Wednesday, April 29, 2009

But what about heavy metal…

A few days ago, the students gave their oral presentations on Roman emperors. As I mentioned before, Danny was assigned Caligula. His presentation consisted of oral stops and starts and stutters and appeals to Odile for help with the translating of words. These Chinese words, which he appealed to Odile for their English meanings made Odile red faced. To these words, she emphatically shook her head no.

“His sister, ne-ga ne-ga ne-ga, he, uh marry her..uh in in ne-ga ne-ga ne-ga in in-incest,” Danny stuttered and stammered using the word ‘ne-ga’ as a filler like English speakers use ‘like’. ‘Ne-ga’ means ‘that.’

Yesterday, when I told the students that they were to now do an emperor PowerPoint presentation, Danny told me he wanted a new emperor. He doesn’t want to do Caligula. I told him that was fine but that would mean more work for him because he already has the information on Caligula. He decided to keep Caligula. Later in class, he asked me a question.

“What’s that, Caligula?” I asked him. This of course made the whole class laugh with Odile laughing the loudest.
“No, no, no, I not Caligula,” he said defending himself.

So today, they are working on their presentations. In the computer room, Danny and Kevin sit together; Elliot and Terry, Lillian and May, and then, Odile and Leta. Everyone has a partner, each of them well suited to each other.

Although, I had told them that they could use the information they already had, most of them do searches for some new information for their Powerpoitnts. Really, I don’t want to jump to conclusions but I think that they enjoy this class.

“Danny, why are there sexy girls on your screen?” This I asked after I saw a screen of girls in bikinis.
He points to the search engine in use, Baidu, and says – “uh, Caligula.”

“Oh, okay.” I thought I might have to dock him five points but he was in fact searching images. I sure hope safe search is activated.

“Very nice,” I tell Kevin as I look at the first slide he is in the process of designing; it is a surprisingly clever design.
Octvian?” I ask. “Isn’t there another ‘a’ in there somewhere?”
“Huh?” His ‘huh’ is not an American teenage ‘huh’ of blasé disinterest but a spirited ‘huh’ of actual surprise. His eyes widen as he says it.
“Oc-ta-vi-an,” I enunciate.
“Oh, oh, …yes,” he says as he corrects his mistake which makes Danny laugh. My shtick is of constant amusement to Danny.
“What are you laughing at?” I ask. “You don’t spell it C-A-L-I-G-U-L-A-R! There is no ‘r’ in Caligula!” This of course sends both of the boys into laughing fits that includes hitting each other in the arms.
“You so stupid!” Kevin tells Danny and then adds for my sake as he points to Danny, “Head broken.”

On Saturday mornings, I have a ritual. My maid comes at 7:30 and I pay her to clean for 2 hours but usually she cleans for about an hour and a half which I really don’t mind except that I realize sometimes after she leaves the floors are not as clean as they could be and the dishes sometimes are still somewhat gunk ridden. However, I am happy to not have to do it myself so I redo what I must and go on with my Saturday morning routine.

After I sit on my balcony, 33 stories up, (I will fill in the details of my new fabulous deluxe apartment in the sky at another time), I have coffee and fruit and yogurt. After breakfast, I take off on a walking excursion which sometimes includes the labyrinth-like plant market - where I buy ceramic pots for 5 rmb. These excursions always include the CD/DVD flea market that is hidden in the pockets and crannies of a construction supply warehouse.

Thus, amongst the sinks and tubs and paneling samples and light fixtures and plumbing fixtures and baby blue mini-fridges, there are booths with piles and piles of CDs and DVDS. These, from what I have ascertained, are liquidated stock sent to China from all over the world with everything ranging from Edith Piaf to Hawkwind. Sometimes, I have even happened upon the Red Headed Stranger but I have never happened upon Lucifer’s Friend or White Witch. Sometimes, I find CDs like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah for 5 rmb or Patti Smith Wave re-mastered or Piper at the Gates of Dawn in mono and in stereo, the deluxe edition.

Some of the CD hawkers know me by now since I have gone there religiously for over a year and they warmly greet me and sometimes even direct me to a secret stash of Gilbert O’Sullivan and Badfinger. A particular couple of ladies at one booth, direct me to their stash of 5 rmb goodies but they do this covertly so that others perusing their wares do not notice.

