For the last few weeks, I have had the feeling of impending doom, an indescribable feeling, somewhere locked between dread and panic. We have reached the end of the semester. I ask myself if I have accomplished anything. How can I gauge what I have accomplished with the Shanghai90210? With the oral classes at Songjiang Public High School No. 2 (the key high school where luckily I am accidentally part of the faculty)? This semester has been dreamlike - walking, sleeping, dreaming, waking.
The international staff knows that Elizabeth is leaving because Fairy told Jo; Jo told Maureen and me. I, in turn, told Jennifer. Elizabeth, I assume, know we know that she is leaving, maybe she does not. Now, she is here at most one day a week. I see her when I pop into the assistants’ office. I tell her that I heard she is leaving and I am sorry to see her go but I understand. Then, I tell her I heard she is going to write her family’s history. She looks at me as if I am crazy.
Before I knew Elizabeth was leaving, I met with her to discuss my future. This was last week. During our meeting, I tell her I really like her as a boss that I really like Edgar, too. However, I would like to make more money. She asks me if I discussed this with Edgar during my meeting with him. I tell her we did not. My meeting with Edgar was cut short. She tells me she will discuss this with Edgar. Later, she calls me. She tells me to call Edgar that night. She gives me his number.
This is something I dread. I put off calling Edgar. My intimidation of authority figures or people in power sometimes is almost paralyzing. Of this feeling, I become very aware when I am to call Edgar. Edgar has been nothing but forthright with me. I have no need to worry. He is always smiling and kind to me. Still, I am worried. Remember to stand my ground, I tell myself. I have asked for what amounts to close to a 40% increase in my monthly salary.
Finally, I hesitantly dial his number. Immediately, he jovially answers ‘Hello.’
“Hello Edgar! This is Tyson.”
“Elizabeth told me that you wanted me to call you.”
“Yes, I would like to talk to you about the school where we would like you to teach next term.”
“Oh, good,” I respond.
“As I told you before, I would like you to be head master at a new international school near the train station in Shanghai,” he starts, ‘but that school may not have the enrollment yet. If that is the case, I would like to introduce you to the principal at the International Foreign Language Middle School. I think that would be a good place for you.”
From there, we go into salary negotiations which fortunately Edgar agrees up front upon the increase for which I have asked. However, if I teach at the International Foreign Language Middle School, I will be given a little less but then I will be given a housing allowance which would mean I would get to choose where I live. Picking out my own apartment is very appealing. This talk with Edgar happened approximately a week ago.
We are now close to the end of the term and so I naturally would like to know where I will be in the fall. Yesterday, when I saw Elizabeth, I told her that I really want to sign the contract. I am leaving for Huzhou and then Inner Mongolia after that, and I would like to sign the contract before I go or at least as soon as I get back. She told me she would talk to Edgar.
After this she tells me that she heard I took the public school students to the garden. I tell her yes I did. She then tells me that she heard I had cancelled morning classes. There were only two people who knew these things. One of the people is Jennifer. The other person is Bird Flu.
Fortunately, I was able to defend myself on both accounts. Yes, I took the 50 students in my oral classes to the garden but I did have monitors within the class. Still, I feel as if I did nothing wrong. These students are exam-ed to death. What they need - as much as books and books of knowledge shoved into their brains – is sunshine and fresh air. Of course, when I was defending myself, my argument was more like ‘I’m sorry. It will never happen again.’
With the canceling of the morning classes, yes, I did want to sleep in but I did actually always drag myself out of bed. However, I did decide at one point - after the students arrived promptly the first day – to make the morning classes optional. What can I possibly teach a half-asleep Chinese kid at 7:45 am that he or she will remember? Classes before 9:30 am should be abolished. The answer to this question: I did not cancel class because I did not. I did, however, make the class optional. I do fail to mention this amendment.
Today, after giving my listening final to the Shanghai90210, Elizabeth calls me. Edgar wants to interview me. Do I have any finals? I tell her I have one at three. That is when the interview is scheduled. I am confused. Also, I am nervous. I have no idea why I am being interviewed by Edgar. My mind races. As I have said before, authority figures make me nervous. In my mind, I invent a dozen scenarios. Hidden cameras were in my classroom capturing: me swiftly kicking Miko in the behind; me ripping up one of the oral quizzes after I had given it just to see the students’ faces; me dancing and laughing maniacally during class for no apparent reason; me slapping Max on the butt when he is bent over putting a movie in the DVD player because we are watching Pirates of the Caribbean instead of doing a geography lesson. Of course, I tell them it is a geography lesson of sorts, loosely a geography lesson. My methods are unorthodox but I believe effective. Gawd, I hope my classes are not on hidden camera.
When I did have the talk with Elizabeth, she told me when Max’s dad brought him to the school; He told Elizabeth Max did nothing but play video games. He did not study. He did not talk to people. He did nothing but play the handheld video games. She is amazed at his progress as am I. When I got here four months ago, he barely spoke. He transformed maybe because he could laugh at me trying to pronounce Chinese. He became a teacher to me.
