When I sit out on the balcony or when I sit in the garden and watch the students - as if I am living in some other time forgotten by the modern world – I feel like I am the luckiest person who has ever lived and I ask myself why I am crying about getting half of a newspaper. Is the front page really that important? Should I not be happy that I did at least get the supplement section on the Netherlands? The Netherlands need love and attention too.
The weeks are colliding with each other it seems. Time here has been put in fast forward. The week has ended again, already. I am stunned by the way the weeks fly. I feel as if yesterday was Sunday. Tomorrow is the new today. Today, I teach class 5 and class 9.
Today, the fountain is off; the waterfall is still. A hesitant mood pervades the students –Class 5 - as they walk into the garden. They mostly walk around silently. Before we left to come to the garden, I told them they had to write about what they see in the garden and hand it to me. I then tell them they do not have to write, I just want them to enjoy themselves. Once they are in the garden, they are unsure what is to be done with this freedom. Cool walks around a bit. When he told me his name is ‘Cool,’ I went into a ‘cool’ babelogue – ‘joe cool,’ ‘that’s cool,’ ‘it’s cool,’ ‘coolsville,’ ‘it would be a lot cooler if you did.’ Joe Cool is the only thing that clicks. The Chinese love Snoopy. They love Peanuts. Peanuts and Blondie are in my Shanghai Daily…daily. Cool sits on the bridge by himself and starts reading, maybe Harry Potter translated. They love Harry Potter.
Cool gets up and walks around. Wolfbark and Ronnie watch another boy fish with a stick. A large group of students wanders up and are quite enthralled by this. Another student acts as if he is going to push Wolfbark into the pond. Wolfbark jumps. Wolfbark could be in a band, in a wolf band – Guitar Wolf, Steppenwolf, the Peter Wolf Group, Peter and the Wolf (the Band). He has that perfect teenage hair – ‘With your Rock and Roll hair, Let the good times roll’ - like Pink in ‘Dazed and Confused.’ He has a constant grin of guilt on his face. Today, he charged into class before the last bell rang. I love Wolfbark. His delinquency is b-movie harmless. He is a Chinese sweathog.
A student who could possibly be Wax Goard is sitting on the bridge with his arm around Wolfbark. It is not Wax Goard after all. Wax Goard is standing next to Ronnie. I cannot see who has his arm around Wolfbark because their backs are to me. The teenage male closeness is still odd to me. At times, I must stare because they remove their arms, hands, legs form each other. I do not want to change them. I want them to change the world.
Occasionally, a student will tentatively look my way. I smile. Cool is back at his spot reading his book. He looks like an actor, a guest star on ‘The Wonder Years,’ a forgotten cousin on ‘Eight’s Enough.’ He has glasses. He looks smart but with this quality which is indescribable, part Sal Mineo, part Ben Foster .
The students have now resorted to hurling a pen across the pond. A true authoritarian would do something. Fortunately – or unfortunately – I am not a true authoritarian. I sit and watch. I want to know what will happen. Of course, I know what will happen. Eventually, the pen will go into the pond. That is what will happen, unless of course it hits someone in the eye first. I will take the pond over an eye. On the first throw the pen skates across the patio. On the second and a few subsequent throws a student catches the pen. The pen at one point lands in the tree. The students laugh. On the next throw, the pen does go in the water. This makes the students roar with laughter.
The pen crowd moves on to another part of the garden. The students’ chatter sounds more like birds than birds. The birds try to compete. I hear them (the birds) sometime when the din of the students subsides. The birds are jealous of the students. The birds cannot compete with the students. The energy of the students loosed in the garden - after a winter of hibernation and studying - overtakes the bird sounds. Three minutes until 11:00, I tell the students they may go to the cafeteria. Wolfbark and a friend present me with a small bouquet of wildflowers.
I sit in the garden for a few minutes and enjoy the quiet and the restoration of the bird sounds after the students leave to go to lunch. Leisurely, I walk to class 9. This class starts with eye exercises. The eye exercise soundtrack has now become a part of the music in my mind. The flutes and piccolos play as the perky voice recites the numbers in Chinese while I wash dishes, shower, shave, cook.
While I am sitting on the porch waiting for class to begin; Harry Potter, the girl, asks if she can ask me a question. I tell her yes.
“Do you like Harry Potter?”
“Yes I do.” Granted, I am not as crazy about Harry Potter as others are. However, now that I am in China, I feel as if I do need to read the books because I am a representative of Western Culture to some degree and Harry Potter is the summation of modern Western Culture to some degree.”
“What is you favorite character?”
“Uh,” Now for me, that is a really tough question. One reason is I do not know the characters offhand. I tell her I like the lady instructor. Maggie Smith has left an impression on me in the movies. Harry Potter, the girl student, misunderstands me and thinks that I am talking about one of the other characters, one of the male characters. I am a little disappointed in myself that I am not a crazed Harry Potter fan because I would love to have a conversation with Harry Potter about Harry Potter. Harry Potter hesitates for a moment and walks into the classroom.