Other stall proprietors have seen me peruse the CDs and assume that I like anything since I sometimes have a large stack of CDs in my arms. There is one hawker that points to the same Luka Bloom CD every time I stop at his stall.

“Luka Bloom, very nice,” he tells me. The first time this happened I told him no thanks - ‘bu xie’- but after the third Luka Bloom, very nice push, I was more than slightly irritating especially since sometime during the course of these visits to the ‘Luka Bloom, very nice’ stall invariably Bon Jovi ‘Living on a Prayer’ gets put onto the stereo and cranked at a high volume - in my honor, it seems. From what I have heard Jon Bon is a nice person but this assumption that I want to hear ‘Living on a Prayer’ at Bells’ Amusement Park (R,I.P.) Himalaya volume - do you want to go faster? - really makes me want to strangle someone.

Next to this hawker, there is a youngster hawking CDs who has some nice things sometimes. I bought the Yardbirds first album, a Japanese pressing with original cardstock artwork, for 5 rmb. At this stall, there are often Miles Davis or Coltrane reissues. Nevertheless, the last time, I was there this young hawker brought my attention to a CD that made me see red, mean red, blood to the temples red.

There are probably only a few bands that I loathe as much as I loathe this band. I actually stopped liking someone because this someone sang along to this schlock when their schlock came on the stereo on - not the radio but - a mix-CD, yes, a mix-CD meaning the person in question either purposely put this schlock onto the CD or was an associate of someone who put this schlock onto the CD.

I FUCKING HATE ROXETTE! There are few bands that I hate as much as Roxette.

Nevertheless, this hawker, this youngster, is a sweet person and blissfully unaware of the somewhat ridiculous – or at least seemingly ridiculous – standards that I set forth for my music. It is really not something that you can explain to someone else. And, who is to say that Roxette are not the best band ever? Well, I am to say that! They suck! In the case of this sweet hitch-hawker, I mumbled no thanks and went back for one more gander at the ‘Luka Bloom, very nice’ stall.

Oh but first, I went to another another stall, the stall of Bowie and Blondie - where I have found many of their reissues. At this stall, I found a somewhat rare Kevin Ayers CD from ’73. I proudly had it clutched for the entire world to see as I strolled stall hopping hoping this would be a deterrent against getting schlock-pop shoved into my face, a deterrent against the Mariahs and the Celines and the Enigmas and the Deep Forrests.

Thus, I made my way back to the ‘Luka Bloom, very nice’ stall, there seems to be one main guy and then he seems to have a few hawker helpers. When he saw that I proudly clutched a CD, he asked me how much I paid for the CD. I told him 10 rmb. This seemed to be an ‘open says me’ of sorts to penetrate a discount at his stall.

“5 rmb,” he said as he made a sweeping motion over his CDs much like when Jesus turned that water into wine. This got my attention. I fell into a hare hare rama rama perusal CD meditation.

Sometimes, some of the guys or girls that help hawk at this stall are so nice that I cannot be mean no matter what they shove into my face. However, sometimes these people are pushy and shove CDs in my face like new bad Elton or Clapton or Santana (OH GOD!) or something equally fetid and I have no patience for them. Sometimes, I say ‘I hate that from the depths of my soul’ which means nothing to them really or I just laugh maniacally. The maniacal laughter works the best I have found.

So the day in question - we will call this day, The day I found Kevin Ayers at a Shanghai flea market like some treasured forgotten genie in a bottle - one of the stall helpers - a pushy man who seemed to look at me like I was nothing more than chattel – threw a CD into my path not more than 10 minutes after I left the blissfully unaware sweet youngster’s stall.

The CD he threw in my path was not Zep, was not sweet baby ‘floating in the pool’ Jones era Stones, was not the tragic Nacht Music Nico. It was in fact the same, the very same, mean red inducing, fetid dreaded, – someone may just get beheaded - Roxette CD. I mean is there a conspiracy?


