Monday morning, August 17th, my first day of school. I dreamed a lot last night, which means I probably didn't sleep very well. Perhaps I am little more nervous than I thought. I roll off the futon (which has remained in "couch" mode for my entire stay) and slip quietly into the bathroom to shower, shave, and make myself look presentable. Back in the guest room I put on jeans, a soft gray t-shirt and my Chucks, even though I know it's going to be hot as hell today. Connie has informed me that the school is very casual, so I don't try to dress up much. After I am clothed and I have collected all the things I think I will need for the day, I slowly creep into the living room, but to my surprise Connie is standing by the front door, ready to leave. "You can take my scooter today" she says softly and hands me her helmet, "I'll ride my bike". Down the elevator and out into the morning heat we go, my brain still trying to catch up with my body. It is 8:15 a.m.
After making sure I know where to go (and I'm about 80% sure that I actually do), Connie takes off on her bicycle towards the bridge. I take my time putting on my helmet and kick-starting Princess Peach, then I am off, blasting over the bridge that crosses the railroad tracks and passing Connie on the way, giving her a "whoo-hoo!" as a I do. The day is still young but no longer new, and in this space between morning and afternoon she is like a clumsy teenager who is trapped between childhood and everything after. She has not yet shaken off the haze of the morning's mist, and everything looks slightly faded and washed out. I look across the city from the apex of the bridge, and feel the touch of the sun as it claws its way to the top of the sky. Through the busy stoplights I fly, past the busy shops where busy people have already started their days. Finally, I arrive at the school, very proud of myself for navigating the 5 minute drive successfully.
I feel the need to clarify: Miro International School is actually two school in two separate locations. The location where I have spent most of my time up to this point and where I now park the scooter is the elementary school. Eventually I will be teaching some combination of 1st, 2nd and 3rd grades here, but their classes don't begin for another two weeks, so until then I will have my afternoons free. The location where I will be teaching today is the kindergarten campus, which is on the same block as the elementary but on the opposite end. I have only been to this campus once, the day after I arrived in Taiwan, and am very unfamiliar with everything except where it is. I walk down the sidewalk toward the "kindy", trying to settle my nerves, and stop in front of a colorful entryway with big glass floor-to-ceiling windows. The letters above the door are metallic and all in Chinese, but the familiar Miro logo beside the characters assures me that this is the place. I remove my shoes before entering and walk sock-footed through the large glass doors. I have arrived. My first day on the job.
One more thing I have failed to mention previously: this is actually opening day for the kindergarten center, and the building and everything in it is brand new. This fact is extremely evident as I make my way past the front desk, turn right to where the other teachers are gathered, and almost fall over of the many boxes that litter the floors and desk tops. Teacher paraphernalia is everywhere, from toys to paper-cutters to copy machines. Books wait patiently to be shelved, shelves wait to be assembled. I carefully plan my path, then athletically weave around a water-cooler to arrive at where my colleagues seem to be discussing something of great importance. This is obviously NOT their first day.
I don't want to seem like a rookie so I play it cool, waiting for a break in conversation and introducing myself casually. I meet Joel, who is ALSO from Texas, and has been teaching in Taiwan for the past two years, but has studied in both India and Japan. He is currently pursuing his master's degree in english at the University (I don't find out which one), and his quiet, hippyish demeanor puts me a little at ease. The other teacher present, Cecile, is from South Africa and therefore speaks with what a Westerner would consider a "British" accent. (Apparently you should NEVER tell a South African, Australia, or New Zealander they sound British unless you want to unmake friends quickly. Luckily I did not make this mistake.) Cecile is a little older and seems much more intense than Joel. I don't find out how long she's been teaching abroad, but she exudes the confidence and jadedness of a veteran. I notice that they are holding things in their hands; coloring pages, assignment sheets, flash cards. I was not aware that I would need these things, and no one has told me anything about this. In fact, I really have no idea WHAT I'm going to be teaching, how old the kids are, or how many of them are in my class - I know absolutely nothing. Connie enters the school just as I feel a small wave of panic hit me. "Good," I think, "Connie will get me squared away."
