Thursday, September 21, 2006

With your feet in the air and your head on the ground

Why do I do this to myself? The morning comes. I have a hotpot hangover. The spiciness of last night’s hotpot has done some sort of Louisiana hayride (starring Ma and Pa Kettle) to my stomach. Late evening hotpot and early morning English do not mix. This is a song for Carol.

As best as I can, I pull myself together and head to school. At the guardhouse I stop and grab my obligatory milk. The milk is forced on us at this point. When we walk by, we must take it. You can not pass by the guard house without grabbing your milk. By my name, I put a checkmark. I take my milk and head to class.

On the stairs, as I pass, the students – the students who are stationed as greeters - say “Good Morning Teacher.” In turn, as I pass, I smile and greet them.

“Teacher, your face!” Kevin exclaims when he sees me. The absence of my beard immediately causes a stir. In America, Americans have American Idol, the Office, Arrested Development, the Apprentice. Here, the Chinese have the removal of Tyson’s beard as the water cooler topic.

My boss comes into the teachers’ office. She tells me that Kevin is running all over telling everyone. The buzz is undeniable. William - with the Walt Disney animation eyelashes – calls me new teacher. “We have new teacher,” he says. He smiles. He always smiles.

Athena, the badass, and the rest of the teaching staff are quite vocal about the beard. Many of them say I look so much younger. The teachers seem to like it. The students are not as welcoming. The new look shocks them, truly shocks them.

My first class is the sixth grade readers. I Xerox a few stories from the textbook that the Indian mother gave me. Some days we read the Prince and the Pauper. Some days we read the stories from the textbook. All of my copying is finished. I head to class. The conference room where I have been meeting them is locked. We go to the library.

This is when the seventh graders tell me that their English class is now. Keeping low doesn’t make no sense. I tell them I have the sixth graders. I go to Sophie’s office but she is in a conference with Will one of the students who is trouble, adorable trouble but trouble. I ask Athena what to do. I could try to teach both groups but I am done with that business. Everyone is so near.

At this point, I have ten students following me through the halls. We are somewhat like a marching band without the instruments, or disciples without a prophet. We go back to the library. I give the sixth graders their stories to read. Although, I hand them the papers in order – two stories with three pages each, they cannot keep from messing them up. In America, I would have a stapler to staple the papers.

When I have settled the sixth graders, I start to think about what I am doing with the seventh graders. At this point, my boss comes in to tell me they have math. She takes them away.

Soon, the mystery is solved. Mary arrives. Somehow, she does not seem to know what her schedule is. She walks past the reading room into the office like there is nothing wrong. A few minutes later, the seventh graders come back to the reading room from their mystery location. I go get the key to the conference room from my boss and I take the sixth graders to the conference room. Of course, Oscar immediately wanders around the room. Fortunately, when I tell him to sit down and read he does.

Later in the day, Mary tells me she liked me better with the beard. Should I tell her she needs to take a course in courtesy? For some reason she seems to have the false impression that we are these great pals.

The sixth graders will not settle down. I am trying to give my geography, culture history lecture. When I get to the Welcome to Death Valley postcard, I stop the lecture. Some of the girls are turned around talking to the girls sitting behind them. Sooham and Oscar keep running up to the computer. Oscar knocks the cord out of the wall which takes me a minute to realize. This is the straw. Yes, I was wondering when the straw would snap that camel's back like an old 16 and savaged chicken bone. I stop the lecture and just sit.

This is the second time I have done this as a teacher. The other time I did this was with an oral English class at Songjiang. Now, I realize, this freaks out the students. Everyone is quiet. Sumram asks me to please continue. I do not say anything. I stay quiet. No one stirs. Those who do stir get shushed. I was talking to Preachy Preach about Kissy Kiss.

After I sit for a good five or ten minutes, I start the lecture again. Suddenly all of the students are angels. Oscar pops off immediately but is immediately shushed by Sumram. Part of me feels as if the students do not deserve the dying of thirst reenactment. However, by now, I have perfected it and feel as if the presentation is missing something if I do not have my mock death in the midst of my quest for water traveling through Death Valley.

