I felt was a clever listening topic for TOEFL (Test Of English as a Foreign Language) preparation.  My students were so accustomed to the nuts and bolts of memorization that they had never learned to embrace the obvious, the act of listening.  Instead of simply sitting back and allowing others to tell them a story, they would calculate and dissect and draw out the simple straight-forward repetition of “What did Person A say to person B?” or “What did Person B say in response to Person C?”  It was boring.  It was nauseating.  It was too complicated for what I was after.  I wanted creativity.  I wanted creation.

I played them a piece of music and said “What story is the author telling you?”  I played them “French Catalogues”, an instrumental by Brian Eno, and I asked them to listen.   Less than two minutes into the piece I saw heads swivel, lips turn, eyes narrow, and question marks appear over their heads.  I saw that they couldn’t follow a simple instruction.  I stopped the piece, repeated the instructions “This is your TOEFL listening exercise.  It is not a mistake.  It is your grade.  If you aren’t able to answer this question you will not pass your TOEFL test.  My suggestion would be you listen rather than look around.”  I pressed play again.  It’s on that second time that students would seem to get it.  The question mark above their heads turned into a light bulb, even if only one that flickered.

At the end of the piece, I repeated the question and called on a couple students.

“It’s about a village at the bottom of a hill.  There is smoke rising from the chimneys.”

“The story is about a couple separated by war.  While the husband is fighting, his wife is home sitting on the edge of their bed looking through boxes of old photos of the two of them together.  After looking at each one, it falls from her hand onto the floor.”

“Excellent, excellent!” I’d say.  “Anyone else?  Tell me more.”  Hands quickly raised around the room.  “Is that right?  Is that the story Brian is trying to tell you?” I’d ask.  More hands, more responses.  One child offered up it was about an American man traveling around the world running from his past while facing his fears.

An administrator who was shadowing the class chimed in afterward walking with me in the hallway giving her two cents:  “I was so frustrated listening to the students answering wrong.  The song isn’t about couples or villages or farms or wars.  It’s not a love story!  That has nothing to do with it!  I wanted to correct them.”

Such a simple piece told so many stories to so many people.  I knew it was an assignment worth repeating so I repeated it with all my classes.  It always was a hit once students learned to let go and listen.   A few sentences, a few explanations and a few details were enough to satisfy me.  As long as students tried to follow along, I was satisfied they were making a beginning in learning how to be creative and think on their feet.  That was the point of the exercise after all, listening and creative thinking.

Two weeks ago, I played French Catalogues for two new Chinese students here in the States.  The first was a boy of about fifteen.  He reluctantly listened for the first minute and, like many others before him, started to squirm.  I pressed pause, explained the seriousness and the simplicity of the exercise and then pressed play.  The boy was unwilling to yield to his heart and instead relented to his head.  He looked at me.  Looked at the iPhone.  Looked at the blackboard.  Looked at the door.  He looked at everything outside himself instead of simply listening.   He insisted on thinking rather than listening.  I pointed out a possible path,

“Is it about a house in a valley being looked at from a hill?”  I asked.


“Is it about a couple separated by the war in Europe?”


“Is it a love story?”


“Then what is it?” I insisted.

Part of this exercise is knowing there is no wrong answer providing one is willing to support and explain it.  This is the nature of critical thinking, forming an opinion, holding an opinion and supporting an opinion.  Welcome to Universities in the West.   His answers were rote and sterile.

“It’s about a boy.”

“What boy” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“It’s about a boy, that’s it?”

“No, it’s about a man walking.”

“Really?  It’s about a man?”

“No.  It’s about…it’s about…I don’t know…I don’t know what it’s about.”

“You don’t know what this story is about?  Did you understand it?”

Each time I challenged him  he ran the other way instead of standing his ground.  He had no idea what the story was about.  He didn’t even understand what I was asking.  I understand this student by the way.  He reminds me of me.  He is so caught up in his head and trying to figure it out, he refuses to listen to the song that is idly sliding by.  Finally, he retold a tale I had already offered.

“Okay, it’s about a couple.  One of them is at war and the other is looking at pictures on the bed.”

“Really?  That’s what this story is about?  It’s about one you’ve already heard?  One I just gave you?  It has no identity apart from me telling you about it?”

Our talked turned to plagiarism.  It’s a serious academic offense here in the West.  In China, it’s often seen as the sincerest form of flattery.  “Why improve upon something if someone has already done it with to perfection?” is the thought.  A contemporary teacher of mine told the story of assigning poetry in one of his classes.  Students were asked to create their own poem involving the topic “Winter”.  After listening to the first two students, my friend was able to predict the third and fourth and almost every other.  He would interrupt them and finish their sentences.  Rather than writing their own story, each student had simply copied Robert Frost.  When asked to defend the origin of their academic crime, one they could not see as criminal in any way, they explained they had learned that poetry could not be improved upon.  A previous teacher had explained that Robert Frost was a preeminent poet and any subsequent attempt at poetry was pointless.  Regardless of whether the teacher was right, the message the students heard was “don’t bother creating something inferior when you can have read from the best.”  I imagine I might have done something similar if I were being taught a foreign text about a foreign culture in a foreign class.  I imagine my fear of failing would have done me in just as it undid them.

