the first day of school

I had already been teaching for two weeks by the time the school year started.
The school had had me doing two summer classes every day: primary-schoolers (at wildly varying levels of English competency) in the morning, middle-schoolers (likewise) in the afternoon. This turned out to be a really good thing, because besides being pretty fun (sometimes), it meant that by the time that the actual school year began, and I started teaching hsc tutor in sydney in earnest, I’d already gotten most of my clueless flailing over with, and figured out, sort of, how to impersonate a competent teacher.*

I got my class schedule two days before school began, and was told that I’d have a desk in the elementary-school English office. Then there was a staff meeting, where Principal Hu* welcomed all the old teachers back and introduced the new ones. This was done in a pure assembly-line fashion: he would read off the teacher’s name, the university they graduated from, and the subject they’d be teaching, and they’d stand up, receive a smattering of applause, and sit down again.

“Teacher Zhang, Heilongjiang University, middle-school math. (clap clap) Teacher Liu, Agricultural University, computers. (clap clap) …..And now this blond-haired* guy up front, our genuine American English teacher from Philadelphia in America, Ou Bo’en! Teacher Ou, stand up!”
(loud applause for 30 seconds)
“His Chinese is excellent, so don’t go saying things about him. Teacher Ou, say something!”

“Um…this is kind of embarassing.”
(laughter and applause)
“I don’t really know what to say. I’m very pleased to meet all of you, and I hope that, um, we can become good friends as well as coworkers. Thanks.”
(the room went wild, and I left as soon as was polite)

I’d only ever been excited about the first day of school once before, when I started at university. Both times, I said the same things to myself as the day approachedl: OK, the small shit’s over now. I can do this. This is going to be awesome.
So even though my first class was third period, at 9:30, I got to the school an hour early, the better to do, I don’t know, teacherly things -w whatever it was that my schoolteachers were always doing in their offices.*

I walked up to the primary-school English office on the second floor, which I had been told my desk was. The door was locked and nobody was inside; I tried the key that I’d been given and found that it didn’t work. And second period had just begun, and I didn’t know what the other English teachers’ schedules were like, so I walked around the halls for a while trying not to look lost and locked-out. Eventually, though, one of the music teachers in the office across from ours recognised me for the hapless (and keyless) wretch I was, and asked if I’d like to come in and have a seat.

The first class of the day – 4-1 – wasn’t much more auspicious. I walked in and did the “welcome to the first day of school; I’m Brendan and I hope we can be best-buddies” speech that I’d been planning to, translated it into Chinese for myself, and then stood there, watching the kids give no reaction whatsoever.. Most of them had been talking to each other throughout it.
“Um,” I said. “So. Please, um, introduce yourselves, uh, so that I can get to know you a little better. Uh, please.”
The two students who were listening looked at me blankly.
“Uh, Weile geng hao de renshi nimen, uh, qing dajia zuo ziwo jieshao. Please. Like…do you have any pets? You meiyou chongwu?

A tiny girl in the front row stood up, and I called on her, relieved that I wouldn’t be doing a monologue for the next 40 minutes.

“My name is call Mary and I am 9 years and I am in class smallest girl and ” — she paused for breath (the only time during this and the following) and to open her textbook — “at home I have…” — she flipped to the chapter on animals — “a cat a dog a chicken a fish a frog a monkey a sheep a tiger a lion a duck a puppy a cow a tadpole a rhinoceros a parrot a wolf a–”
“OK,” I said. “Great. Thanks.”
“–goat a pig a snake a rabbit a bird a horse–”
Xing le,” snapped my co-teacher. “Enough!”
“– a turtle a lizard a shark!” The girl sat down with a triumphant smile.

“Um, thanks, Mary. Anyone else?”
Blank stares.
Hai you shei?
Mary’s hand shot up. Everyone else’s stayed down.

“Teacher, play a game!”

After lunch was my second class – fifth graders this time. This went better, since I knew some of the students in it from the summer classes, including Lily, my favourite student.
I hadn’t realized, when I’d taught Lily during the summer, that she was only a fifth-grader. She’d been in my middle-school class, and even among the advanced students there, her English was probably the best – better than the first-grade teacher’s English, for certain, but that’s another story – and her sense of humour was startlingly un-Chinese. She was willing to talk back, ask questions, and have fun. One day, she told me that her breakfast had “tasted like puke.” Her Chinese nickname was lajiao, “chili pepper,” and so I gave her the English nickname “Peppercorn.”
Anyway, I was surprised to see Lily in my fifth-grade class – surprised and overjoyed: finally, someone who’d listen, who’d be willing to stir the shit, who’d make the class fun!
And so she did. I gave the same “let’s be bestest-buddies” speech and then – because they’d all learned the past-tense – asked them to introduce themselves, or, if I knew them already, to say what they’d done over the summer.
“My summer was terrible,” said Lily. “I have very bad luck. Every day I had class with Brendan.”
I laughed, and BOOM – the ice broke. All the students started laughing, as did my co-teacher Melinda. Suddenly, everyone was much more willing to come forth with information, more trusting that I wouldn’t get angry. I asked them how many of them hated English class, and there was a brief silence.
“It’s OK if you do,” I said. “I hated English when I was in school. So – hands up if you hate English.” And then I raised my hand, and in an instant, more than half the students had raised their hands too.

