A throwback Thursday

Last Thursday, I got a message from a former workmate. We used to teach English in an office in Alabang, where I spent a little over two years before transferring to the content development team in Eastwood. I would spend six more years developing blended learning content for the company before leaving in 2015.

The work entailed creating lessons, quizzes, tests, and courses for the company's learning management system (LMS). I mention this because my former workmate was asking me about phonetics, somehow thinking me to be some sort of "expert."

I'm hardly an expert. Phonetics is a subject I had encountered only briefly in Linguistics 101, the only linguistics class I took. And I was only forced to learn a little more about it because I used an old paperback dictionary when I was a newspaper writer. Online dictionaries weren't a big thing yet back then. Besides, I had to share one dial-up internet capable desktop computer with everyone else in our department.

My former workmate told me that she was taking an online test and she couldn't move past the phonetics-related questions because the system wasn't accepting her answers. She'd been at it for hours, she said, and she couldn't figure out why her answers were being marked wrong.

I was on the road when we first messaged in the afternoon. When I was able to reply to her again close to midnight, she was still stuck on the same three questions. Feeling her frustration, I offered to take a look.

Basically, there were sentences written in phonetic alphabet, and you just needed to enter the English words in the provided box. Because I am a nerd, I was instantly curious, despite being exhausted from having just been in an eight-hour car ride.

I spent some fifteen minutes figuring out what the sentences were, switching back and forth from Messenger to browser on my phone, only to discover she and I had arrived at practically the same answers. I started feeling frustrated myself, because I was so sure our answers were correct. I had checked and double-checked.

Suddenly, it occurred to me that the problem was most likely an LMS issue, not a human comprehension one. I asked her if she had tried writing the sentences without any punctuation marks or in all lowercase letters. She had tried the former. She then tried the latter. Et voilĂ ! Problem solved.

She thanked me profusely, and I told her it was no big deal. It was, to her, of course. Finally, she could move on to the rest of the test, she said, after hours of being stumped and not knowing what she was doing wrong.

In a way, it was a big deal to me, too. I had handled a lot of frustrations in that job, the least of which was working with limited technical resources on a quirky platform. I had loved the work with a passion, but the job had started to feel like an albatross around my neck in my final few months.

How many hours had I spent testing quizzes to check if they accepted all possible incarnations of a correct answer in the six years I was handling content development? That was tedious labor, but years later, what little I had learned helped me help someone else. It was hilariously simple, but it also felt so... glorious.

Writing this now, a few days later, it seems like such a small thing, so trivial, even inconsequential. But I can still remember how much my old self craved for even a little bit of this lightness, and I can only be thankful that, finally, it is here.