September 15, 2009

"I Shall Seize Fate By The Throat; It Shall Certainly Not Bend And Crush Me Completely." - Ludwig Von Beethoven

The second day of school starts off very much like this first, only it seems things have calmed down a little since the initial fears and worries of the staff were put to bed after no one was hospitalized, lost, or succumbed to dehydration from continuous crying for eight hours (this is not a child did not stop crying from the second she left her mother's arms in the morning until she was reunited with her in the late afternoon). However, I still feel a general sense of franticness in the air as I remove my flip-flops and walk past the front desk to the small office area where Connie and Cecile are already printing off hand-outs and organizing their lessons plans. I have no hand-outs and no lesson plan. Once again, I figure I'll just wing it and see where I end up. This has been the bedrock of my decision-making and life-living process for the last four or five years, and it seems to have served me well thus far. Sure, I am in debt and have almost no material possessions to my name, but I somehow managed to acquire a worthless college degree and have ended up halfway around the world by adhering to my haphazard ideology; I figure it can't be ALL bad.

Also in this office area are two more foreign teachers whom I have not met, a man and a woman. The man is large, at least 6' 3", with very fair skin and light blonde hair. He is dressed in a button-down oxford-style shirt tucked into slacks, and looks far more professional that any of the other teachers in the room, most of whom are wearing shorts and t-shirts. Connie, realizing we have not met, introduces the man to me. "This is Lars," she says, and I instantly picture the massive human being before me in a Scandinavian Viking costume, swinging a broadsword, severing limbs and heads. However, one look into his round, rosy face and gentle eyes tells me he probably does not own a broadsword, and has probably not severed anyone's head - at least not recently. "How goes it?" Lars asks, and his voice is soft and high, a thick South African (basically British) accent flowing over a generous smile. I smile back. "Goes it good," I say, and he chuckles, his smile widening underneath his blonde stubble of a beard.

"Hi, I'm Kara" the female teacher offers next, sensing it is her turn to be introduced. Kara is thin and athletic-looking, with high cheekbones and thin brown hair pulled back in a small ponytail. She looks to be about my age, and is dressed casually, wearing a pink t-shirt, army-green capris, sandals, and several colorful anklets and bracelets. As I return her greeting, I notice that she is not beautiful but pretty in a hippie, Northface catalogue sort of way, and from my initial impressions I bet she would be a great hiking/camping/rock climbing partner. She'd probably bitch less than ME. Her accent is distinctly American, and by her natural easiness of speech I can guess she is a Midwestern girl. After I introduce myself I ask where she is from, to which she replies "Minnesota". I knew it. We make small talk for a minute, but she seems preoccupied, so I let her get back to copying writing exercises for her K-3 Kindergartners (the 5-6 year olds). Everyone seems to be working diligently on something of great importance, but I have no idea what I should be doing so I just end up standing around, staring off into space. Even if I had some pressing lesson plans that desperately needed teaching aids, I have not the slightest clue where to begin to look for worksheets or flash cards in the rows of 3-ring binders that have taken up residence on the newly assembled shelfs, and no way to access the internet because the only two computers in the office area are already in use. I don't know if I could even WORK the copy machine, to be quite honest; all the buttons are in Chinese.

Thus, I am relegated to just wandering around for 45 minutes, getting in the way, apologizing, moving into someone ELSE'S way, apologizing some more. Boredom has caused me to relinquish my "Just Wing It" (new Nike slogan for slackers) mentality and begin to sketch some rough lesson plans in my head. By the time 9:30 rolls around, I am feeling slightly more prepared than I felt yesterday. I now have a plan of attack. I ride the elevator to the third floor, and cross the play area quickly, not wanting to get on Yvonne's bad side because of tardiness. I enter the classroom and quickly make my way to the front, feeling the six sets of tiny eyes burning into me. I imagine their tiny thoughts thinking, "Not THIS guy again!", and even though I know I will eventually win each of them over, I have a strong desire to do so immediately. The faster I make an impression and command their attention and affection, the faster I can influence them and teach them. I want to be loved today. No one is crying yet. Off to a good start.

My plan of attack goes something like this: For the first 10 minutes we do warm-ups, which consist of physical exercises to wake the kids up and get them excited to participate in the day's activities. We pretend to be airplanes and fly around the classroom, get on our hands and feet and crab-walk, jumped up and down in circles, and make funny faces at each other. At one point I just start shouting like a maniac, which frightens everyone until Ian starts screaming along with me. Soon, I have a deafening chorus of shrill shrieking four-year olds mimicking me, all of us screaming our heads off as Yvonne looks on with a face that says "Dear God. Worst teacher ever." After settling everyone down (which was much harder to do than I had anticipated it would be), I proceed to go through the morning's greeting, wishing the children a good morning in slow, drawn-out tones. I then bring each one up, one at a time, to say their greetings in front of the class. "Cynthia, say 'My name is Cynthia,'" I whisper to Cynthia as she stands next to me in front of her classmates. "My-nay-iss Cynthia!" she squeals, blurring all the words together. "Okay, now say 'Good morning everybody,'" I instruct, speaking painfully slow so she can process each word and sound. "Goomor-nee Ery-bodee!" she shouts with enthusiasm, obviously proud of herself. "GOOD JOB, CYNTHIA!" I exclaim as if Cynthia had just won an Olympic gold medal. I go through this process five more times, each time whispering the words in their ears, the children like actors who have forgotten their lines on stage. Everyone does well at this and is very proud of themselves, with the exception of Bernie, who just stares at me blankly when I whisper his line into his ear and mumbles a barely audible "Bernie?" "Well, at least he knows his name," I think. Progress is being made. Knowledge is being inflicted.