“Um. …I hope I can change your minds on this one.”

I’d gotten my class schedule only two days before, and had been looking forward to the classes marked as “Grade 1” — middle-school Grade 1 classes, full of students who’d already had six years of English. Sure, it’d be hard to get them to talk at first – they’d be teenagers, after all – but once they started talking, they’d be able to do so much more than my other students. I’d be able to hold actual conversations with them – more than I could do with most of my students – and make jokes and have more fun in class.
So it was with great anticipation that I walked down to the first floor of the building sixth period, through the door marked “Class 2, Grade 1,” only to find — first-graders.
Primary-school first-graders.
Who did not know how to read Chinese characters, let alone the alphabet.
Who did not know a single word of English, or even, for that matter, how to sit still and pay attention.*

So I introduced myself in Chinese, and asked, hopefully, if any of them happened to know any English. Any at all.
“Of course they don’t,” said Dina, my co-teacher.
Meanwhile, the kids had ignored my question:
“You’re not from America! You’re from China!”
“You speak Chinese! You’re Chinese!”
“I speak bad Chinese. I speak good English. Besides, Dina speaks English. Does that mean she’s American?”

I had them on this point.

“And Dashan* speaks fluent Chinese. But he’s from Canada!”

They conceded, then spent the rest of the period jumping around in their chairs, yelling, running up and punching me as hard as they could (which was pretty hard) if they were boys, or looking like baby mice and bursting into tears (because they missed their mothers) if they were girls.

The other two first-grade classes went exactly the same way, and after spending an entire day smiling and bouncing around and enthusing about how fun English was going to be this year, I went home, fell on my bed without bothering to undress, and slept until the next morning, when I went out and did it all again.

Comments (12)

  1. ron reinoehl wrote::

    Ain’t life grand?

    Just when you think—-

    Tuesday, November 12, 2002 at 9:14 am #
  2. P wrote::

    When I was in grade school in Ireland, there wasn’t as much actual hitting as the certain knowledge that hitting could happen, so it never occurred to us to act out. It was the same thing at home, of course–proper manners were assumed, and anything else would have been evidence of derangement: I was astonished at how cheeky American kids were when I came here to the US–the idea that one could sass an adult was literally unthinkable in Ireland in the 50s-early 60s. And the idea that teachers were some sort of facilitator-buddies to help students arrive at understanding just didn’t exist: Teachers were the proximate surrogate for God Almighty. ( We’re talking wrathful, OT-type god here, not that wimpy NT version.) They laid it down and you picked it up or else great woe. The system was brutal, but efficient and clearly understood by both parties. Later, when we were old enough to see that some of these guys were slightly off their trays, we adjusted in various ways–for example, I adjusted by skipping school and learning to play golf on company time, as it were. Others actually got a decent classical education and went on to the academic or professional careers which were the sole goal of the system, and most just sucked it up like bad weather and went on with the rest of their lives, never thinking they were seeing the end of an era. Ah, we made our own fun in those days. Then Civil Rights movement in the US came along, and the general challenge to and ridicule of Authority in the late 60s, along with the idea that vernacular culture was valuable, made America the coolest place on the planet, and changed the way people saw authority figures everywhere. It was great, and it was fun. The toxic versions (hippy-ism, on one level, touchy-feely diorama-let’s-discover-number-theory-together education at another) really screwed up a lot of people and wasted a lot of time. At its best, though, the general lack of acceptance of unsupported assertion enabled a kind of sharp perceptive questioning that is exhilarating, and produces better students and better teachers.

    Anyway, no matter how your teaching goes, the kids will know more at the end of the year than they did at the beginning, and most of them will remember you for the rest of their lives. That’s pretty cool, dude.