Now, in a few weeks, he leaves for Australia for the summer. There is a chance I may never see him again. He will be back here at Songjiang next year but I will be at another school. When I jokingly asked him if he would come visit me in Mongolia, he did not even think about it, he just said no. I actually was joking but it would have been nice if he would have said ‘Sure’ and not meant it.
Of course, the other transformation has been Miko. She had a habit of not showing for class when I first arrived. She was shy. She did not really socialize with the other three. I was the one who started getting them interested in going on excursions together. Before I arrived, from what I could tell, this did not happen. The trip to Wuxi was the one that led to us bonding. Now, I look back at that and wonder if Max and Allen were a couple. I do not know.
At 2:30 pm, I head over to the office to wait for Elizabeth and Edgar. When I walk by the reception desk, Nancy who is a ball of young Chinese receptionist nerves asks me in broken English why Edgar is coming. I tell her I do not know. He is going to talk to me.
I see Bird Flu. I have not let on that I now know she is a ratfink. I am as pleasant as a best friend. I actually mean her no harm. In some ways, I am grateful because I was able to defend myself when Elizabeth brought up these charges of sorts against me.
When I told Jennifer, last night, that Bird Flu ratted me out, Jennifer was a bit aghast. She told me now she is afraid to tell Bird Flu anything. I tell Jennifer she need not worry, I have this strange paranoid feeling that WooHoo BirdFlu is out to get me. Usually, I am not the paranoid type. I think there was a character in the movie ‘9 to5’ of whom Ratfink the Bird Flu is starting to remind me.
While I am waiting, I clean my desk, empty my dustbin and then sweep around it. I have butterflies in my stomach because I do not know why Edgar wants to talk to me. When I heard Edgar wanted to talk to me, I could only eat peanut butter and jelly on a small roll. What have I done? Why does he want to speak to me? Nothing is ever presented clearly here.
Out in the corridor, I see Elizabeth walking with a group of people. She pokes her head in the door and tells me she will be with me in a minute. Now something new has been brought to the equation, a group of people.
Bored, I walk over to Bird Flu’s cage to see if she will squawk about anything that she has heard from Jo about Edgar. I tell her Edgar wants to see me and I am not sure why. I tell her it is maybe because I am going to a different school next semester, or maybe because, and I pantomime my throat being slit, as in I am being fired. A stricken look overtakes her; I nearly start laughing. I walk back over to my desk.
While I am killing time, I print the Shanghai90210 geography final exam. I go to retrieve it by Nancy’s desk. She tells me “It no printed.”
I walk back to my desk and hit print again. For no reason at all, Patti Smith’s version of ‘Gloria’ is going through my head, the part where she sings ‘ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong’. Maybe this is because of all of the Dings and Dongs I have met while I have been here in China. ‘Their words are just rules and regulations to me.’ This time the exam prints. I still hear ‘ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong’ in my head.
When I walk back to reception to retrieve the exam I printed, I sneak a peek into the conference room where Elizabeth is sequestered with 8 other people. Two of the 8 people are teenagers. Elizabeth must be meeting with a couple of prospective students and their parents. While I am grabbing the exam, I ask Nancy if Edgar has arrived. She does not understand me. She tells me to ask Elizabeth. Or maybe I do not understand her.
At 3:30, Elizabeth sticks her head in the door. She tells me we are ready to go. She tells me we are going into Shanghai for my interview. I ask her if I need to bring anything. She tells me no that she thinks she has my resume. I tell her I will print another just in case. I hit print. While I am waiting for the resume to print, I am standing with the prospective students and their parents and handlers at the reception. Oddly, there seems to be more sets of parents than students. One of the moms speaks fairly fluent English. She asks me if I am a teacher. I tell her yes. I tell her the subjects I teach. I tell her how long I have been in China and how long I plan to stay.
I play her the whole recording that is in my head. I do not mind. Much of this is the same as being in a rock band, the same questions from strangers, handlers chauffeuring me around, the classroom performance. Yes, this is much like the rock world. Lately, I have learned there are even groupies of sorts for the willing young male English teacher and for the unwilling male English teacher.
Last night, Jennifer asked me if I miss the rock life. I told her no. I do not miss it. I had a blast at the time but I do not miss it. I sometimes think of those dismal shows in Lansing, Michigan or Phoenix, Arizona and I am just as happy where I am.
I grab the resume I printed. Elizabeth tells me the whole group is going to Shanghai which is a bit of a surprise. I try to figure out how many taxis we will need. Three?
The group of us gets into the elevator. We go down to the first floor. I get in last so when I get out first, I hold the doors for the others. Elizabeth waits for me. She tells me the group would like to see the dorms which means going out the doors down the corridor. She tells me to wait where I am and they will come back for me. I tell her sure. I walk outside and enjoy the sun which has just come out from behind some clouds. Earlier it rained.
