Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Sooham, as if it was a mantra, over and over chanted – “Why can’t you be our teacher, Teacher?”

Okay, I suppose I have waited long enough to tell the tale, the whole ridiculous tale; the meltdown - play by play, blow by blow, bulging vein by bulging vein. I have had a few weeks to think about it now – and to ponder where my life is heading. When Heathcliff left Wuthering Heights, I do not think his exploits were noted. Did he have multiple meltdowns teaching rich delinquents at International Schools in the Far East?

Of course, Heathcliff to me is always Sir Laurence Olivier speaking in the proper Queen’s English. I cannot picture him calling Jacky a maroon or a retard. I can, however, see him on his knees begging Vivian to please, please do her assignment. Yes, I can see him begging Vivian on bended knee. I can see that.

In many ways, it seems like it happened years ago but I look at the entry from the day in question and it is dated December 19.
That particular entry starts with:
Take deep breaths. Take a lot of deep breaths. Design class. 7th graders. They are fucking out of control.

So there is a hint of what was going on that day here in the People’s Republic of China. After the fact, it would be easy to call the principal a cocksucker and Percy a crazy twat but I hope to be above that. I could call Percy a delusional bitch but again that would be too easy. But of course, I am getting ahead of myself. The following is the journal entry from that day which I have been too close to until now. Here it is unedited:

Take deep breaths. Take a lot of deep breaths. Design class. 7th graders. They are fucking out of control. Jacky is sitting beside me telling me I have an old woman’s voice. I am not paying attention to him. Yes, maybe I should not have told him that Usher is for girls. Only girls listen to Usher I said. He really loves one of his songs. He does not know the name. He calls him Osseaur. I had no clue who he was talking about. The class is noisy. I tell Trevor and the Korean mongoloid to sit down. She pours water into the mobile home that Will is constructing while I am not looking. Someone steal’s Alice’s scarf and plays keep away with it. Alice, I am sure, is not completely blameless.

Jacky is yammering on and on about my voice, my singing voice. Of course, I am not singing. He wants to get to me. I am ignoring him. I know he is a pain in the ass. I cut myself with my exact-o, a small cut, a nick, nothing serious.

“Is this yours?” I say to Jacky and wipe blood on his hand. Yes, I know this in inappropriate.

“Are you bleeding?” he asks in a panic.

“We go to washroom and wash it off. It will get….” He cannot think of the word.
We leave the room. We go down to the second floor to the nurse’s room for a bandage. She is not there. I wash my wound in the sink. Jacky rummages through the medicine cabinet and finds a bandage. We wash the cut again. He bandages my finger.

We go back to the classroom, to a classroom of sheer madness. Will now has Alice’s scarf and he throws it to Trevor. I tell Trevor to give it to me he doesn’t. I tell him he has just won a trip to the teacher's office. He is the biggest puss. He falls on the floor and says ‘No! NO! NO!” this is much like the scene in Female Trouble when Edith Massey begs Gator not to go, not to leave his wife Dawn Davenport (Divine). She is on the floor with her arms around his ankles and he is dragging her as he is leaving to find a job in the auto industry. This ridiculousness of the scene does hit me but I do have to play it out. It has already been set in motion...and the movie kept moving as planned...

Trevor is a big kid. I have to drag him. With him grabbing the desks and then the walls and absolutely not giving an inch, this takes every bit of strength that I have. At times, I drag him by the feet, other times by the neck. At this point, it has gotten completely out of control. I yell into the office to Michelle. She just sits; she does not come to assist. At the other end of the hall, Jacky and a few other students are watching. This is completely ridiculous. They are all looking on as if it is the funniest sideshow ever. How did I wander into this scene? This is some sort of Asian Three Stooges with one stooge missing.

I storm into the office and tell Michelle that the students are completely out of control. I storm back to the classroom and give the students an earful. They do not deserve an education. Education is a privilege not a right. She tells me maybe I should have the class in the design room. I tell her they are even worse behaved in the design room.

She comes into the classroom with me. I show her the mess on the floor. I tell her that they run around and yell and are just generally awful. I do not know what to do with them.

I then address the students. I tell them I am no longer teaching them design from now on they can do their Chinese or whatever during the period. Neisha, Noam, and Venus, I point out; I say they are the only students who behave. Everyone else does not deserve to be taught.

Then, I walk over to where the mongoloid Korean poured the water into one of the projects. I grab the project and show Michelle. I point out the student. The water has soaked the inside. Some of the water has made a pool in some plastic packing material. She has nothing to say. I drop the design on the floor and walk out the door.