Speaking of music and forgetting about beheadings and conspiracies, Sharon asked if I would talk to the students about the different types of music. In their English text book there is a two page spread on everything from classical music to folk music to dance music (Dance music is composed, played, or both, specifically to accompany social dancing, in case you wanted the text book defition).

My talk was probably much more involved than it needed to be. I started with classical music. Since Tchaikovsky was mentioned in the book, I played a few of his hits and even performed an impromptu Nutcracker which made the students, especially Danny, laugh. I asked them if they knew about Beethoven. Danny had heard Beethoven and gave the class his rendition of a few bars of Beethoven’s 9th.

So, taking the opportunity to play it, I did. Of course, after the opening bars, the loud rock and roll Chuck Berry guitar bursts into the song with the abruptness of Zsa Zsa Gabor bitch slapping a cop.

“Oh, I very like,” Elliot enthusiastically responded to the opening of ELO’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven.’ I then played them the Chuck Berry version. By the time, I played the Beatles’ version; I think everyone was done with rolling over Beethoven. They didn’t really need to even tell Tchaikovsky the news, after all.

To talk about jazz, I played them some Coltrane but a classroom is really not the right setting for this. Really, you should probably be hopped up on black tar or nodding off dreaming of horses and spider bites.

I entertained myself with the James Brown song thatI picked. Nevertheless, these students are probably not that familiar with any sex machines so ‘I feel like being a sex machine’ was somewhat lost on them. Danny did laugh however when I recited the words in my best Olivier, which is less than outstanding but somewhat amusing.

“Yes, I am getting up now. I shall get on up now. Let thee get up now. Shall I get up now? When mightest thou get up now? To get up or to not get up now, that is for my mortal coil to question.”

I played them tons of disco for dance music because in other classes I have already played them Sly and the Family Stone so that party train has already left the station.

After the dance music, I played the Pistols and the Ramones and tried to explain why punk happened socially and politically but really I just got vacant stares. Thus, I ended the class with ‘Teenage Lobotomy’ and ‘God Save the Queen.’

AS I was leaving the classroom, Leta said in a voice straight out of Oliver Twist –
“But what about Heavy Metal?”

Friday, April 24, 2009

Stupid Bloody Tuesday (which is really Thursday)

Leon’s gone. Venice is gone. Paul is gone. In many ways, this is like the end or climax to some stock horror movie or doomsday epic. The doomed character writes - somewhere in close proximity to the final battle or the last showdown - of those absent near the end, the mystery of their vacancy. He, the main character, is holed up in a shed or a basement or a bunker living on the last of his rations of food – cans of corn, rotting potatoes, disemboweled rabbits, stewed squirrels.

All the girls been losin’ faith in me
Don't seem like Top Cat's great
As he once used to be
I know I'm good
So you just better be better
When you get yourself out on that floor
You better have your steps together
There's gonna be a showdown.

Leon, I knew, would leave at the beginning of the new term which is not that doomsday when it comes right down to it. He is off in Australia. Markus (the other foreign teacher who is a kindred spirit) and I were both puzzled and somewhat amazed that he actually got accepted to a school in Australia since he never understood a word either of us said.

Venice was scheduled to leave sometime during the current term because from what I gather he has to be living in Australia before he turns 18 since his English is nothing short of awful. If he went to Australia after he turned 18, he would have to take an English test. That is what I was told. I do not know if it is true. Paul disappeared with no explanation. I came to school one day and he was gone.

Actually, let me take that back, we did get an explanation about his disappearance from his father. His father told Sharon that Paul told his father that he – Paul - was not learning anything in class which was very interesting to me since he never ever applied himself whatsoever and was basically a bad influence on the other boys. Constantly, I caught him with his PSP and other gadgets. Paul’s English level remained at the same low end from when he got here to when he left. He never made an effort. No wonder he didn't learn anything.

He blamed all of this on the other students which is another interesting part since Paul was the one who was the bad influence. He told his father he could not study in the dormitory because of the noise. After his father paid for the whole year, he pulled Paul out of school on a whim. I told Sharon that his father could have just given the money to us and just shipped Paul off to Siberia. We then started joking about setting up a school and taking the money and sending the spoiled kids off to Siberia. Sharon still often says she is out of fist sandwiches.