Gavin - whose leg is healing, he is still limping but off crutches – limps up to talk. He has heard that we are going to go to the garden. He wants to know if we are. I tell him that since they had midterms while my other classes went to the garden last week, we will probably go to the garden today. He then tells me he would like to go to lunch early. I tell him we are going to the garden. Gavin is one of those students who sits with Freedom and a couple of other boys and generally causes trouble. I can almost bet it was he who threw a paper airplane in Jennifer’s night class when I happened to be walking past the classroom - she was at the board - and I saw a paper airplane whizzing through the air. The funny thing is these kids do not understand that I perfected the throwing - and the not getting caught throwing - the paper airplane in class. B movie delinquents indeed! Ha!
Gavin asks me about teaching IELTs and why I do not do it. I tell him I do not like to teach at night. I did not answer his question. He was asking me something else. I do not know what he is asking. He gives up he walks into the classroom. Gavin is a Senior One which I take to mean he is a high school sophomore. About a quarter of the student senior one male population (and actually maybe an eighth of the female student senior one student population) has the beginnings of facial hair. By this time, I would think the sweat glands would be going into overdrive. However, I have not noticed bad body odor which of course American teenagers do not usually have body odor either. But in America, teenagers have access to deodorant. In China, or at least at the grocery stores, pharmacies, and markets, there is no deodorant. Jo told Maureen you can buy a German brand of deodorant in Shanghai somewhere. I have not found where this sacred spice is available. I will have to find it soon because my speedstick…(oh heck, insert your own deodorant joke.)
Isaac runs out of the class toward the cafeteria. A Chinese teacher walks by; I say “Ni hao.” He smiles and says “Ni hao.” The eye exercises start. I watch for Isaac. He comes in at the very last of the exercises with Ray and a few other boys. They have ice cream cones, Chinese pizza, pastries – all of which they are not supposed to have in the classroom which I have let slide but now I think I must be an authoritarian.
This is the part of my job I hate. Since this handful of boys came in late to class at the end of the eye exercises, I write ‘fair’ on the board and ask the class if they are familiar with the word. Most of the class say yes.
“I do not think it is fair that some boys can go to the cafeteria and grab snacks while the other students stay in class. I think I will talk to school officials and find out if their are rules regarding this type of behavior.” Harry Potter tells me that the class does not understand me. Again, I explain it. I think words like ‘if’ confuses them. If implies choice.
We make our way to the garden. Once we are at the garden. Harry Potter asks me what sort of games I have planned. Oops, I had not thought of games. This is the last class of my six classes of fifty students that I have taken to the garden. This is the first class in which a student would like to know if I have games planned. Since Harry Potter is who asked me, I ask her what she would like to play. She tells me hide and seek. I tell her that sounds like a good idea. I try to get the students’ attention but everyone is talking amongst themselves in their little cliques. I have no luck. Harry Potter – who is a petite girl – bellows something in Chinese. The students look up. She forms a hide and seek troop and this troop go on a hide and seek reconnaissance mission. I go to my usual place by the pond and watch the activities. Now and then, I will see Suzzy (two ‘z’s) pop her head up from behind a bush.
In the brush, I hear quite a few voices talking louder than normal. Curious, I go see what they are saying which of course I do not know but I might be able to guess. When I get to the place from which the voices are coming, I look up and see the subject matter. I thought maybe the students had spotted some rare spotted bird or come upon some endangered tree frog. No, the creature is from the student variety. Isaac is climbing a tree. When he has scooted himself quite a ways up into the tree someone says ‘monkey.’ I laugh, everyone laughs. Part of me thinks broken arm, broken leg, broken neck. Boys climb trees. I spent many a spring and summer afternoon in my favorite Sycamore in the front yard of my childhood home.
Since the students are occupied by Isaac and his tree climbing inclinations, I wander back over to the pond. Usually, I would write but today I just watch the students. A student – his name I cannot remember and I must remember because he is quite dear – tells me that he and his classmates do not spend much time in the garden because they have to spend so much time studying. I tell him that is too bad and that is why I think it is important to come to the garden. I know they must study but they must be able to enjoy the weather sometimes too. He agrees. He asks me if this is my first time in the garden. This seems to be some veiled reference to the book of Genesis but it is not. I tell him I have been here many times. Nor is this a veiled reference to fornication and the book of Genesis.
I ask him how his midterms were. He tells me he did well in physics but not in Chinese or math. I tell him I am impressed that he did well in physics. He tells me his parents are professors. They help him. They live in Shanghai now. They moved there from Harbin which is north and gets very cold. I tell him I saw that it just snowed there. I read that in the Shanghai Daily. We talk until the end of class. He goes to the cafeteria. I come to my apartment. Next time we meet, I must pardon myself, and ask him his name again. He is one of the reasons I feel lucky to be here.