October 11, 2009

All The Roads That Lead Us There Are WInding, And All The Lights That Light The Way Are Blinding

Thursday morning I wake up refreshed but sore and roll slowly into a sitting position on the edge of my box spring, rubbing my eyes and willing myself to walk to the shower so that the day can begin. I faintly remember waking sometime last night to take out my contacts and put on boxers before returning to sleep, and now I undo both of these things and get in the shower. I have learned that the temperature of the water in the shower doesn't necessarily respond to the position of handle, and thus I usually settle for something CLOSE to satisfactory. Today the water is warmer than I would have preferred, but the heat seems to relax my muscles so I don't mess with it. After soaking up the soothing warmth for a few extra minutes, I turn off the shower and towel off, neglecting to shave. I usually don't like shaving everyday, and due to the lax working environment I doubt anyone will care, so I give my stubbly skin a break from the irritation of steel. Anyway, I think a hint of a beard makes me look more...genuine. As if my personality is so amiable that it does not need to be softened by a smooth exterior. That, and I am lazy.

Today is an exciting day, for today I begin working at the elementary school in addition to my morning shift as an English instructor for the Kindergartners. Although I am growing fonder of my Kindy kids by the day, all my previous experience with children has been with those a little older, mostly through my volunteer work as a counselor at Christian Hockey Camps in the hot St. Louis summers (where I usually mentored to 8-11 year old boys) and my limited stint as a substitute teacher in Louise, Texas (where I babysat middle-school and high-schoolers); therefore, I feel that I will be more comfortable around the elementary students and will be able to both teach and "control" them more effectively. I am not really sure what to expect - Connie has told me that I will be teaching a "summer school" class, but I have no idea what that entails, or why, suddenly, they have enlisted ME to teach the class which has been in session for weeks prior to my arrival. Not one to retreat from a new adventure and needing the hours in order to make enough money to pay the bills which seem closer than they really are, I walk to school briskly, looking forward to the afternoon.

The morning's patterns continue on as scheduled, and the fourth day of teaching my Kindergarten class goes better than each of it predecessors. Each day I am learning more and more, figuring out what works and what doesn't, adapting to each child's individual personality and reacting accordingly to how they each learn, communicate, and interact with me and with their classmates. I am sinking my teeth into the intangibles now, the things that no amount of college or instruction or reading or friendly warnings can prepare you for. Everything we do before we get to these intangibles teaches us WHAT it is to be something or to do something, but not until we are in over our heads do we actually learn HOW to be something or HOW to do something. I suppose this is why every employer is so insistent on job experience, because ultimately, this is the only experience that actually amounts to anything at all. As Henry Rollin says: "Knowledge without mileage equals bullshit" - this is fast becoming one of the favorite and most relevant proverbs in my life.

At 11:45 the Kindergarten class ends, and I exit to a few random "bye bye Teacher Tommy"s (although the word for "goodbye" in Chinese is "zia jian" - pronounced "zi [rhymes with 'die'] gen [as in 'genetic'], most Taiwanese people actually just say "bye bye", which is the less formal and friendlier way of saying goodbye - very easy for me to remember) and head upstairs to get lunch. Once again, lunch consists of rice, some seasoned beef, and a side of sliced guava. Very basic, but I suppose most Kindies in the States won't eat much outside of mac n' cheese and apple slices, so I blame the lack of culinary variety on the children's picky taste buds. It doesn't matter much to me anyway; all I taste is how "free" the food is. If there is one thing I have learned in my last two years of relative poverty, it's NEVER turn down free food.

After lunch, I walk up to the Elementary School, which takes about three minutes. The sun is doing some unknown, underhanded business behind a grey-tinted cloud, and the world can feel the effects of its shadiness as I glide along the sidewalk, catching fleeting reflections of myself in the mirrored shop windows. Upon entering the Elementary, I find Connie and ask her what exactly I am to be doing in this summer school class. I remind her that the class starts in less than an hour, and therefore I don't have much time to prepare anything, but she assures me that the class is extremely laid back and I should have no problem "winging it". Ahhh, yes. My specialty. Connie also tells me that this week in summer school the theme is "music", and that everyone is just learning about different instruments, musical styles, and making noise-making machines out of random scraps that are lying around; the one thing I DO need to prepare is a song that I will teach the children, and which we will perform on Friday (tomorrow). "The song should be something popular, but also something slow enough for them to learn the words and sing along to" she says, and I begin rifling through my massive mental library of music, sorting my favorites into "popular hits" and "unheard-ofs", then refining the category of popular hits into "slow songs" and "upbeat songs". Eventually, I feel like I have selected a good song, and Connie approves. The song is downloaded, put on a CD, and lyrics are printed. At 1:30, I climb the three flights on stairs to the small, drab classroom where eighteen 2nd and 3rd graders are waiting for me.