Getting to the scene itself was torturous between Sooham and Oscar constantly asking “Why do they call it Death Valley.” Over and over, I told them I would explain how Death Valley got the name Death Valley. Often, my lectures are like one long Abbot and Costello gag, one long torturous gag.


Today is the first day that I will teach guitar. Last week, we walked to the guitar shop. This morning as I was drinking my iced coffee and eating breakfast dumplings random students came by with their guitars. We put them in the Xerox room. How I am to teach 17 Chinese middle school students guitar, I am still curious myself. As with most problems lately, I will solve it when the time comes. For now, I will prepare my lesson. Today, I am going to teach them how to tune the guitars. This should definitely be interesting.

The guitar lesson, how do I prepare it? I will keep it simple. We will learn how to tune the guitar today I hope. Is it too much to hope that these students will be able to learn a few chords today? Is that too much to ask? The performance in December is looming over my head. If all else fails, if they cannot master the Ramones and John Denver, I will teach them the Cramps.

downtown caveman look man i made a tool caveman ain't no fool we rock good meat caveman rock me caveman say "ooh" caveman say "ooh" caveman say "ooh ooh" caveman say "ahh"

I go into the classroom. Last week we met in the small conference room which was too small. Today, we will meet in the design room. I need some space.

The first students to arrive are Sooham, Sumaram, Kevin and two girls. The two girls have been very excited about the lessons. They often stop me in the hall to ask about the lesson. They seem like the type that will stick with it. Kevin has been very excited about the lessons. I had no idea the Indian twins would be in my class. Sooham is mad about science.

Before class he comes up to me and asks me if it is okay if he gets into the science class instead. Teasing him, I ask him if he doesn’t like me.

“No, Teacher, I do like you. Sumaram has asked my mother for many things and I do not want to make my mother angry so I think I might want to be in the science class.”

I tell him this is okay. If he would like to be in the science class, that is fine. Seventeen students are a lot of students to teach to play the guitar. He hugs me and says “Thank you teacher.” He leaves the room. He is in love with science.

Don’t you wonder sometimes about sound and vision.

Soon, the class is full of students with guitars and a few students who do not have guitars. The students without guitars, I tell them this will not be much fun for them. They may stay or they may leave. The choice is theirs. Joker stays. Jacky stays. Sean stays. Eric stays. Jonathan stays. They all stay.

Sooham comes back to class. He does not want to be in the science class after all. He wants to be in my class. I ask him if he and his sister will share guitars. He tells me no their mother will buy them both a guitar.

I tell them we are going to learn how to play rock guitar. I start to explain how we will do this. Jacky asks me if I will play a song before the lesson begins. He has been bugging me to play a song. Everyone wants me to play a song. I play ‘Feel Like a Drugstore.’ I explain that for many years I made a living in America as a pop singer. Sometimes, I wonder to myself if that life was real or if it was just some dream. As I am playing, students come from other parts of the building to listen. The class quickly fills up.

After I finish my song and the lesson starts the madness ensues. I tell them we must first tune the guitars. Tuning guitars with humanoids who barely know what a guitar is, this is challenging to say the least. There is really no way to describe it. This is a completely foreign concept to them. They cannot understand. Some of the students hold their guitars upside down. Some of them pop the strings instead of strum them. Yes, I have my work cut out for me.

I play my low E. I try to get them to do the same. I hum a low E. I tell them this is the way the string they are playing should sound. The classroom is set up with three big work tables in the middle. The students are scattered about the room. The students in the back I cannot hear at all. I assume they are playing. All I hear is a din of noise.

I then try to show the students how to go from string to string to tune. This they absolutely do not understand. All I hear now is a muffled string, buzzing string racket. This is like one of those movies where the basketball star happens to be stranded in Africa, Jamaica, Haiti and through some loose plot construction, he has to teach the locals how to play basketball or else. A few of the students are petrified to turn the tuning pegs. They seem to think they will break. Tuning, tuning becomes an impasse. They do not understand that any strings that are touched in passing by their hands, these strings become muted. The time passes. All seventeen children want to know if they are right. Most of them are just confused. No one is doing it right. No one. This is maddening and laughable and...well, uh, maddening.

