Blank Tapes

(A True Life story about a recent day working with a class of junior high school students.)

“Okay class, we are about to begin,” the teacher announced. The assistant looked over the room. Twenty six of the twenty seven students were in attendance. It was a private girl’s school. Technically it was a Catholic school but the assistant wondered if that had any actual bearing on the reality of the school other than perhaps an occasional religion class and the crucifixes that hung in almost every room he had been in. It was only his second time visiting the school. One lesson a week as an assistant language school. Last week he had introduced himself and led a few sample readings with the students. This week, the class was being held i the school’s language lab as the girls would be recording their voices and listening to the results.

The assistant was surprised to be in the language lab. It was pretty rare for school’s to use the facilities, even if most of the ones he had worked at in the past had them. The truth was, most of the language labs showed their age and almost none of them worked anymore. Or maybe they worked and no one at the schools remembered how to use them. The tech was probably top of the line when it was installed in the eighties. Now the tape decks that rested in every deck looked old and clunky. But at least they still worked.

“If you don’t have a cassette tape, please come to the front and take one from the bag,” continued the teacher. Half the class came up to the front. The assistant wondered if they weren’t prepared or just didn’t know where to find a cassette tape. Did they still sell them anywhere? He made a mental note to check for them next time he was in a convenience store, but the note was soon forgotten.

“Alright,” the teacher explained, “Put in the cassette and rewind to the beginning.” Already some of the students were confused. How did the cassette deck open? Did the teacher want them to use side A or B and does that mean that side faces up or down? Which button rewinds? The teacher had a diagram of the buttons that controlled the tape deck prepared on the board. He explained while the assistant floated around the room and tried to help some of the more confused looking girls and to try and keep those who were already bored focused.

One of the girls called the assistant over. She had the tape in and was hitting the rewind button, but nothing was happening. The assistant hit the main power button and like magic the whirring of a rewinding tape sounded. Another girl called him over with the same question but her cassette deck was powered up. There was a moment of confusion. The assistant checked the tape. It was already fully rewound. He explained in simple English, the target language for the class, that the tape was okay. The girl smiled.

When all the tapes were rewound the teacher explained which two buttons to press to begin recording. The low murmur began as almost thirty girls recorded themselves reciting their chosen nursery rhymes. Then they listened to what their recitations. A student called over the assistant. Her tape only recorded only the very end of the nursery rhyme. Was it broken. The assistant tried to dig into his memory for what might be wrong. He rewound the tape.

“Start. Count to five and try again.” He tried to to keep his English as simple as he could. She looked at him doubtingly. He explained what the problem was. She looked at him uncomprehendingly. It wasn’t just the language, it was also the technology. He took out the cassette and showed her the line of clear tape at the bottom.

“This is clear. It cannot record.” He put the tape back in, pressed play, counted to five on his fingers and once again took out the cassette and showed her the line of tape. “This is black. It can record.” The student understood, nodded, and went about her task.

The class continued and the assistant floated around the room answering questions, listening to the students practice and encouraging them to keep going until the end of class. He thought about the times he spent with his older brother playing radio and making recordings with a tape deck. They had sang songs they made up, and were probably based on whatever the heard on the radio, and created stories and talk shows. He wondered what it would be like to hear those tape as an adult and tried to tell himself he wasn’t disappointed such tapes were likely long thrown away. Then he realized that when he made those recordings he was probably almost ten years younger than his current students were.

Class was almost over. The girls who borrowed cassettes returned them. As a final question the teacher asked who had used cassettes before. Less than a third of the class raised their hands. The bell rang. The teacher officially ended class.

Before leaving the assistant took his phone out of his pocket and laid it next to a cassette tape. The comparison made him smile.

One thought on “Blank Tapes

  1. Two things struck me about this. First, yes, those language labs were probably top of the line when installed but now, indeed, seem like ancient history, so this was a fun idea for a short story about how quickly technology is changing. And two, I also as a kid used to record off the radio, sing songs and do talk shows with my brother. And just the other day I was telling my son about this and saying I wonder if any of them are still around my parents’ house. I may just have to look around when we visit!


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