While our life in China may be different from our life in the U.S. in a dozen ways, there is one fundamental similarity that holds true no matter where you live: life is full of ups and downs. This experience has handed us some unique challenges and some bad days, things that have made us appreciate our family and homeland even more. But this experience has also given us some good laughs and fun memories. One of the highlights of this experience has been getting to know the kids we teach. Although they can be a handful-and-a-half, they’ve given us plenty of good laughs and seeing them outside of class always brightens my day. Here are just a few stories from our adventures with our students:
As Briant and I were leaving the cafeteria and headed to the supply room, we heard an excited “Hello Teacher Bliant! Hello Teacher Beeta!” (And no, “Bliant” is not a typo, that’s how they pronounce “Briant”). We turned to see who was hailing us and it was none other than Alex, the missing student! Alex had been in Nicole’s class at the beginning of the year, but a series of misfortunes–starting with a long illness and moving into some sort of serious skin infection–kept him from school for the past month. He seemed delighted to see us and we made exclamations of surprise at finally seeing him again. He smiled and gave us some silly “oh, stop, stop, it’s too much!” kind of faces. By this time a couple of our other boys had run over to say hello and give us high-fives. One of these boys was Dan, who is usually acting like he’s in a kung-fu movie. After he showed Briant a few quick kung-fu moves, Briant showed him how to do a “sword fight.” It was one of those simple games that had been really popular when I was in high school. You and your opponent take each other by opposite hands, like a handshake, and both of you extend your index finger. The “fight” begins and you try to be the first person to stab your opponent with your index finger, without breaking the handshake. Briant won his match with Dan and Mathew and I started a new match. Alex, who was still standing nearby stared yelling “Jiayou Teacher Beeta!” “Jiayou” is something that the Chinese yell to encourage someone in a competition–I’ve heard the kids chant it for their classmates when we play games. It was heartwarming to hear my student cheering for me–especially to hear it from a student who had refused to even acknowledge me in the past. I won my sword fight against Mathew and we said goodbye to our boys.
Fred is one of my favorite students. At the beginning of the year, he was one of the most difficult students to deal with–running around the room, leaving to get a drink (which means wander around the hallways) without permission, and just being generally disruptive. In spite of his disruptive ways, I can’t help but love his personality! He does the best facial expressions and I have to hold in my laughter when he tries to repeat a phrase with his raspy voice (the phrase usually comes out butchered). He’s gotten better about staying in his chair, and if you keep him engaged he doesn’t disrupt class as much these days, but he certainly still wanders the halls when given the chance to get a drink. But I don’t usually have to worry about it, because he’s developed a little routine for himself; he always goes to get water right before Briant rotates down to his classroom. The water station is right outside Briant’s classroom door and Fred waits there until he can walk back to class with “Teacher Bliant.” There have been times when I come to Briant’s door a little late and find Fred right outside, waving at me excitedly. He then opens the door for me and quite literally pushes me inside, calling for Briant. On one occasion our rotation schedule was changed, and Briant wasn’t in his classroom where Fred expected to find him. So Fred came looking for him. “Teacher Bliant!” He called, coming into my classroom, where Briant and I were wrangling our combined classes. Fred walked into the classroom, tugged at Briant’s arm and pointed excitedly down the hall to where Briant’s next class awaited. It’s funny how much facial expression and pantomiming can convey–it was quite clear that Fred was saying something along the line of “Teacher Bliant, hurry up! Did you forget? We have a class to get to!”
Jenny is a tiny, adorable little girl in my class. She’s by turns eager to please (running to get in line and folding her arms, proudly stating “I’m being good!”) and a trouble-maker (running around the room having a kicking match with Jerry while I’m trying to get the desks arranged), but she’s generally easy to correct and her love for me makes it easy to forgive her bad behavior. One day, towards the beginning of the year, Jenny came into Opening crying. I walked down my line of students, rubbed her back and asked what was wrong, hoping she’d understand the question. Her classmates leaned around her, conferred, pointed at Jenny and said “Mommy!” and then pantomimed crying. Some of the students sleep at the school during the week, since their families might live two hours away and classes begin early. Whether or not Jenny was one of these boarding students, she was missing her mother all that week. On Friday morning, for the first time that week, Jenny wasn’t crying. She came skipping into our Opening classroom, exultantly waving a dessert waffle (like a donut in waffle form). With a huge, gap-toothed smile she came running over and held out a piece to me, pantomiming that I was supposed to eat it. Her smile broadened when I popped the bit of waffle into my mouth. As Opening continued, she furtively slipped tiny crumbs of waffle to her classmates. She was just so happy to have the waffle that I didn’t have the heart to take it away. After teaching was done for the day and we were all reunited in the hallway to line up, Jenny called me over and handed me her last piece of waffle. It was a little moist from her warm hands, but I put it in my mouth anyway. Her giant smile was worth it.
