I love teaching opposites. It’s such an easy way to increase a student’s vocabulary, provides such a rich bounty of games, and opens up so many avenues of self-expression, to create some impression of your subject. Unfortunately, opposites tend to congregate on the outer edges of language, the extremes of what it is we are trying to say, leaving an entire gray area, a more sensitive and accommodating place, in the lurch. Moreover, basic semantics never dictates that which we just shouldn’t say. So, here our story begins.
It starts with adjectives, usually a lesson not long after learning family members, when it seems appropriate to describe our moms: “beautiful”. Which means, as the rule of antonyms suggests, we must learn ugly, the list then continuing to provide standards like tall-short, old-young, smart/clever-stupid, big-small/little, funny-serious, and always fat-thin/slim. Herein lies the problem: By opening the box to all of these great terms and the activities they foster, we the teachers have equipped our students to call each other ugly, fat, and stupid.
Many cultures use these, what English-speaking cultures consider, offensive terms with a liberalness that just isn’t appropriate in our language. For example, in Guatemala, my colleagues didn’t hesitate to call me gordo (fat) or gordito (little fatty—add the “ito” and it becomes a term of endearment). I prefer to be thought of as in the average-height, medium-built, moderately attractive zone with a healthy sense of humor and maybe not top-notch but respectable academic prowess. Unfortunately, the clear-cut, easy-to-find, middle-of-the-road words aren’t so learner-friendly or defining. Even I can admit that medium-buildito doesn’t work as well.
So, for a while there, the “funny” students inevitably belittle their teacher’s ego by sighting his or her most unsightly characteristics with unfiltered brutality; however, the teacher soon gets his or her revenge. Soon the gods of opposites render interesting-boring, which is a plight on the interesting side and a blessing on the boring side. I’ll go ahead and admit that “interesting” is a well-trodden word. Speakers use it readily and plentifully, but I can’t think of a more boring word to describe something interesting. Hitler’s quirky eating habits are interesting (bizarre, unexpected, oddly compassionate), as is Angelina Jolie’s chest (plump, bouncy, bare).
So, for a while, everything is interesting, and that isn’t interesting at all; however, a beautiful thing happens with the word boring. Students tend to get it confused with the word bored, which they haven’t learned yet. So, as they tire of your constant black-and-whites, ups-and-downs, they—especially those funny ones who decimated your self-confidence a few weeks earlier—attempt to deliver the next blow and let you know how much your lesson, your stupid obsession with opposites, sucks. So, they hit you with: “I am boring.”
You could teach them the truth, and you will eventually, when the opposites bored-interested come up in a couple of months, but for a while, at least for me, you simply bask in one of the few great glories being a teacher provides. Sure, you love to see your kids grow, expand, reach their potential and beyond, but sometimes—especially those funny ones—you like to see them make asses of themselves, even if you’re the only one who knows. That, my friend, is the opposite intention.