I do not look at Michelle’s face. I do not look at the students. I just leave.
At my office door the two Australian exchange students are waiting. I tell them I have just had a meltdown. They understand. They have been here three weeks. They tell me students bark in a few of their classes. They tell me they are shocked by the general behavior of the students in the school. The students act like little kids they tell me.

The Australian’s are about the same age maybe a bit older but they are much more mature. We are both amazed at the immaturity of the Chinese students, not particularly in a bad way. This is just how it is. However, the good thing is we do not have any sort of problems with drugs or any of those sorts of problems that teachers must deal with in the West. Yes, this is the trade off. This is maddening but not life threatening. We do not have to worry about tripping or stoned students nor do we have to worry that a student will O.D. or bring a gun or knife or both to school. Yes, this is the tradeoff. This is something I must remind myself.

The Australian’s follow me into the 8th grade design class. The bell rings. I ask the 8th graders if they have brought cardboard. Friday, I let them watch the Harry Potter movie since Mary had left it; I made that the arts class. At the end of the class, I told them to bring cardboard; we would have our design class on Monday. Today is Monday. No one brought cardboard, no one. I am not surprised. William and Alexandra tell me that the design class is on Friday; I told them to bring cardboard then.

With this, I look at the Australians who were sitting in on the class on Friday and I ask them if I did not tell the students to bring cardboard on Monday. They nod their head begrudgingly. They probably do not want to look like teacher-kiss-up nerds. Really, I do not blame them

I tell the students to sit tight; I am going to fetch (I do not say ‘fetch’ by the way) their homeroom teacher. They become very quiet. I go back out into the hall with the two Australians and talk to them. I tell them if the students think that I am going to get their classroom teacher they will be quiet. They are quiet for a few minutes and then the din rises. I walk back in. Everyone, thinking I have my boss in tow, instantly sits down. Ben feigns a heart attack. He was up running around. He thinks his goose is cooked.

Jack, who Jackie sometimes calls the chimp because he looks like a chimp, asks me what we are going to do. I tell him I do not know since no one brought cardboard.
“Why you do not know?” asks William.

“Because, I told you to bring cardboard today and you didn’t so I really don’t care what you do.”

Why they do not start playing cards and chess as usual I do not know. Maybe they heard of the meltdown I had with the 7th graders. Joker asks if they can look for cardboard. I tell him sure. He takes a group of four people which includes Rebecca (there may be some sort of budding romance between the two of them) into the design room. A few minutes later, they come back. They tell me they found material we can use. I follow them into the room. They show me some cut …..

This is where the journal entry ended. At that point, I got a call from Fairry at the company that contracts me to the school. She told me the principal was really pissed at me and wanted to fire me. He called the company owner in Australia and yelled at him. The owner, pissed, wanted my hide.

Fairry, however, was very nice about the whole thing. She told me I might be fired. Nevertheless she told me I shouldn’t worry because people make mistakes and I have been a really good employee with the company which I thanked her for being in my corner which seemed like a very unpopular corner to be in. She told me she would come to the school the next day and talk to me and let me explain what happened. I told her that would be good. She told me I should talk to my boss and see what she had to say. I told her I would. At that point, I did not know a parent had been called. I told her that the 7th graders apologized because while I was typing the entry, I got a little apology card from them that read they wanted me to be their design teacher. Yes, at that point, I thought all was well. I was wrong.

By then, this was the end of the day. I popped into my boss’s office. She told me to meet her after school and we could talk. After school, she was in the room with the 7th graders talking to them. During our talk, she told me she talked to the 7th graders and asked who was to blame in the incident if they could be honest she would appreciate it. They told her they were noisy and that they were mostly to blame. We talked a bit, nothing of consequence. She then told me that I may be fired because a parent had demanded the principal fire me. This has happened before, she said. She would do all she could be it was not up to her. I told her I understood. We would talk about it more tomorrow.

As soon as I got home I called Jennifer, I told her what happened. I told her I might be dismissed from the school. She was shocked. John, the new Australian teacher had done the same thing that very day. Jim, the bad kid, would not go to P.E. class. John had to physically remove him from his chair and drag him. Richard, the dean of the school, told John he did the right thing, the kid is a bad kid.

Okay, so what is right at one school is wrong at another basically.

The next day, I go to school. All was calm. I asked my boss if anything had developed. She told me that we would have a meeting with the 7th graders and their classroom teacher Michelle after lunch.