Maybe here is where I should discuss the state of things in the upper-crust of Sino (high school) Academia. Private schooling seems to be a new thing for Chinese parents with their expanding pocket books. I say new as in new to this generation. There of course have always been private schools and tutoring but now the parents must take into consideration the global academic possibilities. For some parents, not all of them though, the possibility of foreign study seems the best option for their offspring. For these parents, the words and images of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford flash before their eyes.

The ultimate goal starts to materialize and that is to get their little darlings into a top university so that their little darlings will get a job at a top company and make a lot of money and be able to take good care of their parents when the parents are old and feeble.

As I said, this is the goal, but there are no clear cut paths - other than having the students themselves study hard and place at a good university. Thus, the parents run around from school to school, academic placement company to academic placement company, in search of the best options for their kids.

With all of the schools and placement companies in China in competition, the parents have to decide what is best. Every school and placement company sees dollar signs for students which sometimes creates a weird dynamic where the students are actually looked upon more like clients than students. The teachers must cater to their whims. Often this is because there is no clear goal for the student after he leaves that particular school. Their next step is not known or really considered.

Fortunately, in my current situation, this is not the case. My students are bound for overseas schools. My recommendation will help them. Thus, we have a mutual understanding which has somewhat curbed my meltdowns. That was all just an aside.

The students now are Danny, Lillian, Leta, Kevin, and Elliot and the three new students which I will discuss later.

Elliot is the dark horse. Elliot is the surprise. At the start of the fall term, I thought he was going to be a difficult student but that is not what has transpired. He really has tried to improve his English throughout the year and I think that he has. Recently, he was somewhere with his mother and he read a snippet of English on a sign or menu and she was so happy she cried. Well, she probably didn’t cry but she was happy.

The three new students - Terry, May and Odile – have added a much needed academic kick-start to the program. Of the three, Terry and Odile are the new superstars of the class. Odile actually has her hair done exactly like the Warhol Superstar Edie Sedgewick, during her silver Andy period. It must take forever to get it that way. Terry has hair like Viva. Okay, I am lying about the hairstyles on the new arrivals but I am not lying when I say they both have a really good command of the English language.

From what I have been told, their mom’s are like sisters and so the mom's are very close and competitive which makes Odile and Terry competitive but not necessarily close. Terry, however, is a typical boy. He is easily influenced by the others but at the same time, I think he became the leader of the group within a few days of arriving. Kevin hangs on Terry all of the time. Before, Kevin was the smartest boy. Now, Terry takes that honor which does not seem to bother Kevin in the least.

Shortly after the new students arrived, at the start of the new term, we did an impromptu in-class game show over our favorite demented Scot - Macbeth. Terry answered every question for the boy’s team. The girls clobbered still clobbered the boys but the girls, for once, did have stiff competition.

May, it seems, has buddied up with Lillian which is probably a good thing because Lillian is really probably the worst student ever when it comes to understanding. At times, I actually spy her vaguely trying. She translates the words but it just does not compute. She is like a hard drive that has no memory, a digital with too much delay, a ‘do you feel like we do’ talk-box with no voice.

In class, I think May helps Lillian which I encourage. At one point, Sharon told me that Lillian is in this school to save face. Her mother wants her to go abroad because her cousin went abroad. Thus, Lillian must go abroad. I suppose I have heard of more nonsensical reasons but I cannot think of them offhand. Lillian, though, is actually okay. She doesn’t cause trouble. I do catch her looking at text messages and such but for the most part I think that she tries.

Now that Venice and Paul are gone. The troublesome element left with them. Venice, though he was anything but cool seemed to be the cool kid in the group which was really nothing but sad. He was one of those too cool for school kids that always had the newest gadgets. Really, I don’t mean to be mean. I don’t want to be mean. I liked Venice but he was such a disruptive element in class. Danny started hanging with him when Terry arrived because Kevin became enamored with Terry.

Danny with Venice saddened me because Danny is such a sweet boy but then he will probably be changed by America so I shouldn’t let it bother me. Nevertheless, this did bother me. Fortunately, Venice left before his bad influence affected Danny irreversibly.