I am not nervous to be in front the grade-schoolers, but their apprehension feels more defined, and I am aware that these kids are old enough to smell fear. I use the same upbeat approach that has served me relatively well with the Kindergartners, speaking loudly and with enthusiasm, gesticulating with my arms and hands for emphasis. I introduce myself, telling the students that I am from "America", and their eyes light up with recognition. Apparently they have heard of America, and their attention has been momentarily captured. I ask each of their names, only understanding about half of the students due to their poor pronunciation skills or quiet speaking voices, but to keep them from getting frustrated I don't press them to articulate or speak up. (After all, I have an entire year to learn their names, and they won't really start to stick until the second or third week anyway).

After introductions are made, I begin to ask the kids what they have been doing up until my arrival, and they all seem eager to provide me with answers pertaining to the class. Although their English is not excellent, it is still refreshing to be able to communicate WITH my students rather than speaking AT them. With some difficulty and often having to ask for things to be repeated, I learn that earlier in the week they were introduced to musical styles and musical instruments. Using this as a segway, I find the large box of scrap paper, rubber bands, marbles, styrofoam, cardboard tubes, tape, and scissors that Connie had earlier said would be in the room, and drag it to the front of the class. "Now", I announce to my curious audience, "we are going to make instruments. The children seem very excited at this, and immediately begin digging into the box and working away, chattering excitedly in a combination on English and Chinese. I oversee production, and I'm genuinely impressed by some of their designs. There is something so beautiful about a child's mind; they are not concerned with functionality or symmetry or aesthetic beauty, they only want to create something unique, caring very little about how others will judge or interpret it. They put little pieces of themselves into everything they make, and send it out into the world proudly, allowing the world to be changed by their raw, beating creativity. For whatever reason, growing up suddenly makes us so concerned with how others view our work, we become so AFRAID that we will fail. We forget how it feels to invent something truly original and personal and unique, and keep all those pieces of ourselves locked inside where no one can laugh or scoff at our efforts. The world needs more pieces of me, pieces of you. It will grow cold without them.

After an hour or so, I think it is time to start learning our "class song", which I have chosen to be "Wonderwall" by Oasis. I find it fitting that my class is going to be singing this song, as Oasis' "What's The Story Morning Glory" was the first actual rock record I ever bought, and so many of the songs on that album still resonate so deeply as the music that opened my twelve year-old eyes to the world of rock n' roll, power chords, and thinly veiled lyrical metaphors about drugs and sex. I remember sitting and listening to the tracks over and over, allowing the music to fill me up and become a permeating soundtrack to my adolescence. Although I know that Oasis is now outdated and foreign and it will not have nearly the same effect on my class of 3rd grade Taiwanese kids as it did on me over a decade ago, it still hits a sentimental chord as I pass out the lyrics, press play on the CD player, and sing along loudly to a live version of "Wonderwall" that someone must have downloaded by mistake instead of the original version. We sing over the song five or six times, and I dodge questions between rehearsals: "What is wonderwall?" someone asks. Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe if we do some drugs we could find out.

Finally, class ends and I walk downstairs, ready to be finished for the day. Rehearsals went well and, although we are supposed to perform in front of the entire summer school tomorrow (not really as daunting as it seems, there are only around 40 kids total), I feel confident that we will do well. I chat with Connie for a minute and meet another teacher, Maynard, who is from the Philippines and speaks with a soft, soothing tenor voice. He seems friendly and experienced, and I feel he might be someone I could hang out with outside of school. I leave school around 4 o'clock, and the day is already feeling much cooler from the clouds and the setting sun. I walk home in a good mood, humming the tune to "Champagne Supernova" by Oasis in my head.

At home at last, I pass the rest of the evening reading and writing, and forgo dinner to save money. I also do my first load of laundry in my new apartment, which is a little confusing considering that ALL of the buttons on the small wash machine are in Chinese. I end up just smashing the controls until the machine starts filling up with water, then throw in what clothes will fit and closely monitor everything for the next 30 minutes to make sure nothing explodes and my clothes aren't destroyed. Everything seems to work out okay; my clothes smell better than before and don't seem to have holes in them. Success. I (miraculously) find a musty old box full of bent wire hangers out on my patio area, and use them to hang up my freshly washed t-shirts in my closet. My jeans I hang over a wooden rod that is suspended overhead on the patio, looking disapprovingly at them, knowing they will be stiff and uncomfortable in the morning. "Oh well", I think, "one more luxury you can learn to live without." I've gotten pretty good at roughing it.

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