Before my first class, Fairry showed up. We went to an empty classroom and talked. She told me that the school wanted to fire me and that Edgar is mad because the school is a big account for him. He too wanted to fire me. She told me she would help me. She told the owner of the company that I have been a good employee for the company that I am far away from my home. He should not just fire me and leave me stranded. I thanked her. Fairry is really a very good person. I have liked her from the beginning.

She told me she talked to my boss and the other teachers and all of them said very kind things about me. She told me she would help me whether I was still employed by Edgar or not. I told her that was very kind of her and I really appreciated it. One point that she stressed over and over was that I was not to worry. if I lost my job she would help me find another. That made me rest a bit easier. She left.

After lunch, I met my boss and Michelle in the 7th grade classroom. Everyone was silent with their heads hanging down. My boss asked them if they wanted to say something. Each of the boys stood up and took a turn apologizing. I thanked them. Trevor had tears in his eyes. I had tears in my eyes when I told him I would never hurt him that I loved him. Michelle stayed in the class after we finished talking. Design class was right after lunch.

I told them I would like to start fresh. I wanted them to decide what they wanted to design. Up until now, I had decided what they should design. I wanted them to be a part of the decision making. Sure, this sounded like a great idea. It wasn’t.

For the girls, yes, this was a good idea. They wanted to make Christmas decorations. They busied themselves planning. The boys decided they wanted to design a robot. This was a fantastic idea I told them. Naturally, ten minutes in to designing the robot, the boys started goofing off. Will who has drawn a cool robot before for a CD package was in charge of drawing the robot which they would design. He scrawled something out in five minutes and said he was done. Was I happy to still have a job? – I wondered to myself.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, I was to see Percy the Terrible to determine if in fact I still had a job at the school. Fairry was going to accompany me. Yes, I should have felt trepidation and all of that. I was not numb. I was maybe in denial. I had never been fired before. And this, my meltdown did not seem like a reason for termination. Maybe I am the one who is delusional. After the fact, my boss and Fairry both told me they knew I was under a lot of pressure - 5 subjects to 3 grade levels, not to mention all of the behavioral problems I had to contend with every day. Granted, I am not teaching in some crack area of the United States. Nevertheless, I had this wrong impression about the students in China. I had been told they are very respectful of teachers and all of that goodwill malarkey.

Later, I was told by a colleague that the Korean students in the school are students who have been kicked out of schools in their own country. The schools in China take them in because they make buckets of money charging them high tuition. Before I took the job, I would have liked to have been warned that I would be teaching at risk students. No one thought this was important to tell me. Obviously, I am not trained to deal with the sorts of problems that have arisen in my classes. This is obviously a ticking timebomb.

Yes, Fairry and I went to Percy’s office. Percy smiled her evil smile the whole time, the sort of smile a general has when he orders a village to be napalmed. She had no sort of empathy or sympathy whatever. She told me I was dangerous (which gave me a slight perverse pleasure. No one has ever called me dangerous). She used phrases such as “the schools’ good reputation,” “the children must feel safe,” “this may happen again, how could they know that it will not.”

Admittedly, I was a bit stunned during the proceedings. Of course, when she mentioned the school’s good reputation, I wanted to laugh but I did not. I was positive there were hidden cameras somewhere; sure someone was playing a goof on me. This was not the case. Fairry had a woebegone smile on her face, that sort of smile that makes you just want to cry. Percy ended the conversation by telling me that the next day would be my last day. I would not be teaching, I would be putting my things in order for the next teacher. Yes, this was very cinematic in that it was just such a bizarre situation that I had suddenly found myself in.

Afterward, I walked Fairry to the bus stop. She told me she would help me even if I was fired by the company. She told me I should write an apology letter the owner of the company, maybe come in the day after my last day at the school and hang out at the office. She kept telling me I should not be worried. This really helped a lot. I told her how much I appreciated her help.

So, I could write a whole blog about the next day, my last day. For me, there was nothing really sad about it. Sure, I did hate to leave the students that I really love and I did hate to leave the other teachers that I love but I did not mind ending the job at all. Really, more than anything, a wave of relief swept over me the minute Percy told me I had been dismissed from the job. In a weird way, I actually wanted to hug her.