One day, after separating into our individual classes, I realized that I’d left my phone with Briant (the issues of not having pockets on my skirts). Though I have a watch, wrangling the kids and trying to teach is usually consuming enough that I’ll miss my rotation time entirely without the handy alarms on my phone. Though Briant’s class was just down the hall I didn’t want to leave my kids alone in the classroom–their crazy antics make it a scary thought. I called up Tim, who usually seems to understand English better than the others– and the fact that he was a student that I trusted not to just wander away when given the chance also made him a prime candidate. Very slowly, I tried to explain what I needed him to do. Pointing towards Briant’s classroom, I said, “Tell Teacher Briant that I”–pointing to myself–“need my phone. My phoooone.” I made a phone out of my hand and held it to my ear. Tim nodded and said happily, “Ok Teacher!” and ran out the door. A minute later, as I was putting on my token apron, Tim came running back. “Teacher…what?” Once again, I held my hand to my ear and tried to enunciate very clearly: “Phone. I need my phone.” Tim smiled, nodded and said, “Ok!” Off he went. A minute passed and I was opening my box to begin taking out my supplies when Tim returned again. “Teacher…what?” He held up his hands in utter helplessness. I looked about in desperation and suddenly spied a piece of scrap paper in my box. After scribbling the word “phone” on the back, I handed it to Tim, who ran off a third time. After another minute he jubilantly returned with my phone. Well, third time’s a charm.
For the 150th birthday of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, one of the founding fathers of the Republic of China, public officials in the city of Zhongshan (which is named after Dr. Sun Yat-sen) visited our elementary school–since it’s the Dr. Sun Yat-sen memorial school. In honor of the celebration, all of the students held a parade at the school. They lined up on the track outside the school and marched past the small outdoor stage, where the officials sat. As each class got to the stage, they would pause, turn and do a small performance–a choreographed dance, a chanting recitation, something–before continuing down the track. To add to the festivities, all of the younger classes were dressed in costumes, and I’m not just talking about matching shirts; It looked like Halloween all over again! There were children in clown costumes (complete with colorful afros and balloons), children in full-body Winnie-the-Pooh costumes, children decked out as sword-swinging pirates and boys and girls running around as various super heroes. The kids in our class were dressed as Mario and Luigi, and we saw a few of them at breakfast before the performance. Shirley came waddling over to us (she likes to act like a penguin) and showed off her Mario costume. Eason came running over to show us his Luigi costume and we admired both of their outfits. I turned to Eason and asked, “Who are you?” He looked at me, confused, and answered, “I’m Eason.” This declaration was particularly funny because Eason is famous for yelling “I Eason!!” in class–just to make sure you know his name and can give him tokens. Everyone knows Eason’s name. “Yes, you’re Eason. What is your costume? Who are you dressed like?” I gestured to the outfit. He seemed bored of the seemingly random conversation and scampered off. We pulled up pictures of Mario and Luigi on our phones and showed them to Shirley and Fred, who had joined us in his Luigi outfit, trying to make them understand that they were dressed as something. Shirley never grasped the idea, preferring to put her hat on my head. Fred pointed out similar colors–“Green,” pointing to the picture, “Green!” pointing to his Luigi shirt– but it’s unclear whether he ever understood it either. Eventually they ran off to join their classmates and we laughed to ourselves thinking of them having no idea why they were dressed in red and green jump-suits and weird hats with fake mustaches on their faces.
Jerry is one of our toughest students. He’s almost the smallest kid in the entire class (only Jenny is smaller), and he is by far the most mischievous. He’s the kid that doesn’t care about the Chinese Chair (where they are sent if they speak Chinese during English class)–he just continues ranting in Chinese even as he sits there. Even just getting him into the Chinese Chair is a battle–I have to physically drag him, because he refuses to go and then will go limp as soon as I take his hand. He’s always poking his neighbor or talking in their ear, no matter who I sit him by. My good students turn into disruptive students when I sit them near Jerry, and my star students look like suffering martyrs when I tell them they have to sit by him. Oh Jerry. But underneath his flippant attitude, I can’t help but wonder if he’s afraid. Perhaps he’s afraid to speak English–if he does bother to say the modeled phrase, it’s usually quiet and somewhat hesitant. Perhaps he’s afraid to put forth any effort into class, because he doesn’t want to fail. Maybe he doesn’t bother to be good because he figures the teachers hate him anyway. Thinking about this, I decided to try to make it clear to Jerry that I like him. So I took some time on my weekend and drew the best picture of a dragon that I could–what boy doesn’t like a ferocious, fire-breathing dragon, right? I used my best pencils and best shading, cut the picture out of my sketch book, folded it, and put it in my box of teaching supplies. At the end of class on Monday, as the kids were lining up, I pulled it out of my box and handed it to Jerry. He flapped the folded paper around, not comprehending, and I prompted him to open it. When the dragon was revealed, his whole face lit up. “Woah!” the students looking over his shoulder exclaimed, and Jerry looked delighted at their admiration. When my group joined the rest of the class in the hallway for lining up, Jerry walked from Colby to Nicole to Briant, showing all of his teachers his dragon picture. He just looked so genuinely happy–a refreshing change from the smirk he usually wears. The next day Jerry was waiting for me in the cafeteria, and he walked me to the supply room after I finished my breakfast. He participated in class–though his participation was a little overly rambunctious–and he actually spoke! But the extreme change was short-lived. You can’t change a child with one dragon picture. He was back to teasing his fellow students and running around the room while I set up the desks. But out of the blue, several weeks after my little gift, Jerry ran to be in the front of our line for Opening and gave me a hug. The next day he was in the front of the line again, and this time he spoke to me about how cold it was. Since then he’s tried to be in the front of the line every day. He may still be one of the toughest students we have, but he’s a seven year-old boy, who in all likelihood only sees his parents on the weekend or for a few hours a day, and I’m not going to give up on helping him feel liked. I think he’ll be one of the kids I miss the most.