The teachers this week asked me to prepare a lesson on human rights, a topic many of the classes were covering. During the short recess on Monday, I met with Juliana, one of the English teachers, who handed me the English textbook and flipped to the unit titled, “Standing Up for Your Rights.”
“The unit basically covers the topic of, you know, what the right thing to do is, what a young adult’s responsibilities are, why it’s important to promote fair business practices… That kind of thing,” Juliana explained. I skimmed through the pages full of vocabulary and listening exercises, a reading exercise titled, “Why Child Labor is Bad,” and a host of group activities designed to get students to ramble on to each other about why voting is one’s duty.
“Fun,” I remarked, and put the textbook down. The 4th form students were an energetic, playful group of seventeen year-olds, but I hated the lessons that involved me spitting out information from the book. Neither the students nor I had any fun doing that.
“For this lesson, though, you don’t have to teach out of the book. You can do whatever you want with the topic, really – worksheets, presentation, group activity – anything to make the topic less dry.”
“Anything?” My ears perked up at her offer.
“Anything,” she slowly repeated. “Within reason, of course.”
“Famous last words, Juliana.” I took the textbook under my left arm and marched toward the door of the conference room. “Last time I got that kind of permission, the students ended up standing in front of the class presenting their alien abduction experiences that involved probing of a particular bodily orifice.”
“‘Within reason,’” Juliana emphasized by raising her raspy voice, “was the important qualifier, Hans.” But I had stepped out grinning onto the hallway by then.
As I walked into Juliana’s classroom on Wednesday morning, I caught the wide-eyed look on Juliana’s face and read a silent curse slip out of her lips. Juliana rushed from her desk to meet me at the entrance and began to apologize profusely.
“Hans, I completely forgot that you were coming to class today! We’re about to do a short listening exercise from the book, but I promise that once we’re done we can start with your lesson right away. Again, I am so sorry – will this be a big problem for your plans?”
I waved off her concern and took a seat in the back of the classroom next to one of the students, Suzanne. Suzanne took her attention off of her phone for a second to mean-mug and greet me with an exaggerated nod; I laughed back. In the meantime, Juliana had finished fiddling with the computer and was going over the standard procedures for the activity: remember to read the questions beforehand, audio will be played twice, don’t copy the neighbors’ answers. The students always copied each other’s answers regardless.
Once the students were all ready, Juliana pressed play. A female voice began to narrate the instructions for the listening exercise, followed by a pause, and then the sudden screaming of schoolchildren in a hallway. I jumped up at the unexpected burst of noise, which then faded into a hum of background noise. I noticed soon enough that barely breaking through this noise pollution was the croak of a woman’s voice.
The woman, whose drawn-out syllables and random bouts of coughing, was presumably the speaker for the listening exercise. How the textbook company had dragged her out of the dregs of Texas and shoved her into teaching material for foreigners learning English was beyond my comprehension, but sure enough, she barked, hacked, grunted, and butchered the English language on her way to explaining her job as a custodian.
“Ah been workin’ at m’ job fer thuurty-wun years now,” she explained painstakingly, “and when ah furst came ta this school, ah—”
At this point our chain-smoking custodian’s message became unclear, as the noise of schoolchildren screaming and a school bell ringing overcame anything the lady was saying for the next twenty seconds.
“An’ that’s all I gotta say about that.” Another break in the audio indicated that the activity was moving onto the second speaker, who explained that he was a construction worker. The yammering of a jackhammer, the beeping of trucks, and the shouting of the construction site overseer could be heard in the background.
“Being a construction worker is hard,” he shouted in a thick, Brooklyn accent. “You come home tired every day, smellin’ like sweat and dirt, and your whole body feels like—”
Similar to last time, the man’s words became unintelligible as the jackhammer was cranked up to a hundred decibels. Trying to hide both my amazement and laughter, I looked around the classroom, where Juliana’s attention was focused on the answer key and the students had either given up or were texting on their phone.
“I guess what I’m tryin’ to say is I wouldn’t recommend this kind of lifestyle,” the man concluded wistfully. Juliana rewound the audio and the same scenario played out again.
“Well, I think that was fairly straightforward, was it not?” Juliana asked her students after the Brooklyn construction worker had finished the encore of his duet with the jackhammer. She smiled at me, and then frowned at one of the students who had raised his hands in the front row.
“Yes, Paul? What is it?”
“Frau Professor, may I ask something?”
“I suppose, Paul.”
“What the fahking fahk did we just listen to?”
The roar of laughter engulfed the classroom, in which I found myself laughing along with everyone, while an argument in Austrian dialects broke out between few of the students and Juliana. While Juliana, using her knowledge of the answer key, fought to convince the students that the speaking exercise was perfectly audible and comprehensible, the students shot back that they would have had better luck understanding a shitfaced Ozzy Osbourne.