Stage two involves more of the letter "A", but with visual aids. First, I draw both versions of the letter and have the kids repeat its name. This time, I also have them say the sound of the letter, which I voice as "aa, aa, aa" as in the word "cat". (Yes, I am aware that the letter "A" also makes the "ah" steps, people. Baby steps). For the next couple of minutes, all we do is chant "A, A,, aaa, aaa" over and over. Finally, as the children's voices drop off one by one due to lack of interests or fascination by their own snot, I revive my long-lost artistic skills and begin feverishly sketching on the three foot tall dry-erase board, dropping to my knees as I do to avoid bending over to draw. The result of my work is exquisite: an apple, drawn basically as a red circle with a black stem and leaf coming out of the top. Suddenly, someone shouts "apple!!" from behind me. I whirl on my knees, beaming as I face the children. "THAT'S RIGHT!" I gush. "Very GOOOOD!" The next few minutes are spent repeating "A! APPLE! A! APPLE!" until everyone literally thinks the word for apple is "A apple". After "apple" is somewhat ingrained in their hit-or-miss memories, I draw a picture of an ant, which looks a lot like a snowman laying on its side with legs and antennae. The process is repeated: "A! ANT! A! ANT! aaa, aaa, aaa" until everyone seems to grasp that the letter "A" is loosely related to the drawing of an ant, which is also somehow related to the sound "aaaa". Two pictures seems like plenty for the day, and in truth, the only words that our curriculum requires my kids to know for the letter "A" are "apple" and "ant". I decide it's time to take a bathroom break, feeling much more encouraged by our headway than I felt yesterday.

The bathroom break, however, is an adventure all in its own. The children have been trained to respond to the word "washroom" by sprinting as fast as their stubby legs will carry them to the nearest lavatory, leaving a path of destruction and trampled bodies (should any one fall down...which they ALWAYS do) in their wake. However, in Asian culture, much more so than in American public schooling, manners are heavily stressed, and large sections of their Chinese teaching is set aside to learning only etiquette. Before my first class yesterday, Connie had told me that it is extremely important, especially to the parents who are paying large amounts of money for their children to attend our school, that everyone learn to be well-behaved in my class, and one of my responsibilities is to impart the skills needed to act at least somewhat civilized in the adult world. With this in mind, I precede the bathroom break by quieting everyone down, forcing them to sit still, then saying in a soothing, calm whisper, "Time to go to the washroom". Pandemonium ensues. Because they are sitting behind the boys, the girls are the first on their feet and out of the gate. However, their desire to pee and wash their hands is dwarfed by the raw power and speed of the four boys, who check Cynthia into the cabinets and shove poor Yuka underfoot, tripping over her mangled body in a life-and-death race to be the first to the door. Bernie is the clear-cut winner, but is immediately tackled by Ian and slammed into the wall, their tiny frames collapsing in a pile just as Howie brings up the rear, tripping over them and launching his face into the wooden door. Jesus! I quickly run to the scene of the multiple-child pile-up, screaming "EVERYBODY L-I-I-I-I-I-NE UP!" This, I come to realize, is the most important command in all of teaching. The boys drag themselves to their feet and the girls, dazed but unhurt, limp into what could only be considered a line by abstract artists doing far too many mind-expanding drugs. I shout once again, "Line UP!" and hold my hand out straight in front of me, hoping the ankle-biters will take to aligning their bodies with my out-stretched arm. However, instead of falling into position, they mimic my actions, holding their arms in front of them. I now have what appears to be the Asian Chapter of the Hitler Youth, with six Taiwanese kindergartners saluting me Third-Riecht style. I put my arm down and take the straightforward approach, physically moving their bodies into position and sternly instructing "line up! line up!" after each pawn has been set. Now we are ready to go the restroom.

Washroom time is uneventful, save for the hilarious spectacle of watching four-year old boys pee. I certainly don't remember doing this as a toddler, but as I watch the boys pull their shorts completely down to go to the bathroom, even in front of the girls, it makes me smile at their innocence and lack of insecurity or care concerning their bodies or their actions. They are not here to impress anyone. They do not worry what anyone will think of them. They are not aware of the Fall of Man, they have never tasted any forbidden fruit. They do not want to be God; they just want to play on the jungle gym. After the short break I corral my class back into the room, making sure they wash their hands before they return (there has been some rumblings of an N1H1 Swine Flu epidemic that has been going around) to appease the overly cautious Chinese teachers.