    Wednesday, November 13, 2002 at 1:00 am #
  3. meggoddess wrote::


    i’m sure chinese school discipline isn’t always as good as people say it is, but i went to first grade in beijing. let me tell you, it was a completely controlled atmosphere. you didn’t move around in your seat unless it was time to go, or if you needed to stand up to answer a question. you had to sit through the whole day with your hands folded behind your back, feet together on the floor, back straight, head up, and eyes following the teacher where ever he or she went. and this is pretty hard for a first grader, as you well know. if you misbehaved, you got slapped (pretty hard, i might say) with a wooden ruler. they could discipline you however they felt fair.

    i guess the way kids act now in school might have something to do with the non-hitting policy they’ve adopted. and it’s not like i liked being hit with a wooden ruler, but i learned more in that one year than i learned in both second and third grade in the states. after coming to america right as second grade began, i was the best student in class after one week, even though i hadn’t spoken one word of english when i arrived.

    so, not to sound overly prejudiced against the american school system, i think there’s something to be said about the chinese system. both systems have their good points and bad. the american system is not very strict, but it allows more creativity and hands on learning. the chinese system is not very versatile when it comes to creativity, but it teaches students how to actually use their brains and learn the material. i know my younger cousin in china is a year ahead of me in material even though she’s a year below me. of course there could be lurking variables, but if they could somehow combine the two systems, they’d have something.

    Wednesday, November 13, 2002 at 4:35 am #
  4. John wrote::

    When I started teaching in Changchun, I spoke *maybe* forty words of Chinese, and most of those weren’t of any use in the classroom. I found that they little kids treated me like I would have treated a Chinese substitute teacher who only spoke 40 words of English when I was six–that is, like hell. At first, at least, until there was some sort of teacher-student thing going on. By about six weeks in they were pretty good.

    And they *always* behaved with their Chinese teacher present. I don’t know about that “no-hitting” policy, meggoddess, but it definately wasn’t in effect in Changchun about a year ago.

    Thinking about it, that was probably another reason the little kids acted so bad when I first started… after a little while they knew I wouldn’t hit them.

    Wednesday, November 13, 2002 at 10:28 am #
  5. Micah wrote::

    A couple of things.

    I taught two classes of first grade Chinese kids last year, and I enjoyed them ten times more than my fifth grade class. It really takes different kinds of teachers, and since I enjoy games, crafts and, well, more crafts, first grade was just right for me. I suppose it helps that my mom is a kindergarden teacher, too.

    Also, regarding the differences in educational system. First off, my school was the same as meggoddess describes above, the first grade students were still learning how to act in class (and that’s a major part of every kindergarden/1st grade class), and by a few weeks into the year they were military in their observance of the rules. I must say, the 1st grade teachers at CRIS school were incredible, they really had a good system of rewards and punishments down. And when I say punishments, I mrean *punishments*. But that’s another story.

    And along with the difference in behavior, I speak from personal experience when I say that regimenting kids like the military really does hurt their creativity. I grew up in the public school system in Spain, which is closer to the Chinese system than the American: very strict teachers, a focus on memorization, and little creativity or critical thinking. Sure, I’m a very competent person, was top of my class in high school, and went to a nationally-known science university. But I still feel at a disadvantage when it comes to thinking creatively, and critically analyzing and intepreting situations and data. It wasn’t something I learned early on.

    This focus on authority also means that the students in China are well behaved under the watch of a strict teacher, but they try to get away with murder when nobody is around. On the flip-side of the coin, American students may sass their teachers in class (not so much, really), but when they are left alone they will hold to the rules out of personal conviction. At least, that has been my experience.

    Friday, November 15, 2002 at 7:51 am #
  6. Mingji wrote::

    Brendan, your writing and story is awesome as always, I’m always glad to read the next entry. I think you’ve captured a bit of childhood and teaching perfectly in your story. I especially liked the story about Mary and her recitation of those animals :) I hope all is going well over in Harbin and I hope you’re eating some good food.


    Friday, November 15, 2002 at 10:38 am #
  7. Katie-ah wrote::

    I’m so glad to read something about my old students that I would have never been able to capture in words because of my lack of writing skills.

    Mary was the one who pretty much gave me the title of Katie-ah. (do you-ah speak-ah the chinese-ah?) and Lily- man, that girl was something else.

    So, I don’t have anything really insightful to say, but please, keep the stories coming, because I’m constantly pissed that I was never able to relay my thoughts and feelings about Harbin in a coherent manner.

    Saturday, November 23, 2002 at 2:48 am #
  8. Anonymous wrote::

    Hey–can you put up (even low-res?) pics of the kids? And, like Katie-ah says, keep the stories coming–great stuff.

    Sunday, November 24, 2002 at 3:34 am #
  9. Katie-ah wrote::

    To whoever anonymous is up there, I should still have some pics of the kids at the above mentioned website. They are the *cutest*

    Thursday, November 28, 2002 at 2:09 am #
  10. Anonymous wrote::

    Thanks, katie–the kids really are terminally cute–loved the bobbing for apples pics.

    Friday, November 29, 2002 at 1:52 am #
  11. ip address wrote::

    please post more comments, I will visit this site again

    Sunday, May 4, 2003 at 4:25 am #
  12. ju meixiang wrote::

    i agree the opinion

    Monday, December 29, 2003 at 3:46 am #