With your head in the air and your feet on the ground,
Try this trick and spin it, yeah
Your head will collapse
But there's nothing in it
And you'll ask yourself
Where is my mind.

Some of the students seem to give up. These are not the most motivated young people I have encountered. They want everything to be fun, to be exciting. They do not want to work for anything.

Okay, that is not fair. I am not being fair. Some of the students are really good students. Most of the students today are really trying and they really want to learn. My patience is nearly expunged. Sometimes, I wonder how my mother was able to put up with me and my brothers. How did she keep from beating us senseless? It could be worse, I could be back at my advertising job; I could be working at Wal-mart; I could be managing Chili’s.

I wish life could be Swedish magazines...

Eventually, I realize the A strings will stay un-tuned if I do not spring to action. Therefore, I spring to action. In a flash, I put my guitar down on my teacher’s desk and leap from guitar to guitar and tune each one. To be honest, I am a bit amazed with myself. Without a doubt, I thought I would never win awards with my guitar tuning abilities. Under pressure, sometimes, I guess we can do anything. Why can’t we give love one more chance? Maybe I will enter the guitar tuning competition in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Of course, the last guitar I tune is an exceedingly cheap guitar that makes Woolworth Kay guitars play and sound like Martins. This one I really want to just Townsend-out and break. I don’t. It takes me a few minutes to tune it or at least put it into the vicinity of being in tune. While I am tuning it, I try to put the sound of the cacaphony of guitars around me out of my head. This is not easy.

Once the guitars are in tune, the first thing I do is show them some scales. This keeps them busy for a little bit but they still do not really get the concept. ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ is two chords- G and C with an occasional visit to D. I made copies. This was recommended on a site on the web as a good first song to learn. First, I will teach them a G.

Mastering the G, forget that. Trying to play the G proves to be impossible. All of the guitars simultaneously make the sound of flat tires baboobling down the road. If this was some sort of John Cage, Glenn Branca Ensemble, this would be beautiful, high art, a heady concept piece. This is not beautiful nor is it heady. This is maddening.

I am good with analogies. I am under pressure to think of an analogy to help the students understand. I tell the students to think of their fingers as a bridge and to think of the open strings as water. The bridge cannot touch the water. This makes it somewhat easier. I keep telling them their fingers have to be in the middle of the fret. I try to tell them how to place their fingers. They do not understand. How do I do this? This really is a challenge.

Disney bird eyes William hangs around the class. He is not one of the students who is enrolled. I do not mind that he is here. He is fine. He is a good boy. He always smiles.

After class, he tells me he wants to be in the class. I tell him that is fine. Will his mother buy him a guitar? Yes, she will, he tells me. He then tells me we have to get permission. From what he is saying, I think I have to talk to someone about this. I am not sure if I am supposed to talk to his mother, a teacher, the principal. Joker translates. I need to talk to his math teacher. He wants to ditch math for guitar, who wouldn’t?

I tell them I will talk to the math teacher. I am not sure which math teacher is the right one. Joker tells me he will point her out. We go into the teacher’s office. He shows me where she sits. I cannot place who sits at the desk to which he points. William then comes in and says she is walking down the hall. They both run out into the hall and flag her down like they are teens in America in a broken down car on the side of the road in Mississippi.

She stops. I ask Joker if she knows English. She does not. Joker explains the situation in Chinese. She nods. She seems nice. I am not sure if this is appropriate. I hope this is appropriate. Is this something I should have asked her in private? After a brief consultation, she agrees to let him into my guitar class. This is a strange, tiny, joyous moment. William cannot contain his joy. He is so happy that he will be able to take the guitar class. As I am walking back to the design room to gather my stuff, I hear William in his homeroom class talking to some of the other boys excitedly.

Jonee went to the pawnshop bought himself a guitar now he’s gonna go far. You gotta love ‘em and leave ‘em. Sometimes you deceive ‘em. You made her cry.


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