But Connie, much to my dismay, is swamped with her OWN responsibilities. She is the acting liaison between the all Chinese speaking staff and the (mostly) all English speaking foreign teachers. She thus acts as both teacher and administrator, as translator and peace-maker. I instantly gain a great deal of respect for her, and stand silently by as I watch her hurry around the office trying to take care of little last minute things. Finally, seeing that I have no clue what is going on, she finds a couple minutes to show me the basics, like how to clock in and where my "teacher box" is located. In my teacher box I find the curriculum, student list, and other important documents. Okay, things are coming together a little bit now. Connie tells me that my Chinese Teacher's name is Yvonne and she will be in the classroom at all times to help me in case I get stuck. I am relieved by this until Connie follows with "she is also new so she probably won't know what to do either" and my relief is washed away, terror taking its place. As Connie hurries away she mentions that my classroom is right next to hers, which is good, but which also means that for the next 52 weeks I will be teaching the K-1's. K-1 is the youngest class, the babies, the four to five year-olds. Many of them have never been to school, ever. "Expect lots of crying today!" Connie laughs as she disappears around a corner. Sweet Jesus, what have I gotten myself into?
Now it is 8:50 a.m., and class does not begin until 9:30. I study my syllabus for a minute; seems pretty standard, things like "Letters A and B" and "Good Morning" and "Hello!". I think I can do this. This leaves me with a half an hour to kill, but I don't dare leave the school in case Connie has some urgent last-minute life-saving advice for me such as "whatEVER you do, don't look the children directly in the eye or they will attack you in swarms," or something like that (one can never be too presumptuous about cultural differences). I stand around for a bit, but feel stupid not doing anything while people are sprinting all around me trying to get everything ready. I decide to familiarize myself with the first floor, and think that the jungle gym is the best place to start.
As I explore, I discover the first floor is not very complicated. The glass front doors open into a lobby which one can follow back to the elevators, stairs, and restrooms. To the right of the lobby is the front desk and the office area (where I began), and to the left, a massive jungle gym complete with ball pit, treehouse, and spongy safety floors. It is clear that Miro spared no expense here. One wall of the jungle gym play area is entirely glass, from floor to ceiling, and looks out onto the sidewalk and busy street beyond. The other walls are painted with bright blues and greens, and have pictures of whales and other sea creatures on them. It is incredible, and I am sure that my own kindergarten experience was not nearly this extravagant. The lavishness of the play area brings to my mind the fact that the parents of these children are spending LOTS of money to send their kids here, and they probably expect results. Suddenly, I am nervous once again, and I feel the pressure of my new commitments weighing down on me. It is not a load I am unable or unwilling to bear, it is just...unexpected. I guess I imagined this would be a little less formal, a little less like a real job. But now, only minutes away from my first day of actually teaching, I am beginning to understand that this is actually a real job, something not to be taken lightly. I am proud and scared - I do not want to fail these kids.
As I walk back to the elevators and push the "3" button, I realize that I am happy I have been put in this situation. It is not quite what I imagined, but it is what I secretly hoped would happen to me on this adventure. To be put in situations where I am forced to push myself, to do more than the bare minimum, to work hard for something I believe in; in these situations I grow, I define myself, I am most proud of myself. And this, possibly, is part of the reason why I am here in the first place, to venture to the edge of myself and find out how far I go, to discover how much I can take. How else can we know anything about ourselves but by these types of experiences? It is a sad fact that we often only show our best when we are forced to, when our backs are against the wall. I am forcing myself now, but it is welcomed and I embrace it whole-heartedly.
Out of the elevator on onto the third floor where, to no surprise, an equally colorful environment greets me. To my right a three foot tall maze, its walls decorated in bright colors and portraying stylized world landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty. The maze empties out into another jungle gym, this one less expansive but still impressive all the same. The ceiling is baby blue and the whole room smells like fresh paint. I walk toward the door that I was told is mine, past the bathroom on the left with the miniature urinals and tiny stalls, and grip the doorknob. Time to show 'em what you got, kid. I open the door and stare at the six sets of wide, tear-stained eyes looking back at me in horror and curiosity. This is it. Here goes nothing...