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 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?”
“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.
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.