So, now, we have a class that is more manageable and actually quite a bit of fun. Yes, I enjoyed them before. I understood Venice and Paul but they could make the class into one big wet Rising Sun blanket.

Now, there is so much more academic energy in the class. Some of this is due in part to my in-class point system. When we do research in the computer room every Tuesday morning for two periods, I tell them that they get 15 points for doing the work but if I catch them on a chat site or any other sites that do not pertain to research, I will deduct 5 points each time I catch them and it is completely possible to go into the negative. Since I sit at a computer in the back of the room, I can easily see what they are doing. Venice was still here when I implemented this and of course I caught him and deducted 5 points. By making an example of him, the other students did not follow him down that slippery slope. Now, they actually rat on each other. This was not a part of my original plan. I hate to think of the research periods to be looked upon as a police state, some sort of computer room Third Reich.

I know the point system seems like a no-brainer. Nevertheless, the daily point system configured with exam grades has made my life so much easier. Now when it is time to figure marks, it is much easier and much more impartial. Really, I do try to be as impartial as possible. Now that Paul and Venice are gone, being impartial is much easier.

This semester, I have started to talk about drama to the students. We have had a few lukewarm drama classes and I have not really been sure what to do to make them better. Slowly, I am learning that I do not have to do all of the work. Sometimes, the students can take the reigns and drive the buggy so to speak, even if that buggy winds up in a ditch or off a cliff.

In these initial classes, we did a few drama exercises and then I told them that I wanted them to come up with a mini-movie, something for YouTube. The girls got busy with their idea. The boys were unproductive. Whether I should blame this on Venice and Paul, I do not know. The girls had the idea to do the movie at Leta’s house and were very specific about what they wanted to do. They told me their plan which involved princesses and time travel but I did not really understand. Maybe it will be Lynchian.

The boys…well, the boys, were less detailed oriented. Their movie seemed to center around someone who farted a lot and told bad jokes. Boys will be boys. Nevertheless, their shtick is endearing.

“What is word when you say not funny joke, joke bad?” Danny asked me.
“Bad Joke,” I replied which for some reason made all the boys laugh maybe because there was not some scientific joke term for this.

Sadly, the wind got knocked out of our drama sails because first Leta was out with the measles for three weeks. Then Odile was out with the measles for two weeks. The measles mini-epidemic struck the class more than 9 weeks ago and we are still feeling the aftershock. People still get the measles?! Terry is out right now with a high fever and high anxiety. He does not have the measles.

High fever Terry and his mother are freaked out because the company that I work for which places me and handles the overseas school placement for the students told Terry and his mother not to worry about the arrangements involved in getting into a school in America. The company would take care of everything. This may be a song and dance. Terry is now without a school and it might be too late to get into a school.

I do not place the blame solely on the company. The powers that be at the company may have made a hasty promise in order to secure Terry’s enrollment at our school but I have to also take into consideration that Terry showed up halfway through the year. It would be different if he was here from the beginning in the fall. This makes me wonder what happened at the school that he attended in the fall. Nevertheless, I do want to help Terry if I can. He is freaking out.

Off and on, I, too, have had these weird deep black-holes of freak out anxiety going through me and I am not sure what they are. I cannot name them. I know that it will be okay. It is just panic. Panic with this metaphysical blackness attached! Terry’s anxiety is that of a teenager with his life ahead. Mine is not but I really have nothing to be anxious about. I am not in some bunker eating stewed squirrel and rotting potatoes.

The ringing telephones haunt me. Haunted by the ringing telephones in other offices that ring and ring and no one answers. Sometimes, I will answer the phone in the teachers’ office but I know not what to say. I stammer in broken Chinese and stuttering English. The person after saying a few things in Chinese always hangs up.

So for the last few weeks we have been studying Ancient Rome. So, Tuesday, I gave each student an emperor to research. I gave Caligula to Danny which is probably no big deal but then my friend Steve brought up the distinct possibility of Danny going and grabbing the Caligula DVD - which is readily available here - and watching it which would mean that he basically is watching a porn movie interspersed with extreme violence and debasement. So, I am hoping that he does not go out and get the film. If, by chance, he does; I suppose I will play dumb which is my easiest role.