The rest of the day goes a little less smoothly, mostly because my mental lesson plan only went as far as the letter "A". We play with the soft colorful yarn balls some more, which the kids love, and I try and teach them to say "orange" correctly. For some reason they all want to say "orang-EEE". I don't know why. As I am putting away the balls I find a small plastic tub filled with miniature plastic animals. This is PERFECT! I make the children sit in a circle and dump the animals in the middle of them. Mistake. Immediately the hoarding begins, and soon the children are clawing at each other's piles, everyone trying to acquire the ONE elephant in the whole damn tub like its a Mickey Mantle rookie card. I take the elephant for myself, redistribute the piles evenly (and suppress the urge to give a lecture about communist socioeconomic theory - probably only HALF the students would understand it anyway) and try to teach the children the names of the various species. "Yes, giraffe!" I say as Howie holds up a giraffe. "Ooooh, a monkey!" I exclaim as Yuka shows me a monkey. Of course, Bernie finds the giant anteater, and I have to just say "squirrel!" to his look of sincere curiosity. Why the hell is a giant anteater in here?!?! When is THAT going to come up in their future English conversations?

Finally, the animals are put away and it is recess time. During recess time I sit on the ground against the wall and fill out their "communication books" as I watch the children play, resolving any disputes/quelling any tears that are a result of their insanity and lack of balance. I am required to complete my section of the communication books every day; this entails marking their progress by checking boxes in the categories of "speaking ability", "participation", "comprehension", and "manners", as well as writing a short note if desired and signing my name. Parents may also write notes to me voicing their praises or concerns about their little ones or my effectiveness as a teacher. This part makes me particularly nervous, but I'm sure that the parents have been informed of my status as a "new" teacher (in every sense of the word), and thus will give me a little time to get settled before writing malicious notes asking why their child is adorning swastikas and reading Mien Kampf. Recess finishes with only a few scattered tears, and the kids obediently file back into the classroom for the last 30 minutes of instruction.

This time is spent mostly reviewing which, because we have only learned "Good Morning", "My name is ____", and "A! Apple!", is rather redundant. I also attempt to start their first reading book, which is a small paper book that each child has a copy of. The front cover is red and has a picture of a Hippopotamus with the words "Hello" written in yellow over the top of it, but the children could care less. All they want to do is flip through the 12 or so pages as fast as they can, then throw their books on the ground. I manage to get a couple of them to pay attention to the first page or two, which reads "I see cat! Hello!" and "I see dog! Hello!", but their attention span is severed quickly and they eventually commence to poking one another in the eyes. Luckily, class time ends before any of them are permanently blinded, and I leave feeling exhausted and with only a shredded sense of accomplishment. "Better than yesterday," I think. As long as I feel improvement, I guess I can postpone excellence and delay writing my "Teacher of the Year Award" acceptance speech.

Back downstairs, I learn that I am allowed to eat the leftovers from the lunch prepared for the students, which is the best news I have ever heard. I take the elevator to the 4th floor where the small kitchen is located, and squeeze my way past the not-so-friendly lunch lady to where, I assume, the teachers' food has been laid out. Mmmmm, rice with seasoned ground beef and tofu. Its like a poor-man's hamburger helper, but I do not complain because I am starving and it is free. I find a bowl and some chopsticks and fill the five-year old sized container to the top, trying to hide my portion size from the glaring eyes of the lunch lady, lest she scold my gluttony and think me a greedy American. Then its back downstairs to the office area, where I enjoy my white rice and talk to Connie about the frustrations and comedy of the morning's events. "Oh, by the way," I ask as she is packing up her things to go meet David for a REAL lunch somewhere, "why do the ice-cream trucks run so late here. I heard one last night as I was going to sleep. It had to have been almost eleven." She thinks for a minute then laughs. "That wasn't an ice-cream truck, silly," she speaks to me like I'm one of her students, "that was a TRASH truck. In Taiwan, you cannot leave your trash on the street. You have to listen for the trash truck coming so you can run downstairs and put it out before they get to your block. That's why they play the music." Wow, I would have never guessed. As Connie is walking out the door, I ask her what song the trash trucks are playing. "I know it's familiar, I just can't quite place it," I say. "Oh, its Fur Elise by Beethoven," she says, and exits into the waiting heat of the Hsinchu afternoon.


  1. Your first official order of business as an American diplomat should be to suggest John Mayer's "Say What You Need To Say" as the Official Trash Truck song...

    ...because, really, that song is just garbage.

  2. We are all still here, still reading and enjoying every word. Any ideas on how to get a care package to you? Does the school have an address where you can receive mail?

  3. Probably the best post of all time. I can just imagine the dinner conversations of your little baby toppling asian kids with their parents:

    "so, what'd you learn in english class today, cynthia?"


    I love cross-cultural communication.

  4. p.s. my comment verification was just "holycuk." very close to something else. it made me laugh in a very juvenile way.