September 3, 2009

The First Day of School: Part II

I am now behind enemy lines. I have just stepped foot in foreign land, on a hostile alien planet. I am in slow motion, careful not to make an sudden movements that might disturb the tiny natives that sit indian-style at my feet. Every step is watched, every action is noticed by their little eyes, prying, trying to figure out why I have abruptly invaded their territory. I smile, but can think of nothing to say to ease the tension that is molasses thick, covering the insides of my mouth. I creep toward the front of the class, the natives swivel to face me, their eyes wide with anticipation and fear. I sit down on a piano stool (which serves as my chair since all the other furniture is made for gnomes), on display, and look over at my Chinese teacher Yvonne. She is also staring at me with big eyes as if to say, "Well?" No help there. I suddenly realize that I have absolutely no idea what to say or what to do. I have never felt so unprepared for anything in my life. Will the children even understand me at all? I look down and see that a couple of them are close to tears. Uh oh. Better say something quick!

"GOOD MORNING!!!" I shout very slowly into their tiny frozen faces, plastering on an enormous smile and opening my eyes as wide as they can go. Silence. A small boy on the right begins to sob loudly, and teacher Yvonne rushes to him, speaking Chinese quickly and in comforting tones as she crouches next to him. "Better step it up, man" I think to myself. If there's one thing I've learned from all my years as a camp counselor and snowboard instructor, it's that crying is extremely contagious at this age. I try again: "Goooooood Morrrrnnnnnniiiiinnnnng!!" I say with less authority, but still drawing the words out and elongating every sound, "My name is Teacher Tommy." (This is what I am to be called by EVERYONE - students, staff, parents - for the next year of my life. I like it, it comes with the respect of the title "teacher" while eliminating the formality of "Mr.") At this introduction, something snaps in the children's brains. I see that they have been somewhat pre-programmed, and two or three mumble out a barely audible "Hello Teacher Tommy" in heavily accented English. They SPEAK! "Okay!" I think, excited by this breakthrough, "now we are getting somewhere!" I say it again and again: "Good morning everybody!", and with each repetition the students' confidence increases. Eventually, all of them are wishing me a hello and a "good morning", though to the untrained ear it probably sounds like munchkin gibberish. I am proud of them and of myself. We are communicating, not just as adult to child but as English speaker to Chinese speaker. We are bridging TWO fantastically large chasms, and in my amazement at this act it occurs to me how often we, as Americans, take this ability to communicate for granted. Almost everyone that surrounds us everyday speaks our language and also shares the title of "adult", yet how many times do we allow the communication to breakdown over the void, never allowing our words to touch another human life and thus alienating us from everyone around us?

After good mornings and hellos, everyone seems to be getting a little more comfortable, myself included. A couple of the children have thawed enough to start moving around a little and conversing with their classmates, while Yvonne has finally calmed down the crying boy to just a sniffle. I use this opportunity to attempt to learn the students' names. This is done by looking at the role sheet and saying each child's name loudly, then looking around at their expressions for a spark of recognition. Although there are ten names on the role sheet for my class, only six little ones are present, so I learn their names quickly: Howie, Bernie, Cynthia, Yuka, Jeffrey (the crier), and Ian. Apparently the children were all given English names which sound like their Chinese names by their parents before coming to school, which is nice because I honestly did not want the responsibility of naming other actual human beings - I have enough trouble naming pets and plants. As I am establishing names, addressing each child individually and saying "Good morning Yuka! My name is Teacher Tommy!" and so on, my mind is racing about what activity we are going to do next. I have nothing planned. I glance at the clock and see that introductions have only taken six minutes, and I still have another two hours to go. "How the hell am I going to fill two hours with a bunch of four year olds?" I scream in my own head. Luckily, out of the corner of my eye I spot a large tub of soft yarn balls in a variety of colors. Perfect.