Nevertheless, I am getting away from the narrative. All day, students brought me cards that they had made once they heard I was leaving. Sooham and Kevin would come to my desk after every class and ask me where I was going. Athena thought it best to tell them I was going on a trip. I could not lie to them. I told them to ask the 7th graders. Later British Council Will told me that the 7th graders told them to ask Jacky. Jacky told them to ask British Council Will; Will told them to ask me; I told them to ask Jacky. At the time, I did not know I was part of a circular bureaucratic-like discussion.

Later in the day, Sooham and Kevin hung on each of my arms. Sooham, as if it was a mantra, over and over chanted – “Why can’t you be our teacher, Teacher?” “Teacher, why can’t you be our teacher?” All I could tell him is that sometimes life is complicated and you cannot really explain it. I could not think of anything philosophical to say. If I would hafve maybe I would have said something like - Sometimes our actions, sometimes our actions define what will happen next.

The last period of the day, that was the hardest part actually. That was when I would have taught the 6th graders design. Before class started, I went in so that I could tell them bye. They tricked me. They locked the door and would not let Athena in. some of them barricaded themselves in front of the door in case she got a key. A whole bevy of them had a hold of me and would not let me go. I tried to tell them I could not teach them. I was not their teacher anymore. They would not listen. Athena came to the door. I shrugged. She shrugged. I thought she would be mad but she was not. She smiled at me, that sympathetic sweet Athena smile.

I finally convinced them to let me go. Begrudgingly, they set me free. I went back to the teachers’ office to carry on with my departure cleaning. Unfortunately, I realized I had a lot to do. The whole day students had stopped by and loitered at my desk, even students who had not really taken to me before that. Suddenly, in my dismissal, I was even more popular than I had been. At one point, the principal came in to the office early in the day to spy I am sure. What he got to see was a crowd of students gathered around my desk. He had never acknowledged me before; I did not acknowledge him now. There was no need. I was happy to soon be free. So now, I was faced with all of the work that I had not done during the day, writing a note for the next teacher to let her know where I was in my lesson plans and all of that. While I was mulling this over, Athena came back into the room.

“The 6th graders want Tyson to teach the last period of his last day,” she told me “Can you? Do you mind?”
This is really when I wanted to breakdown and start crying. I do love the 6th graders. As maddening as they are, they always entertained me. They made me feel as if I was in fact a real teacher.
So, I went back into the classroom. I told them their designs were amazing. Oscar had been spending a lot of time on the house he was designing. I told him it would look really great if he finished it. He asked me when I would come back to teach. I told him I didn’t know. I was not able to clear it up for him. I didn’t have the heart. Oscar and I have some weird special bond. He drives me nuts but I love him. I love all of them, all of those students.

The next day, I went to the company office. Actually, I beat Fairry there. She told me she was out late the night before. She told me I could surf around on the internet and look for jobs. I told her I appreciated this. I had not eaten so I went for breakfast. I walked around in a bit of a daze. Dazes are sometimes nice.

Accidentally, I found myself close to the lady’s office that sent me to the English camp this summer. She is very nice. I had not talked to her in ages. With nothing to lose, I dropped by her office. Her non-English speaking assistant was there. She was not. He called her and handed the phone to me. She was excited to hear from me. She told me to go across the street to Starbucks. She would meet me there in ten minutes.

At first, I told her I had a parting of the ways with the company. I had never been dismissed from a job before. But as we talked, and she told me she wanted me to do the camp this summer, a month long this time for more pay. I then told her the whole story. I told her I just could not lie. I do like her a lot and she told me that I did a great job at her camp and that is all that matters to her. Can I still get a good reference, she asked? Yes, everyone will give me a good reference I told her. Well, everything is okay then. She then gave me some contacts for jobs for the immediate future. I thanked her and was almost giddy.

I went back to the office and told Fairry that I had found a job during breakfast. She was a bit surprised. She told me I should write the owner a resignation letter. That would be better then being fired. I told her I would. She invited me to an English day at a high school a week later. Many of the other employees would be there. I told her I would go for sure. I decided I would not let all of this be awkward for anyone.

I left and went and bought her white chrysanthemums. This freaked her out. Later, a friend told me white chrysanthemums mean death or mourning, yellow mean remembrance of someone dead. Thus, Fairry was puzzled by the gift.

Okay, so a week later I show up at the office at 10:10 am, the time I was told to show. Other English teachers straggled in afterward. Jo, the Australian was the only one to beat me there. I got on her computer and printed out my resignation letter. I tried to do this discreetly. Whether anyone knew what I was doing, I do not know.

