I never liked art class when I was in school.
It always just seemed to me that one could only make so many collages; could only have one’s parents help with so many dioramas; could only get into so many arguments with one’s teacher over whether or not creativity was something that could be taught. There had to be some fixed number of crappy sketches and arguments ending in behaviour points being knocked off, I figured, after which it was all just a solved problem. And I decided fairly early on in my middle school career that I’d fulfilled my quota, and just didn’t need to pay attention anymore. As a result, if you were to ask me about anything I did in art class any time after about 1995, I flat-out wouldn’t be able to tell you.
I tell my first- and second-grade evening class in Chinese that there’s a problem with the first sheet of the handout I’m giving them, and that the last line of page 12 of Green Eggs and Ham has been only half-printed. This would be obvious to anyone with basic knowledge of the alphabet upon even a cursory glance, but given that after months of teaching, my students still complain that I’m writing ‘ten’ instead of ‘t,’* I decide that I should probably just play it safe and let them know anyway.
“Do you mean this half-printed last line?” one asks.
Yes, I say, and turn back to the blackboard where I’m writing the complete sentence on the board so that they can copy it down. Three more students ask the exact same thing within the next 20 seconds.
The first- and second-graders have a truly amazing facility for asking obvious questions, and questions that have already been answered. The worksheet thing isn’t the best example – the kids also often ask me which country I’m from, despite my having told them countless times that I’m American, and my frequent references to “the way people pronounce this at home in America.”
There seems to be some kind of smartass reflex in my brain, some crosswiring of my senses of humour and sarcasm. It leads me to do things like open class by saying “Word to your moms, I came to drop bombs,” or by accusing the students of having forgotten about Dre, and yet somehow, when it comes down to questions like this, I find that whatever region of the brain is responsible for ccoing over pictures of Hello Kitty merchandise, or photographs of bunnies, initiates some kind of override and blocks the smartass reflex. I can’t help but give the kiddies a straight answer – they ask so seriously, and they’re so fucking cute. The one time I did give the little kids a smartass answer – when they asked, for the millionth time, which country I was from, and I said Iraq – I ended up regretting it a few hours later, at lunch time, when I overheard kids from 1.3 (my favourite first-grade class) arguing bitterly with kids from 1.1 (my least-favourite) that I’d said just that morning that I was an Iraqi, and that I wouldn’t lie to them.
I mess with the older kids, of course – I remember well the times when I introduced the vocabulary term “cut school” by giving the example sentence “Cutting school is a lot of fun, but we probably shouldn’t do it.” One kid, miracle of miracles, actually asked me what “cut school” meant – usually, they just sit there silently and insist that they don’t have any questions – and when I replied that it means taoxue, a loud murmur went through the room.
“Brendan,” said the girl. “When you are at school’s time, do…did you ‘cut the school?'”*
“Once or twice,” I said.
I taught the same class the word “fart” a couple of days later, and it was the only time I’ve ever had 100% of a class learn and begin to use a word on the first try.
So, like many entertainers of our times, I’m popular with the kids even though I have no real skill at my job.
“Popular” may not be the word, exactly. The kids treat me as a friend, rather than as a teacher, which has both advantages and disadvantages. The big disadvantage is that a lot of the time, they take “class time” to mean “Playtime with Uncle Brendan.” The big advantage is that on the rare occasions that I get pissed-off and yell at them, they listen, and remarkably pronto, and apologise with real sincerity.
If it’s recess when I walk in through the school gates, I’m instantly surrounded by a mob of kids – usually first- through third-graders, but the older kids join in sometimes too – shouting “HELLO BRENDAN HELLO BRENDAN HELLO BRENDAN!” at full volume and asking if they can listen to my mp3 player. One of my favourite tricks is saying “Sure,” then picking a loud song and turning it up to full volume before hitting the ‘Play’ button. (Gets ’em every time.) Today I picked a Rage Against the Machine song and turned it up all the way before playing it for Frank, my favourite first-grader. He re-invented headbanging on the spot, and then thanked me (in Chinese) for playing my “loud dinosaur music.”
I play with the little kids during recess, or chat with or eavesdrop on the older ones. I find that when the conversation turns to me, and they think I’m out of earshot, or that I don’t understand, they’ll tell stories about The Time Brendan Jumped Across the Room on Top of the Desks (or The Time Brendan Scooted Across the Floor on His Ass, or many other events) which elevate me to the status of some kind of renegade folk hero.
Sometimes, at the end of class, the kids will bring up stickers or candy bars to give me, or drawings they’ve made to show me. This Tuesday, at the end of my third- through fifth-grade evening class, Mike – a fifth-grader – came up and showed me a big grey piece of paper. It looked exactly like the ones I’d doodled on in my fifth-grade art classes, so before he was close enough to show me it, I asked if it was an art project.
“How did you know?” he asked.
“Just a lucky guess,” I said. “Can I see?”
He held it out proudly. In the centre were big characters: “YUFANG FEIDIAN (SARS)!”
It was a series of little ideogrammatical drawings, accompanied by Chinese text on the side.
“Report any friends, neighbours, or family members who have recently returned from epidemic areas,” read one caption.
“Take your temperature every morning before leaving your home,” said another.
“All face masks absolutely must be 12-ply,” said another.
“The people’s will can become a wall,” said yet another. “Unite in the bullet-less war against SARS.”