school and art projects

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.”

Comments (12)

  1. Michael wrote::

    You’re probably more effective as a teacher than you know. At the very least, these kids will probably remember you for the rest of their lives. That can’t be a bad thing.

    I wish I had half your skill in Putonghua; I can’t tell the difference between two of the tones, which made my Mandarin class a mess. I do much better in Japanese, where I don’t have to worry about tones but have to remember the status-specific words.

    Friday, May 16, 2003 at 5:34 am #
  2. bonnie wrote::

    I like the “report friends and family members returning from epidemic areas”… a little on the wenhua dageming side for me, but whatever :)

    Friday, May 16, 2003 at 9:28 am #
  3. Adam Morris wrote::

    I miss using Chinese in my classes. I learned a lot that way. Now that I’m a tutor for international school students there’s really no reason to be using Chinese.

    Friday, May 16, 2003 at 10:19 am #
  4. Nick wrote::

    Funny, I seem to remember The Time Brendan Jumped Across the Room on Top of the Desks in Mrs. Glover’s class. You always seemed to enjoy that class…

    Friday, May 16, 2003 at 11:56 am #
  5. wayne wrote::

    golly, i like teaching adults so much better than kids because you don’t have to spend half the time telling adults to shut up and pay attention. i can deal in general with the concept of students not hanging on the teacher’s every word for every second of class because hey i drift off in class as well sometimes. what really gets me is that they feel they have every right to completely ignore me because i’m just another laowai. if some chinese administrator were to poke their head in, they’d all sit up straight. i usually give up after a couple of weeks and think that if the couple rowdy boys don’t learn anything, tough shit for them.

    Saturday, May 17, 2003 at 4:26 am #
  6. donny yoo wrote::

    have you ever thought about the impression most chinese students must be getting of “Americans”? the ones who go overseas to teach English for a year are the adventurous ones, the ones with a little bit of a cracked skull.

    maybe there’s a reason why many chinese kids think americans are all crazy waiguoren

    Saturday, May 17, 2003 at 6:25 am #
  7. lu wrote::

    haha… the kids are so cute…

    i laughed once every three lines.
    it’s usually wise not to eat or drink while reading ur entries. :)

    Sunday, May 18, 2003 at 7:41 am #
  8. Brendan wrote::

    Wayne – I would love to get a job teaching adults, or at least kids with a non-shit level of English. I mean, I like hanging out with the kids, I like playing with them, I like talking to them, but I have to say that, with few exceptions, teaching them just sucks ass. So I try to amuse myself as much as possible during classtime.

    Donny – I’ve found that whenever a foreigner is teaching kids, he’s expected to be more of a clown than a teacher. I know for a fact (from overhearing the kids after the times I jumped up and down on my watch in front of a class, or stage-dived off the teachers’ podium, etc. to prove points that I no longer remember) that I am generally considered by the student body to be wacky and fun and crazier than a shithouse rat.
    Oh, and in response to your comment on the last post – yes, a Chinese girl, but unlike approx. 1.3 billion other Chinese people, she has a sense of humour.

    Adam – in some ways, I feel that using Chinese in my classes has put me at a disadvantage, since the kids, being mostly lazy, will now use Chinese to talk to me outside (and inside) of class even when their English is more or less good enough to converse. This is fine for me, of course – the more practise the merrier – but it doesn’t improve their English much.

    Tuesday, May 20, 2003 at 8:04 am #
  9. wayne wrote::

    I know what you’re saying. My first time out in China, I taught this adult conversation class that met once a week. All I had to do was show up and they’d give me a sheet of discussion topics, an envelope with my salary (I think it was 180 yuan for two hours), and a bottle of water. I learned so much more about China in the couple of months that I taught that class than in that whole year I spent in a classroom learning Chinese.

    I ended up quitting the job since it was an hour commute each way and I found a closer, higher-paying gig. It involved essentially baby-sitting 50-60 5-year olds at a time. It just wasn’t the same.

    I absolutely understand what you mean with your comment about being more of a clown than a teacher. Goodness know that’s what I was doing with those kids and pre-teens, jumping up and down and saying goofy things just to get them to pay attention.

    Wednesday, May 21, 2003 at 12:34 pm #
  10. gran wrote::

    I enjoy talking online and your comment replies. some residents had a lively discussion over where you caught {sic} your salmon. I have been thinking of what you will do for your birthday. I WILL BE THINKING OF YOU WITH LOVE.

    Sunday, May 25, 2003 at 2:26 am #
  11. katie-ah wrote::

    Forgot about Dre!


    You’re my new hero. Seriously.

    Monday, May 26, 2003 at 3:02 am #
  12. The Man wrote::


    You are a good teacher.

    It is nice to see people who actually try to teach and not just play bingo with the kids all day.

    Their English might not be good…but you are making them becomer better, and someday they will be good because of people like you who care.

    peace out,

    The Man

    p.s. that stuff about Dre and stuff was SERIOUSLY funny as shit!

    Wednesday, June 4, 2003 at 1:04 am #