Undeterred, I played Brian Eno’s story for my second class.  My second class was one student as well.  She was thirteen and also from China.   I told her my story about teaching abroad, asked her about her story (coming to the United States) and explained I had a new story to introduce her to.  It was Brian Eno’s.  “Tell me, what is Brian’s story about?”  I pressed play.  Immediately, I noticed a difference.  This student didn’t squirm or fidget or fixate on the door.  After what seemed like only seconds, she closed her eyes, took a deep breath and narrowed her brow.  She was obviously in thought.  She was soaking it in.  She was hearing far more than even I can hear.  To be honest, I’m not sure what the story is about.  I’m not convinced of any explanation even my own.  The closest I come and why I remember it is the woman sitting on the edge of her bed, looking at photos as they fall from her fingertips.  That’s probably why I remember it; I resonate with it.

Five minutes and twenty seconds later, I pressed stop.

“What story is Brian trying to tell you?”

She didn’t hesitate.  She started in.  It was apparent she had a skeletal outline already.  She didn’t have color but she had a story.  When I’d pry for details she’d pause, seemingly not because she couldn’t come up with an answer but because she didn’t want to do Brian injustice.

“I’d like more” I said.  “I want details.  Can you paint a more clear picture than one you’ve started to describe?” I asked.

“Yes.  I think so.”

“In that case, I’m going to make this your homework.”

“Homework?” she sighed.

Yes, all students, even the ones that like homework, sigh when they receive it.  She did too.  Today, she brought in her assignment.

“Are you ready to tell me about the story you heard?”

“Yes, I think so.  It’s not perfect, but it’s what I have so far” she said.

I was expecting a few sentences, a paragraph at most.  I didn’t think of it as an assignment that could last longer than a few minutes.  I was more interested to hear her creativity and conviction than anything else.  She gave me so much more.

“Act One” she began.  For fifteen minutes she told me about Eno’s tale.  At the end of Act Three, she said “There’s something more there but I don’t know what it is yet.  I can’t find it.”  She continued.  She finished after a total of four long, eventful, detailed and dramatic acts.  She wrote a Shakespearean play.  Finally, she lifted her head and said “That’s it.”

I was confused.  “Did she not understand the assignment?” I wondered.  “I must have totally lost her in what I was asking for.  She probably confused this with another class.”

“Sheila” I asked “what question are you answering?”

“The one you asked” she said flatly.

“Right.  Which question was that?” I repeated.

“Did I not understand?”

“I’m sure you didn’t” I thought.

“You asked ‘What story was Brian trying to tell?'” she said.

Sometimes, rarely, I am at a loss for words.  Usually, I have so many words.  I have too many.  After listening to her , I had none.  Tears started to fall from my eyes and trail down my face.  Words, I don’t remember what, came out of my mouth.  Her face brightened with each sentence I completed.  I have almost no recollection of what I said.  This is a problem that sometimes happens to me.  This is a skill I don’t possess.  I seem to get so caught up in what someone is saying and me not knowing what to say in return that I’m still trying to make sense of what I think they’re saying and that by the time I realize what they might mean my mouth has already been saying something.  Luckily, I fare far better than I feel.  When this happens, whatever it is that I seem to be saying appears to ring true to the listener.  It’s as if I’m answering them effortlessly without thinking.  It’s as if I’m not answering them at all.  It’s as if my mouth is moving and I’m not aware of it until afterward.

“That’s exactly what I wanted to hear” she said and smiled.

What I do remember asking, after all this, was “Sheila, how did you do that?  Where did that come from?”

It was obvious the answer she gave didn’t come from her head.  It was obvious she didn’t think or figure or calculate, but it wasn’t obvious to me where it came from or what she did to get there.  So I had to ask.  She looked at me puzzled.

“You told me to listen to it” she said in her defense.

“Yes, but didn’t you try to figure it out or solve it or something?”

“No, I listened to it.  You told me to listen to it so I listened.  That’s what I heard.”

“Sheila, do you know why I am your teacher?” I asked.

“I think so” she said.

“Good.  Because I know why you are my student.” I said.

“You do?”

“Yes.  I do.  You’re a writer (she told me she was in a previous class) and you are having trouble  telling your story.  People can’t hear it because people are having trouble understanding you.” Sheila came to me for help with her oral English skills.  Pronunciation is not her strong point so I know why Sheila is my student.  I know why she is in my class and I am fortunate to have her as my teacher.

“I don’ t know how to do what you just did” I confessed.  “You’re teaching me.”

My job is so much easier than Sheila’s.  My job is reach into her and show her what’s inside.  Her job is so much more difficult.  Her job is to face what she finds.

With me, today, Sheila’s job is to teach me something I’ve never learned though many have tried.  Maybe one day, maybe in my lifetime, maybe when I’m not expecting it, I will learn what Sheila is teaching me.

“Teaching you?  How am I teaching you?” she persisted

“I just told you, because I don’ t know how to do what you just did.”  “You’re teaching me” I repeated.

“What did I just do?  What am I teaching you?”

“Sheila, you’re teaching me how to do what you already do” I explained.  “You’re teaching me how to listen.”


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