I see some students from Class Three on the sports’ field and I wave to them. They wave back. King walks by which reminds me, I bumped into Fish a few nights ago. She has changed her name to Cleo. Jo gave her the name. I told her it is a pretty name. Orange had me sign an autograph book at the same time. I then think of all of them – Wolfbark, FreeStar, Freedom, Bill, Potato, Jacky, TonySmith, 28ifPaul. Soon all of their faces will fade into the recesses of my mind. By the fall, I will try to remember certain names to tell anecdotes.
Ten minutes later, I see Elizabeth walking across the drive in between the sports field and the campus proper. I walk briskly to catch up with her. The others are talking amongst themselves staggered in front and behind her.
I am walking with Elizabeth as we leave the campus. We walk by the guardhouse. They start to hand me my paper. I tell her to tell them I will get it later. She says something to them is Chinese. I smile and say ‘xie xie’ to them. We all walk through the gate of the school and the taxi mystery is solved. Three cars are parked at the entrance. I am not sure which one I am to get into. The boy and his dad get in an Audi. One or two men get into another random car. Elizabeth motions me to get into a mini-van. Elizabeth, three women, one female teenager and me get into the mini-van. We pull out of the school.
The woman behind the wheel drives tentatively. A block away from the school she takes a right turn. After she goes half a block, she realizes she made a wrong turn. She does a very wide U-turn in the middle of the street. I am not sure where we are going. She seems even less sure than I am. Finding the highway seems to be the mission. This involves many tentative turns, U-turns and lots of honks from trucks, busses, scooters.
The road we are driving strangely reminds me of Sunny Lane in Oklahoma City but with more than a little bit of a Chinese twist. The trash and debris are the same.
While we are driving, I ask Elizabeth about the one child law in China. I ask her when this came to pass. She tells me that in the 1950s when Chairman Mao was in power the population had dwindled because of the war. He encouraged the Chinese people to procreate. In fact they procreated so much that in the 1960s the population started to become a bit of a problem. By the 1970s, the population had gotten out of hands. This is when the one child law was adopted.
After what seems like hours, we find a highway which may or may not be the right one. Once we pass the Chinese equivalent to Frontier City, the mini van pulls over. One of the women in the very back gets out. This is her bus stop. We pull back out onto the highway.
Elizabeth is stressed because she tells me I was to meet the principal of the Foreign Language School at 4:30. The time is now 5:30. We are going to the office. Fairy will escort me to the school to meet the principal. At 6:00 pm, we pull into the office. I am passed off to Fairy and Michael Wong. ‘Ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong’ is going through my head as Michael drives us like a maniac over to the school which is back over by the Chinese Frontier City. Fairy and I get out once we have reached the school’s gates. Michael Wong pulls away.
Fairy is very sweet. She is frail and has chosen the perfect English name for herself, ‘Fairy.’ She tells me that she called the school and apologized. I tell her to apologize for me. I would never be late.
The school is not that different than a typical American high school. This is a middle school. However, in China middle school is 12 years old up to 16 years old. In front of the school is a huge circle drive. At the gate, Fairy asks the guard where the principal’s office is. We walk through the building looking for it. It is on the 3rd floor. I am following Fairy.
On the third floor, we bump into two women chatting. Fairy asks them. They point her in the direction of closed double doors. She knocks. No answer. She tentatively opens the door. We are in a waiting room of sorts. She tells me to have a seat but then as soon as she says this, a woman leads us out the door down the hall to a conference room. She motions for me to sit down. I assume she does not know English. I assume Fairy will be the interpreter. This woman is not the principal. She calls herself the curriculum administrator. This curriculum administrator is not fluent in English but she knows enough to have a conversation with me.
I tell her what I teach and have taught. She asks me if I could teach literature. I tell her yes. She is pleased that I teach art. She says they would like for someone to teach design. I tell her I would like to teach design.
I then launch into my stage band diatribe. I would love to start a stage band. This is very interesting to her. She listens attentively. She tells me that the students would all be beginners. I tell her this is okay. We can start from the beginning. She says this may take a year to prepare them to perform
Ten minutes later, a younger woman with a commanding presence walks in and sits down. I am stunned that the principal is this young. She is dressed very casual. I, of course, am wearing my all purpose D&G suit.
This younger woman starts pounding me with questions. I answer them as intelligently as possible. For the most part, I feel as if I am doing okay. I had assumed this job would be a fish in a bucket type situation which would not be difficult at all to be hired. I was wrong. This interview is the most rigorous interview I have had since I have become a teacher. I am then told that this job involves a lot of paperwork which I loathe but perhaps I could start loathing paperwork less. They follow an International Baccalaureate system which I would have to learn. Yes, this would be a lot of work but it would be a place where I feel as if I could really make something happen. It would be a place where I could stay indefinitely.
As we are leaving the building I ask Fairy how she thinks it went; she is very encouraging. She tells me that I would be able to teach all of the subjects that they want taught. I would be perfect. However, the principal was not there. I thought the principal was the young woman who came in after the interview had started, I tell Fairy. She tells me no that was just another teacher. Of course, the principal makes the final decision. The decision will rest with the principal. ‘Ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong’ is still going through my head.