She pulled the small, square paper out of the bucket, slowly unfolding the brightly colored sheet to read the next question aloud.
“Okay,” my student said. Continuing the pattern we’d followed all evening during our TOEFL conversation club, she started her sentence hesitantly. “What would you do if you never had to sleep at night?”
She smiled and shifted in her chair. My student “A” loves these sorts of hypothetical, what she calls “goofy” questions. You can almost see her synapses firing, her thoughts pulling together and forming a clever, imaginative response. If it were up to her, every class period would be spent discovering what life would be like if we were 3cm tall, or what she would do if she had 10 eyes, or deciding where to go if she could live anywhere in the world.
“What is the question asking you?” I said, encouraging her to re-word the question to ensure she had the full understanding.
She started to respond when my other student, “N,” jumped in. “I know,” said N. “Every night, if you could not sleep, what would you do with time?”
We all nodded, a collective “oooooh” settling throughout the classroom. My two students smiled, ready to consider this newest ridiculousness as they had the other questions throughout the evening.
Up to this point, their favorite question had been “What would you do if all the houses in your city were made of chocolate?” These young professionals, in their early 20s, could not help but giggle as children when imagining a sweet, edible city at their fingertips.
“We could eat all day long!” A had said. “I never bring a gift when visiting family again – we just pull off the window to share!”
“Everyone would have – how do you say – really bad… acne,” N had added. They loved it.
I personally had been rather interested in their responses to “What would you do if you woke up tomorrow and there were no longer any laws?” After pulling through the difficult verbs and getting to the heart of the question, my students answered quickly and surprisingly.
“Oh I know,” A laughed. “I would drive a car,” she said.
“Me too!” N added. “And then I would go to another country, where I wouldn’t have to get a visa. It would be easy!”
Their responses, sincere and honest, came out so thoughtfully and happily it made me nearly wish for this lawlessness, to live in their dystopian future where women drive cars easily and young adults can travel where they please.
When it came to our last question, though, “What would you do if you didn’t have to sleep at night?”, they were slower to respond.
“Maybe,” said A, “I would spend a lot of time on Facebook. I would study my Spanish and learn another language, like France.”
N agreed, nodding slowly. She paused, and then said. “I would watch movies. I’d have to. I don’t like this question. Why would I not sleep?”
I wasn’t sure if I had offended them or if they just didn’t want to imagine this world.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Why does this question bother you?”
N thought. “At night, I sleep. If I were a man, I would go to the park or visit my friend. But I spend this time sleeping.”
“Yes,” A added, tugging at her long, curly black hair. “I would be sad to be awake all night, staying at home. I like to sleep so I can wake up to the sun.”
“Well,” I said, “what if you could go anywhere? If you never needed sleep and could visit anywhere in the evening, what would you do?”
“Maybe,” A said, “we could go the cinema, if we had a theater. Or even to a pub!” she laughed. N agreed, then thought some more.
“I would sit outside. I sit outside and stare at the stars. I did when I was child!”
“I did that too!” A added. “I remember when I was child, I would stare up. I would stare up and try to count each and every star. I would count and count and get so mad. I remember getting so mad and crying because I try so hard, but there were too many. I count and count but I never count them all.”
“Why were you mad?” said N. “Isn’t that big? There are so many stars. I’m happy because I can never count them all.”
We all smiled in response and a heavy pause fell over the room.
“It is good we are friends,” A said to N, several moments later. “Now we can just look at them together.”