My class this morning is my 7:45 am class. Again, at 6 am, I wake with a start. I lay in bed until a little before 7. When I get up, I quickly shower and make a quick pot of coffee and then head to school.
At this point, I have estimated the walk to school to be approximately 20 minutes, more or less. As I walk by the scooter repair shop, the scooter repair boys are already hard at work on a scooter. The scooter owner squats and watches as one of the scooter repair boys bangs on a scooter part. All of the attention of the scooter owner, the scooter part banger and the other scooter repair boy, is focused on this scooter. They do not notice me when I pass.
The man who has the fruit stand, next door with a small alley in between, is talking to his wife. He has some empty fruit baskets in his arm. Their conversation seems to be an important beginning of the day conversation. Neither of them notices me as I pass. Maybe I am invisible this morning. Maybe I am a ghost. Maybe I am a shape shifter and they do not know me because I have shape shifted into Christopher Cross or Grand Funk Railroad’s Mark Farner or Uriah Heep’s Mick Box.
As I ponder this, I keep walking. All around me is the bustle of the Shanghai morning. Taxis honk. Scooters beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. A mother puts shoes on her young son who sits in a lawn chair on the sidewalk. This is not going well. He complains as she shoes him. His voice is that of a small bird, a squawk.
At school, I go to the teachers’ office to gather a few things for my class. There are no other teachers in the office. Two students are in the office leaving a note on a teacher’s desk. I say hello though I do not know them. I grab the letters that class 3 wrote to me last week and take them to class.
Fur Elise is playing as I hit the stairs. Fur Elise is the one minute warning. The baby’s crib mobile music box Davy Crockett plays as I walk into class. I tell the class I read their letters. I start to pass out the composition books or actually I hand them to JD and he looks at them. He tells me these are not the class’s letters. This stumps me. This has got to be them. I tell them that this is very early for me. I am not accustomed to using my brain this early in the morning. Their reaction is blank stares.
Then, I realize that I brought the essays that class 1 wrote yesterday. The composition books for class 3 are on my desk in the teachers’ office.
“Shoot!” I say drawing out the sh sound.
This makes the class laugh. I write shoot on the board.
I then add to the word to make a sentence.
SHOOT IS NOT AN EXPLETIVE.
I explain expletive to the class.
I then ask the class it I can go get their letters in my office real fast. Do not kill each other. Do not throw anyone out of the window while I am gone. They just stare at me again. A student in the front row suggests I have the class monitor go get the books. I tell him that is a good idea. I ask him if he would like to be the teacher. He says no and laughs. JD goes and gets the composition books. I walk out into the hallway. The classroom is hotter than the hallway.
I walk back into the classroom. I tell the class that sometimes I will write words on the board. If they want to improve their vocabulary they can look up the words that I write on the board because these are good words for them to know.
JD comes back. I riff from what some of them wrote in their letters to me. They want to know about American culture. American culture or teenage American culture in the Southwest, rather, really revolves around Sonic and Taco Bell. For some reason, my lessons seem to always devolve into discussions about tacos. I try to explain Sonic-culture to them. They know about drive-thrus but they do not comprehend drive-ins, America’s drive-in - Sonic.
I tell them about Camaros and Firebirds. I forget to mention Mustangs and GTOs. I tell them about Steve Phelan who rammed his souped up Dodge Dart with a Hemi into an electric pole and knocked out the electricity in the whole of Colonial Estates when he was in high school. I did not think it appropriate to mention that he was drunk on a bottle or two of wine probably Gallo, back in the days of cheap liquor and low alcohol tolerance.
After I talk about 15 or 20 minutes about teenage life in America, I ask them to write a composition on being a teenager in China. Several students simultaneously tell me their lives are boring.
“You mean, I will fall asleep while I am reading your compositions because they are so boring?”
“Okay, well” I hesitate while I think of an alternate plan. “Tell me about your favorite activity. What do you like to do the most? Sleep? Eat? Play computer games? Listen to music”
This, somewhat, perks them up. JD, with the help of his deskmate, throws the composition books back to each book’s rightful owner. They are quite accomplished at this. None of the books land on the floor. The ones that do not land on the desk, land on the book’s owner’s chair. Once each student has his book, the writing begins. I write some guidelines on the board. Some students immediately start writing. Others mull over what they might write. Still others turn around and talk to the classmate behind them. For a minute or two I allow this. I then give these students the evil eye. The evil eye prompts them to begin the composition.
