This morning, I arrived at school at 7:20 am for my first day of classes. Michelle (the Chinese teacher) who is to help me if I need help flitters in and immediately leaves. Other teachers come in but I do not know who knows English so I ask none of them questions. Nothing is made clear. I am not exactly sure what I am supposed to do or why I am here at this uncivilized time of the morning.
For the first thirty minutes, I look through emails and look over the morning’s schedule. The 8 am classes are at the east campus at an orientation. No one tells me anything. I walk around the halls looking into the vacated rooms. The student’s books are neatly placed on the desks like they have left the building in an orderly fashion. Am I supposed to be at the orientation with my students? This thought suddenly occurs to me. For a moment, a panic seizes me. But then, I assume I am not supposed to be there.
The school is not air conditioned. The teachers’ office is. No one closes the doors to the room when they come in or go out. Yes, this is a bit maddening. I am in my Dolce and Gabbana suit and I am already sweating at 8:15 am. To live in China, in Shanghai, you must sweat.
Right now – 9:40 am, I have my 8th grade design class. However, no students are in my classroom. My boss tells me to rest. She will sort out the problem. The eye exercise is playing as I write this. People come and go and forget to close the door. The air is dry in the school, wet outdoors.
My boss moves my students out of the classroom next to my design classroom and into my design classroom. After the classroom mix-up is settled, I start the class. The students seem to all know each other. When I am going over their names, stumbling hopelessly through the pronunciation; they give me their English names. There are two Jacks in the class. One of the Jacks is in Hungary. I ask what he is doing there. That is where he is from. I would not take Gu DanLi to be a Hungarian name but live and learn. The other Jack asks if I can call him Joker. I tell him I do not mind. However, if he wants me to call him Joker I am going to call him that name all year so he cannot change it.
I talk about design to the class. Out of a bag, I pull all sorts of examples of design (Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, The Who’s The Kids Are Alright DVD, a tennis ball, a pair of chopsticks, a stainless steel bowl). These things are all examples of design I tell them. Joker is the most vocal of the class. Already, I can tell that I am going to enjoy having him as a student.
Alexandria keeps talking to her neighbor while I am talking. At this point, I have decided that I do not care if they think I am a Blue Meanie. This is when I go into the rules of the classroom. I tell them that each day they start out with 8 points in the classroom. Each time that I have to stop my lecture to shush a person, that person loses a point. With this system, they can go into the negatives. This means this would disastrously affect their overall grade in the class. I used to be such a sweet, sweet ting ‘til they got ahold of me.
At one point, I tell them if I ask them to repeat something that is because I have rock and roll ears which I then explain. This perks up their ears. Joker asks me if I was in a rock and roll band. I tell him I was in a rock band for many years and we released 5 CDs. This of course is very cool to my students.
I give them the first assignment which we will work on in class the next time. Before then, they are to gather the materials to make it. I want them to design the cover for their autobiographies. Joker asked if we were going to do it on the computer. I told him we are going to do it as a collage, cut and paste. They seemed somewhat enthused by this assignment.
A couple of the Chinese English teachers show me to the cafeteria at 11:45. We are given our meal on a covered stainless steel tray, the same sort of tray that I had at the other campus on Monday. Today, the meal is rice (as usual), chicken and cabbage, and bamboo. As curious as I find it, I pass on the pink soup with slices of – what may or may not be - bologna.
Xiao Qin comments on my accomplished chopstick skills. This is something that is frequently noticed first about a foreigner at the table here which is actually a very welcome comment. It would never occur to me to comment on another adult’s use of the fork or steak knife. I eat quite quickly. Xiao Qin tells me that this is social time for the Chinese. I tell them I have to prepare for my reading class which is in an hour. I want to print out something in the way of an assessment to assess the students.
They tell me I take the tray outdoors; that is where the disposal area is. I am the first diner finished for the day. I see a trash can and a tub. I am not sure what goes where. Three of the kitchen workers - two men and a woman - are smoking on the curb. The woman pantomimes from the distance where it all goes. This is ridiculous I know but I am not sure what goes where. This is china. Everything is done differently.
The woman comes up and motions for me to scrape the food into the trash and to put the chopsticks and the tray into the metal tub. I do this and ‘xie xie’ a few times. I look up and realize that all of this is going on outside of the kitchen. All of the workers are watching me, the exotic animal, through the screendoor. I wave as if I am an exhibit, the elephant man, the bearded lady, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross.
Once I am back upstairs, I look over an assessment test that I emailed myself from a website. The subjects are very interesting. I try to copy and paste it but it will not copy and paste accurately. At one point, I would have been sent into panic mode. Now, however, I try to explore other options.
I go into the library to search for some sort of reading assessment tests in the small English textbook section. I cannot find anything that I feel is interesting. Everything that I seem to come across looks so textbook-ish and dated. At this point, I have thirty minutes to come up with something so I do not really have all of the time in the world. I am starting to feel as if I am under the gun.