“How about we ask Hans if he understood anything?” Suzanne suggested. The murmur of agreement rose up from the students as they all turned around in their seats to look at me.
“I’m not sure why you’re dragging Hans into this, really,” Juliana sputtered, “he’s just minding his own business, and he may not have been paying attention to the audio, and…”
“He’s a native speaker! He would’ve understood it even if he weren’t listening. So, Hans: did you understand the audio?”
I looked around at the eager faces of the students and the resigned look on Juliana’s.
“I, uh… I didn’t understand a single thing, actually.” The class cheered, and Juliana let out a sigh.
“In that case, we’ll just go ahead and move onto whatever Hans has prepared for you today. However, we are going to do another listening exercise – and Hans won’t be there to help you out like he did today!” The students responded with “Ist Wurst, ist Wurst” as Juliana walked to the back of the class and beckoned me to come to the front. I jammed my USB stick into the computer and turned on all necessary equipment before beginning the lesson.
“So for today I was asked to prepare a lesson on your unit, “Standing Up for Your Rights.” The class collectively sighed and rolled their eyes to express their enthusiasm. “And I looked through the unit, and I found it to be pretty boring, myself.” I began to pace around the classroom and flicked a Johannes in the ear for continuing to text his girlfriend on WhatsApp. His classmates snickered.
“Because I think most of us here – we don’t really need to waste time reading text about how bad child labor is. We all know child labor is bad, right?” Markus in the corner shrugged in mock consideration. “Except for Markus, but we don’t like him anyway, so who cares.” The class once again giggled.
“So today, I’ve prepared something a little different.” The students had all closed their laptops to give me their full attention. “We’re going to talk about ethics. Once we’ve done that, we’ll do some ethics puzzles, which are… Well, we’ll keep that a surprise. Anyway to start things off, does anyone know what ‘ethics’ is?”
Crickets. I put my power point presentation onto the projector and explained to the students the various theories regarding ethics: cultural relativism, egoism, utilitarianism, common good, absolute moral rules, and justice. After the explanation I asked which of the theories they most identified with. All of the students raised their hand for absolute moral rules.
“Oh, like which rules? What is something that you would never, ever do?” I inquired.
“Stealing. Murdering,” Suzanne replied, and the others nodded their head in agreement. “Things we would never do, obviously.”
“Obviously,” I grinned. “Who would ever do those things?” I walked over to the computer and clicked on the screen to move to the next slide, where an ethics puzzle awaited the students. I cleared my throat before reading aloud the scenario.
“‘A mad English teaching assistant ties five people to one train track and one person to another track and sets a train going towards the five. You are standing at a location where you can switch the train from the track leading towards the five to the track leading towards the one, but you will be unable to save everyone. Do you switch the train towards the one person?’”
While the students did a double take to read and reread the scenario, I took a piece of pink chalk and drew a train headed towards five stick figures tied down to the train track, a connecting train track with one stick figure, and another stick figure wearing a dress drawn far away from the action and standing next to a lever.
“So, as you can see, this train is headed towards these guys,” I began, “and here you are standing in front of the lever that can save them—”
“Wait a minute,” Paul interjected, “why am I wearing a dress?” I ignored him and continued on.
“—But you’d end up killing this guy.” I circled the lone figure on the second train track. “Now, what do you do?”
“Ha! Easy,” Sebastian, one of the soccer players for the school quipped. “Of course you press the switch and save the five.” Most of his classmates nodded in agreement.
“Ah! Of course! How easy was that!” I exclaimed. “And why would you do so, Seb?”
“Saving five lives is more important than one.”
“Well, I guess that was a no brainer,” I simpered. “Everyone else agree with Seb in murdering the one guy here?”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Who said we’re murdering anyone?” Suzanne cried out.
“I mean, you’re switching the train’s path to head towards the one person, right?” I answered. “Intent? Check. Responsible for person’s death? Check. What am I missing here?”
“We’re not killing anyone,” Omar, the chubby boy who always wore a backwards snapback, shouted from the back corner of the class. “We’re saving those five people.”
“A-ha. Omar, the Murder Apologist. That’s what we’re calling it, then? Okay, fine, then. You’re saviors – not murderers! My sincere apologies for that mistake… let’s move on to the next scenario, then.” I clicked the mouse to display the next slide.
“‘A mad English teaching assistant ties five of your closest friends and family members to a track and sets an empty train going toward them. The train does not have a cow-catcher in the front and so could be derailed by a heavy object. You are standing on a bridge over the tracks and a very fat man is next to you. He is the only object you can reach that would derail the train, but you are certain you could successfully throw him over and derail the train, saving the five. Do you do it?’”
I erased a part of the previous drawing on the blackboard and set about illustrating a bridge and two people – one wearing a dress and the other a big round ball with arms, legs, and a small circle on top of it.
“So here you are, once again—”
“Why am I still wearing a dress?” Paul exasperated.