The only other class I have today is late in the afternoon I have my international class which is all Korean students. Bridget, the teacher who taught at Xiang Ming before me told me that the international class was the black hole of her week. In defense of the students, I like them. They are fine people. They have no interest in learning English whatsoever. This makes teaching them a tad difficult. I have no expectations for this class whatsoever.
At my desk, I look over more of the letters from students. A student named Lucifer writes:
I am glad to know you are our teacher this year. I have heard you are an interesting teacher. I think you will be friends with our class.
In this term, I’d like to learn how to write the English compositions. And more skills about English writing. I want to know about music and sports.
Afternoon in the teachers’ office is quiet. The mornings are usually noisy but the afternoons are always quiet. By 2:30 pm, most of the teachers have taught their lessons and have gone home or are teaching their last lesson of the day and are in class. At this time of the day, all I hear is the faint rumble and whoosh of the traffic on the street below.
My international class starts at 2:45. The classroom is in another building next to the main building. At 2:35, I head toward class. Down four flights of stairs from the teachers’ office I walk and then into the next building where I walk up five flights of stairs to the classroom which is empty. As a matter of fact, the chairs and desks are moved up against the walk like it has not been inhabited all semester. Maybe I should panic but I do not. I walk down the five flights of steps and back over to the teachers’ office up the four flights of stairs. Next door to the teachers’ office is Fang’s office. I go to her office. She is not there. There are three others teachers there. I explain my problem. Their English is poor. This is when I have to play that game, again, that I have not had to play in awhile called ‘Guess what my problem is?”
“I am a teacher. I teach the international class. I am looking for my classroom,” I say to no response.
“The Koreans,” I add.
At this, I get quizzical looks from the women in the office that I think is Fang’s office or at least was Fang’s office last semester.
“I’m looking for Fang.”
With this, one of the women says Fang’s full name I assume. I tell her yes. She dials the phone. Someone is talking loudly to this teacher on the other end of the line. Maybe she actually found Fang. I do not know. This is a very confusing situation. The woman gets off the phone and tells me room 530. I ask her if that is in this building. She tells me next one. I tell her I was just there and the students were not.
“Students will be there,” she cryptically says.
By now, I know it is no good to ask more questions. I leave and walk down the four flights of stairs and walk up the five flights of stairs where there will supposedly be an international class of Korean students. By the time I get there, I am fairly winded. In the last 10 or 15 minutes, I have climbed up and down more flights of stairs than I would like to count.
Finally, I arrive at the classroom. No one is there. Probably, I should be annoyed but really this is more absurd than anything. Wherever the Koreans are, they are probably having a good time not having class. And, the exercise is good for me after all. And, the classrooms are hotter than the hallways anyway.
Maybe the woman meant that the students are in the building across the street. The campus stretches across Ruijin Road now. I walk across the street to the annexed campus. There are two buildings. I walk into the building that looks as if it houses classrooms and up five flights of steps. There are no Korean students. There is no room 530. There are only 7 classrooms on the fifth floor.
Maybe the woman told me numbers out of order. I look for room 305. At this point, I am a bit disheartened. As much of a rebel as I think I am, I hate to go against the flow. This is frustrating. I hate not being in class when I am supposed to be.
I go back to the building that houses the teachers’ office. At this point, I feel as if I am in the foreign teacher version of Spinal Tap, just trying to get to the class or the stage to put on my show. What would Joey Ramone do? I climb up to the fifth floor of the building that houses the teachers’ office. The smell of science rooms hits me at the top of the stairs. Classes are only in one side of the building and those from the top of the stairwell look abandoned. The Koreans could be anywhere.
When I was leaving the teachers’ office, Qi Min was walking into the office. She is always a great help to me. She asks me questions regarding the English lessons often. She is very kind. She is talking to the speech teacher when I walk into the office. I am embarrassed that I cannot find my classroom. I feel as if I am in junior high again. Every year, someone from the office had to show me how to open my locker. Every year! That same inept feeling creeps over me.
When I tell Qi Min my problem, she immediately drops everything and dials the phone. “Fang will come and escort you,” she says and then adds as an apology. “Some people are so disorganized.”
“That is okay,” I say. “I went to the classroom from last year and no one was there. I was not told that the class had been moved.”
Not much longer than a minute later, Fang appears in the doorway apologizing. She tells me there are only five students in the class because most of the students did not have the class listed on their timetable. I tell her that is okay. No one is upset. Everything is fine. we make our way up to the fifth floor and we go down a secret hallway into the older half of the building of which I was not aware. Fang has a Korean student in tow. The student tells me that she is here for class. I tell her she is my best student.
“Best student," she echoes as I realize there are only 6 minutes left of class, Spinal Tap indeed.