Yes, smart me would have had all of the copies made in advance and he would breeze right into the room with no problem, smiling, talking about summer vacation, the Yankees, Hemingway, Dickens. For some reason, I do not seem to be able to function, or ideas do not seem to formulate unless I am under the gun. At times, this is not really a choice. It just is the way I operate whether I like it or not. This is how I function.
Finally, I find something on the web that I think will work. There is an essay on William Wegman and a student essay on tromping around Big Bend. Again, I try to copy and paste but it does not work. Instead, I hit print.
The printer is in my boss’ office. After I hit print I see that there are actually 32 pages in the file. To myself I say, ‘Oh Shit.’ As the file is printing, I make occasional trips into the office to snag a few of the copies at a time. Fortunately, my boss is not around. Whether or not she would say anything about me printing 32 pages, I do not know. I do not think she would. Actually, I am just embarrassed that the print job is that big. I feel like Lucy at the chocolate factory.
Back at my desk, I try to make sense of the stack of copies I am now holding. No one else is in the room. I am not worried. Again, I am embarrassed that I have just done irreparable damage to some poor unassuming Chinese redwood somewhere.
My sixth graders are taking a random Chinese exam so I will only have the 7th grade Language A reading group. In this group, there are only 5 students. I decide to make copies of the Big Bend piece. The copier in the copy room has already given me problems when I printed my syllabus for the design class. Although, the sucker looks fairly new and un-phased, it is a cruel piece of machinery that knows how to really get to me. So far, the modus operandi for this iron maiden is to print a few copies and just stop. At this point, when it abruptly stops, I have to open a series of doors and drawers to get it started again. Copy machines are my bane. This copy machine is quite the mean mistreater.
At this point, I have three minutes or less. My boss comes in to tell me that my class has been moved to the reading room which is much more comfortable than my design room. I thank her. She asks me if I am having problems. Now, I need one copy of one page and I will have everything ready for class. The clock is ticking, ticking, ticking. This is maddening but totally no surprise. She tells me she will copy the final copy for me. I tell her thank you and rush to class. As I am heading that way, I pass the principal in the hall. He asks me if I have that class and he points to the reading room. I say yes. Without saying it, he seems to be saying, ‘why in the hell are you screwing around.” Of course, this is exactly who I want to run into as I am scrambling to get to my room.
The five students are all sitting on one side of a table. I sit facing them. Everyone looks at me. I tell them I was fighting with the copier. This does not register with them. I hope that I am not screwing up. They are looking at me expectantly. I tell them that I am going to give them a test to see where they all are with their reading levels. I tell them there is no pressure. They do not need to worry.
As I am explaining this, the door opens. One of the Chinese teachers has two younger students with her – a girl and a boy. Actually, though they look much younger than ther other students in the room, they are only a year younger. The teacher tells me that these two students are from India which means they are not taking the Chinese test that the other sixth graders are taking.
She leaves them with me like they are stepchildren. I immediately love them. They are the cutest little Indians. The little boy tells me they are twins and then adds ‘not identical of course’ which makes me laugh.
Not knowing that I would be saddled with two extras, I did not beg my nemesis the copier for more copies of the Big Bend essay. I give the boy an essay on a female baseball player and I give his sister the William Wegman essay. I tell them I did not make enough copies of the other essay. The five - that has now grown to seven – students start reading. Occasionally, I look up to see where everyone is in their reading.
About twenty minutes into the class, Jonathan tells me he is finished reading and answering the questions. I tell him to look back over the reading to make sure his answers are correct. The rest of the students, I let them read five minutes more and then we start discussing the reading.
My two little Indians, I give them my copy to share. Yes, I should have made extra copies but I did not plan for this. This is China. Why did I not plan for this?
In one section of the essay, the student author mentions a tarantula. We talk about that section. The little Indian boy who I think is going to keep me on my toes says, “Oh, Tarantula, very venomous.” He says this with the authority of a soothsayer, a non-fortune telling soothsayer that is. I tell him yes some tarantulas are venomous. I tell him where I come from we have non-venomous tarantulas. This seems to appease him. All of the children have seen tarantulas at the zoo.
He asks if I have ever seen a scorpion which made me think of this summer night when I was twelve. Somehow, I had managed to stay up without falling asleep. No doubt, I wanted to see In Concert or Midnight Special, hoping for Sparks or the Dolls but getting Trapeze or Paper Lace. I was laying on the couch in the living room. I looked up and saw a scorpion crawling across the ceiling. Thirty years later, I still remember it. At the time, it was one of the biggest frights of my life. However, now it is G rated scary.
The little Indian boy asks me why the questions start with number 23. How do I explain that one? I try to give an explanation but I really am not able. Yes, he is going to keep me on my toes. The circus music plays over the public address. Class is over.