7/27/2009

Yong Xing School



After the bell rang on the first day of class, the door slammed open to the sound of about thirty shrieking children. In seconds they'd poured into the dreary classroom like an invading army hungry for rape and plunder. One little monster was visibly salivating with anticipation, drool balanced precariously in the corner of his mouth as he hopped around his table like a baby hyena. The kids kept their little limbs and lips moving until the second bell brought them all slamming into their seats, thirty little chairs grinding suddenly against the hard floor in a screeching burst.

It was the first day of summer camp in the Yong Xing School. With no teaching experience whatsoever, I was put in charge of class 3C (third graders) along with a veteran Chinese teacher named Vivi, assigned as my "assistant."

The first task was the naming of the kids. I had no hope of remembering almost 30 Chinese names, and so was relieved at the idea of giving them all English names myself. Brath chose his own name. After each name tag was set on each table, Tobias, Gandalf, and Cain stared blankly up at the front of the room, curious to find out whether this new white devil would be mean or nice.

As it turned out I was a complete pushover as a teacher. Thanks to Vivi, discipline was rarely up to me. One glance from her could silence and still even the most notorious of my little trouble-makers (who happened to be a little Satan-child whose name for the next two weeks would be Locke.

After the recess bell rang, a small herd gathered round my desk to ask questions that I couldn't answer, fake arm-wrestle, climb up my back or stroke my fascinating arm-hair. By the first day I'd comfortably labeled just about all the interesting students, inclduing Emily the slug-catcher and Chocolate the lard-ball, as well as the annoying ones like Sam, the dreaded sweaty hugger.

Just a few days into camp came our first of several unearned but much appreciated breaks. Our vigorous teaching schedule had us hard at work up to two full hours a day, leaving us exhausted and just six hours short of understanding the world of nine-to-five. Trips to Hangzhou and Shanghai, hanging out in laid-back Fuyang, and re-watching Arrested Development occupied most of our free time, giving us the boost we needed to face the little gremlins again. Crowding into local restaurants with Andy and Spencer for kung pao chicken or hitting the corner store for ice cream, I sometimes hoped to run into Tobias or Chocolate on the street, to see a smile of recognition in a little Chinese face for the first time.

It was a dumb thing to hope, because as I later found out, the Yong Xing summer camp was a mini-boarding school. Chocolate and Tobias weren't even allowed to leave the school grounds. I thought of the hell they might be going through stuck at Yong Xing all the time and it shot me a first dose of empathy for the little outcasts. As camp rolled on and I remembered all the drama that can ruin a third grader's life (your supposed best friend getting a new best friend, the bully from the next class pushing you around, getting called on or not getting called on in class--all of which came to life in my classroom), the empathy grew. I slowly started to see each kid as a human kid.

Fifteen days after that first bell rang, I finally knew each kid by their English name, their expected behavior and even a rough assessment of intelligence. I had come to like even the most thought-challenged of my kids, and was honestly a little sad to see the camp end. After our final lesson--an intense series of Pixar movies--I followed the horde (or was dragged by half a dozen kids) up the stairs to their next class, not quite ready to walk off and never see any of those little people again.

Having learned a few useful English words like platypus, thorax, and mandrill, the kids had completed a successful summer camp for their parents to brag about. Prepped with phrases like "g'day mate" and "cool, dude," my students were set to take on the English world. Having learned not to jump on and wrap his arms around every foreigner he saw, even sweaty Sam had become a likable kid.

Shortly after walking out of Yong Xing for the last time I boarded a bus for Hangzhou and said goodbye to Fuyang. Tucked into my wallet was a long-distance train ticket and a few kuai from my short stint as an English teacher.