Eventually, a van took us to the high school where the English festival was being held. The school was in Pudong. Fairry told me it was really close to her home. All the teachers got a goodie bag that included a nice silk bed cover. We toured the school. I walked with JoJo who just got a chic haircut. I told her she looks like a model. She told me she is sorry that I am leaving the company. I told her I am too. I really do like all the people there. I do really like all of them. The company that I work for is a really good company I believe. The owner has always been honest with me. I have no complaints. I have read such horror stories about other companies. I really do have no complaints.

After the tour of the school, the large group of foreign teachers from many different companies in Shanghai sat down at a nice restaurant adjacent to the school. There was a presentation or performance before lunch put on by the students and teachers. The first performers were four boys doing a boy band song. This was so awful that it was funny. No one was in key. I commend them on their bravery. Next some Chinese teachers got up dressed in Louisiana hayride attire and did a song and dance routine to ‘On the Bayou.’ Next, a group of students dressed like Native Americans did a tribal dance like I have never seen before. The interpretation was bizarre to say the least. For the grand finale, a bunch of cowboys rode in and a strange sort of massacre took place.

While this was happening, Fairry asked me if I would perform. I told her sure. What did I have to lose? After one of the foreign teacher’s did a Canadian folk song, I got up, a little embarrassed and on the spot. I was not sure how I should explain myself. I fell down trying to explain. I played ‘Loneliest China Place.’ Everyone politely clapped afterward. I sat down. We ate.

After lunch, we took pictures on the quad. As we went to take the pictures, four enthusiastic boys tried to pull me into their classrooms. One of them finally succeeded. As I stepped into the classroom, everyone cheered and sprayed me with some sticky variation of silly string. When I went to take the picture, silly string was still in my hair. After the picture, I am dragged by another group of boys to another classroom. These boys scored four foreigners. Before their presentation started, a school representative came in and took three of us leaving one foreigner in that classroom. The rest of us were taken to classrooms with no foreigners.

In the classroom where I landed with Senior Ones, we played word games. I then told them about myself. I told them I was a singer and a djay at one point in my life. One of the boys sitting in back, every time I looked at him, he could not contain himself. His face would wrinkle up around his eyes and he would smile like I was some big star or something. That is one of the things that I really love about this place; this sweetness and joy that so many of the people have toward others, toward foreigners.

When I told them I was a singer, everyone wanted to hear me sing. With just the accompaniment of the class’s handclaps, I sang ‘Savior Boyfriend Collides.’ The wild response the class gave me, of course, was flattering. After I sang, one of the boys sang a Backstreet Boys song. I told him he was very good. I then knew that I had to go to catch up with the others. I went around and shook everyone’s hand that was not frightened of me. After all, I am dangerous. When I got to the boy who could not contain himself to shake his hand as soon as I grabbed his hand, he took hold of me and gave me a bear hug, the sort of hug I have seen given to Bob Barker when the hugger wins a car on the Price is Right in the Showcase Showdown. This was so emotional for me. I, of course, gave the kiddo a strong hug back, so strong in fact that I heard his back pop in a few places.

I went back to the office in the car instead of the van. Fairry told me that the owner would probably be there and I might want to make my exit official. I told her that was a good idea.

Back at the office, the owner was in a meeting. He told me to wait for a few minutes; the meeting was nearly over. He was very nice about this. This was good for me. I did not want to leave with a bad cloud over me.

Of course, there were many things that I had to consider. The lease on my apartment is in my name but my company put up the key money. Once I had resigned, I was not sure if they would want me to reimburse them for the key money or if they would want me out of the apartment for the next teacher. I was not sure what would happen. I was not extremely worried because I do not spend much money. Two months salary was stashed in the bank which is six month’s salary for a lot of the people that I know like the British Council people for instance.

Finally, the owner of the company came into the office. He, Fairry and I went to a classroom to talk. He asked me if I had already signed with another company. He had heard from Fairry I found a job already. I told him no. I wanted to make it official with him before I did anything. I told him I really like him and wanted to do what is best. I went on to tell him I did not want to drag him into what happened at the school.

Well, at that point, he told me that everyone makes mistakes. I have been a really good employee. He does not want me to resign. In fact, he is paying me a month’s salary. Okay, this is when it gets really corny. He is an older Chinese man, not a lot older but older than me, I hugged him and told him that really meant a lot to me. Now, I am on a month’s sabbatical. Tomorrow, I am taking a holiday. I am taking a train to Shenzhen a beach town in South China. Supposedly it is warm year round there. I may go to Sea World.