With the study of Ancient Rome come the requisite literature and film companions. I really wanted to show the students Spartacus but Movie World did not have it nor did Even Better than Movie World and then I thought Brando's Julius Caesar would be cool as well because then I could bring Shakespeare into the bargain.

Alas, all I found was Ben Hur. The prospect of seeing several hours of Charlton Heston started to make me feel a bit, uh, ill. Maybe this is because he makes William Shatner look subtle.

Nevertheless, I am a teacher and sometimes there is unpleasantness involved. Charlton Heston -in anything but Planet of the Apes - is unpleasant viewing. Anyway, I thought I would give it a chance because it won so many academy awards back in 1959.

Really, you always think that these classic movies that won a ton of Academy Awards are irrefutable classics but then you see something like this and you realize the Oscars have always probably been a scam with some good pictures sneaking in here and there.

The one thing that I do like about the Ben Hur mythology is that Gore Vidal (supreme whiner and fussbudget, and un-credited screen writer for Ben Hur) supposedly convinced director William Wyler to direct Stephen Boyd to act as if his and Charlton Heston's characters had been lovers but he kept this from Charlton Heston because obviously Heston would have disapproved. When watching it, it is almost corny how homo the film is and how in most of the scenes it looks as if Stephen Boyd is about to give Heston a good ol' fashioned Hollywood big screen smooch. I suppose for the kitsch value there is value.

(Of course, having nothing to do with anything, Heston was discovered by a gay director who gave him his break in Peer Gynt and Julius Caesar.)

Yesterday morning when I got to school, Sharon told me that I would not have afternoon classes. The students were to visit a home for the mentally disabled in the afternoon so I would not have any afternoon classes. This was a nice surprise. I had planned to go on another search for the elusive Spartacus in between classes but then since I was not to have afternoon classes, I didn't immediately set out on my search. Since I had some time, I decided to hang out in the teachers’ office. Really, I was in no rush.

So after my morning classes and after doing a few tasks in the teachers’ office, I planned to go search for Spartacus again. As I said, I was in no rush. However, at lunchtime, after I had dawdled in the teachers’ office for awhile and was about to head out on my search for Spartacus; Sharon got a call from the special needs home. The afternoon at the home was cancelled which was not Sharon’s fault and I actually didn't even get angry or frustrated but this did mean that I had to rush out and look for the movie and have lunch and prepare my afternoon lessons before I was to teach my afternoon lessons.

Of course, I could have waited until after school but I just wanted to take care of it. And, I would have had plenty of time to go look for it after the morning classes if I had known that I was going to have to teach in the afternoon after all but at this point I have learned to go with the flow. Let the good time roll, let them knock you around. I let the good times roll me to another DVD stall where I looked and looked and did not see the movie. I pointed to the movie on the Kubrick box set. After a bit of translating and bickering, one of the workers found the movie.

Tightly holding Spartacus, I got back to school and had an hour to prepare my (two period) afternoon lesson plan; I found this really great article about the launch of a flying car. However, when I got to my desk, on my desk was a three page form of some sort, the sort of form that a student might leave, a school application form.

A few minutes later, with his high fever in tow, Terry came into the office and wanted me to fill out that form right that second. I told him that I had a lesson to prepare, the lesson plan that I was doing at the last minute because I had previously thought that I would not be teaching any lessons in the afternoon.

I told him - and I was really nice about it, not mockingly or condescendingly teacherly nice but honestly nice - that I had to finish the lesson plan and that I hoped that I could fill out the form before class but I might not have time until after class. Not that there was a lot of pressure but his mom was with him and so there was a little added pressure. It is funny a few years ago or maybe even a year ago, I would have freaked out about everything coming at me at once especially when I was not even supposed to have classes but I was relatively calm. Well, I got the lesson plan and Terry's form filled out before class so everything was fine.

And, the nice thing is that the last few days have been nice; so after I prepared the lesson plan at warp speed; I took the students to the garden for our afternoon class after their trip to the ‘head broken’ home (as they referred to it) was cancelled. Well, we went to the garden and sitting there in the sun giving the lesson and cutting up with all of them I was really happy and I wandered what could ever make me blue.