The next forty-five minutes is spent in some combination of learning colors, numbers, and basically playing fetch with the children using the colored balls. They LOVE fetch, and scream with delight as I throw six different colored balls to the other end of the classroom for them to run and get. Each child then brings back a ball and has to identify the color, which they are fairly adept at, but still have some problems with orange and purple. The game works out well until the children learn that if they bring back the SAME COLOR ball each time they do not have to learn any new colors and will still receive verbal praise. I throw the balls and watch them run to "their" colored ball and pick it up, or even find a different color and hand it to its rightful owner. The purpose of the game has been defeated, and I do not know how to convey how that they need to get a different colored ball each time. The game, therefore, dissolves into just throwing the balls at each other, me trying to nail the children in their disproportionately large heads as they run around squealing and falling down. Great fun is had by all until I peg little Howie in the eye and he starts crying. Yvonne gives me a look like "this is NOT educational," so I, ashamed, decide its time for a break. Luckily, it is recess time.

Recess is held just outside the classroom door in the jungle gym area, and I lead the kids through the simple, colorful maze of three-foot tall walls to the Little Tykes playground equipment and instruct them to take off their shoes. Then, for the next 15 minutes, I witness their underdeveloped motor skills fail again and again as they wipe out, slam into walls, crash into each other, fall off the jungle gym, and trip over their own feet. It is hysterical, and I try hard not to laugh every time I witness a spill or a collision that evokes tears in its victims. It's like watching a demolition derby comprised of Oompa Loompas. Finally, after 15 minutes of brutality, I yell "Line up!" which is echoed by Yvonne yelling "Line up!" in Chinese. The children do not complain or whine as I know I would have done at their age, but instead quietly dismount the jungle gym, put on their shoes, and form a line. Wow, these children are TRAINED! Back into the classroom we go, the little ones sweaty and breathing heavily from their intense and painful workout.

For the last 40 minutes of class I decide that we will learn about the letters "A", "B", "C", and "D". I have the children sit in front of me, and begin drawing giant letters on the whiteboard on the wall, including both capital and lowercase versions of each letter. After I am finished, I turn and point at the first letter, the letter "A". "What is this letter?" I ask. Some of the kids are staring at me blankly. Others are looking around the room at random objects. Bernie appears to be asleep. Again I ask, "This let-ter?" Once again, the sweet sound of confusion, which sounds a lot like silence. Okay, this is not going to work. I need a more basic approach. Suddenly, I point wildly at the letter and just start shouting "A!!! A!!! A!!!!" The children spring to life, they have no idea what is happening. Finally, after saying "A!!!" for what seems a ridiculously long time, some of the children start to join in. Before long I have a rousing chorus of "A! A! A!" ringing through the classroom. We finally stop and I erase the "B", "C", and "D". "A" is good enough for today.

After a few more chants of our beloved first vowel, I direct the kids to sit at the table, which is sea-foam green and comes up to my knee. They do, and I pass out their Alphabet Coloring Books which have pictures of letters accompanied by pictures of corresponding objects, such as "A" next to a picture of an apple. I also pass out a box of crayons, then stand in front of the children and tell them to open their books to the first page, where they will find the letter "A" as in "apple" and "ant". The children, completely oblivious to what I have told them, open their books to whatever page they like and begin coloring intensely whatever letter or picture they find there. Many get through half the alphabet in a matter of minutes, using one color to scribble randomly across the entire page before moving on to deface the next. They are like locusts, with no respect or regard to lines or realism; just consuming picture after picture as quickly as possible. Horrified, I snatch up their books before they can completely destroy the coloring pages that were supposed to last them all semester. From this I have learned two things: First, you cannot tell a Kindergartner to remain on one page when there is a whole book in front of them just waiting to be conquered, and second, that "coloring" is less like art and more like vomiting colors onto paper. It doesn't matter what it looks like, just so the page contains enough scribbles to prove that a tiny hand clutching a crayon has been there.