“But this time you’ve this fat guy standing next to you. If you push him, he falls in front of the train, meets his death, derails the train, and your friends and family are saved. Who’d push him?” A litany of hands went up – about eight-tenths of the class. In response, I feigned shock and grabbed my head in mock surprise. “What?! You guys would kill him?”
“Of course we would – we’d end up saving our friends and family,” Sebastian shrugged. I couldn’t contain my giggling and walked over to where Johannes sat, three seats away from Sebastian.
“What do you say, Johannes? You wanna use a lifeline? Maybe call your family?”
“What? Uh, um, no thank you, very much.” The class broke out into laughter. “Yes, I would push the fat man.”
“Ah, so just like Sebastian! And why’s that?”
“Well, he is fat.” More laughter. “And yes, well, it’s my family and friends.”
“It is, Johannes, it is.” I paced around the classroom eyeing the giddy expressions of the students. “But didn’t you and Sebastian both tell me earlier that you guys follow absolute moral rules – you know, like ‘never kill’? Or was it more of a ‘never-kill-except-for-the-times-that-I-feel-like-going-on-a-killing-spree? ‘Absolutely-meh Moral Rules,’ if you will?” Sebastian threw his arms up in the air.
“This is different!” He clamored.
“Aha! And how?”
“For example, it is okay to kill the other person if they are attacking you and trying to kill you.” Sebastian’s voice wavered at the realization that he himself may not have believed what he was saying.
“Er, right. Exactly.”
“And this fat man who is enjoying life and his BigMac—” I trotted back to the backboard and added a burger in his hand “—is threatening your life, how?” Sebastian leaned back in his chair and rolled his eyes.
“Maybe he is trying to make you fat like him,” shouted Omar. Guffaws rose from the classmates around him.
“Omar, you’d kill him, too, right?”
“Yes, of course.” Omar shook his head up and down, eyes closed and his face contorted to show sincerity.
“And how do you justify this act of murder?”
“Well, I wouldn’t call it murder.” Omar adjusted his snapback to make sure that his hat fit him snugly.
“You wouldn’t!” I took a look back at Juliana sitting in the back corner of classroom trying to hide a grin. “I wouldn’t want to mess with you then, Omar!”
“I would say that it is more of an… accident because I’m not the one killing the fat man. It’s the train!” His classmates howled with laughter.
“An accident! Right, right, right… Just like if someone were to get stabbed to death, it’s an accident!” I pretended to be a suspect explaining the situation to law enforcement. “‘Officer, it wasn’t me… it was the knife that up an’ got ‘im!’”
“Exactly!” He proclaimed. I laughed and shook my head in disbelief. I pointed at Suzanne who had been staring at me with narrowed eyes.
“You didn’t raise your hand, Sunni. Why wouldn’t you push the man over the bridge? Do you hate your friends and family?”
“What would you do?”
“Yeah!” Paul chimed in. “What’s the right answer? Because whatever we say, you’re just going to say something back about it!” I chuckled at Paul’s accusations and moved toward the computer again.
“I’ll reveal correct answers once we’re done with all of the scenarios. But first, I’ve got one more scenario before the bell rings on us:
“‘You are in a remote mountain village. A group of terrorists has lined up twenty people from the village; they plan on shooting them for collaborating with the enemy. Since you are not from the village, you will not be killed. Taking advantage of your position, you plead with the terrorists not to carry out their plan. Finally, you convince the leader that it is not necessary to kill all twenty. He takes a gun, empties it of all its bullets except one, and then hands it to you. He has decided to kill only one villager to set an example to the rest. As an honored guest and outsider, you will decide who will be killed, and you will carry out the deed. The terrorists conclude with a warning: if you refuse to kill the villager, then they will revert back to the original plan of killing all twenty. And if you try anything ‘funny,’ they will kill everyone – including you. What should you do?’
“The first option is to take the gun, select a villager, and kill him or her. The second option is to refuse the terrorists’ offer and walk away from the situation.”
The class groaned at this final ultimatum, and a few of the students cursed in German at their resigned, fictional fate. I smiled.
“So we are murderers one way or another,” Paul quipped. “Hans you have turned a class full of teenage Austrians into murderers in forty minutes: congratulations.” Everyone, including Juliana, began giggling.
“What would you do then, Paul?”
“Of course I choose and shoot the one person. I don’t know – I ask one of them who wants to die.”
“Ah, the old tried-and-true method of asking who wants to die first.”
“Then I shoot the oldest person!”
“Because old people suck and deserve the die.”
“Well then what do I do! One way or another, someone dies!” Paul roared.
“No, no, no. Paul, I finally got the answer.” A calm and collected Markus stood up from his seat in the back of the class to address me. “You see, the twenty villagers that are lined up against the wall are the same people who recorded today’s audio exercise. In which case: option 2. I say we kill all those fahkers.”