WIth the coloring debacle behind us, class is almost over. I tell the children to put away the crayons and to return to their seats on the floor, which they do obediently. Some of the kids, now becoming very comfortable, have begun to act out, running around and pushing others. I'm not quite sure how to deal with this. How stern is too stern? I don't want to be the bad guy, so I decide on saying the offenders name in a disappointed tone. This does absolutely nothing, and it appears that they have not even heard me. I glare at them and speak louder, more forcefully. Still nothing. Finally, I yell in my best authoritative parenting voice "IAN!" That does the trick, and everyone falls silent under the boom of my resonating vocals. No one bursts into tears at this, so it appears that yelling is not something these children are unfamiliar with. At least I know what works. As class ends, I tell the kids to say "Goodbye Teacher Tommy," which most of them do, and then bid them and Yvonne farewell and escape into the play area. What a day! It is only 11:40 and I have only been teaching for two hours, but it feels like an eternity has passed. I make a mental note to be more prepared for tomorrow, and take the emergency exit stairs down three flights to the lobby.

"How'd it go?" Connie asks as I walk into the office area to clock out. I must look a little shell-shocked, because she laughs and says that the first day is always rough until you figure out how to teach, what works and what doesn't, etc. I feel a little better at this, but am still disappointed in the day. I guess I imagined that the curriculum would be extremely structured and my time would be budgeted, but this is the exact opposite. I had no idea that I was going to have to construct the methods for learning; I assumed these would already be in place, and I would just implement them. I have almost total freedom, which to most teachers would be liberating, but as of now I do not consider myself a teacher, so this freedom is paralyzing. In fact, at this point I'm feeling a little like a fraud, and the pressure to find a way to teach these children effectively is pushing in from all sides and making it hard to think positively. Maybe I have made a mistake. This isn't exactly what I thought it was going to be. Maybe I shouldn't be here.

As I ride Connie's scooter back to their apartment through the hottest hour of the day, I give myself a pep talk. "You know that NOTHING ever works out the way you think its going to" I tell myself. "'Bumps in the road' is a misnomer...the road is ALL bumps!". I recommit myself to taking everything one day at a time, and not thinking about my overall effectiveness as a teacher or how it will affect my kids, either immediately or in the future. "Just focus on tomorrow, that's all you can do. You're a smart kid, you will get the hang of this. Everything is going to be fine." By the time I get back to Connie and David's I feel much better, and am already anticipating the events of the upcoming evening. David buzzes me in and I ride the elevator to the seventh floor, enter the apartment, and collapse in one of the big, black armchairs. It is only 12:15. What a day!


  1. It may be comforting to know that part of the reason you are there is probably for pure cultural exposure and observation. The school has captured and has on display for the children a real live exotic AMERICAN. Remember that much of communication is non verbal. You cannot fail at showing these kids what a real American looks and sounds like. All you have to do is be yourself! Press on!

  2. Dad is right. It's crazy how the class is only 6 kids. Treat them like your own kids. Teach them to play chess and change a flat tire. I would be paranoid that at the end of the school year I would get mauled by a bunch of parents who were not happy with the amount of english/culture their children have recieved. If you need me to mail you anything that I can buy here to help you teach, let me know. Songs are good for learning too. I just laugh at the thought of grown up personable talkative tommy being speechless in front of a group of foreign babies. Well there you go.

    I saw my Taiwan girl again today. Her name is Irene. It was awkward. I am over zealous and she is shy. I almost invited her home with me for Christmas because she is not going back for the break. Maybe it's too soon. I will try later. Love you and miss you.

  3. Oh brother! Your story is so awesome. Dad is completely right. Kids remember when the firemen came on show-and-tell day and how cool it was! No one expected them to teach the kids how to climb a ladder or drive a fire truck or put out fires. They were lucky if they got "stop drop and roll." It is true that this is a very influential part in these children's lives but you just being there, being this brave young, fun, American teacher, who is trying very hard is all they need. They will fall in love with you and before you know it, they will be speaking english just because they want to be like you, repeating every word you say. I'm so happy for you! My brother, a teacher!!! I'm praying for you and your kids and remember what a true blessing you have been given to have this chance to do what you're doing.... good luck!