When I started writing, I told myself and my 5 or 6 readers that this wouldn’t be a teaching blog. There are a lot of teachers doing that already, and doing it well. I thought I’d be better at writing about the bizarre state of affairs that is my Southwest Chinese life. I’ve done that. I haven’t really written a single thing about teaching, which may give some of my 6 or 7 readers the impression that I spend more time thinking about which of the nine unpalatable stalls in my school bathroom is the most palatable on a given day than I do in the classroom. It’s closer than I’d like it to be, but it ain’t that close.
In 1994, I started pre-school. For the younger set, 1994 was the year god rewarded the great nation of Canada with Justin Bieber. From 1994, to 2013, I spent my autumns, winters, and springs in a classroom. I woke up at 7 am. I ate lunch at 12. I ran to the bus, and later my Honda at 2:30. I did some homework and I perpetually stared at the clock.
It’s kind of funny, how many hours I probably spent staring at classroom clocks. Hundreds, thousands maybe. What a grand metaphor for being a student. Staring, waiting. I stared at those classroom clocks for almost 20 years. Doubtlessly, I did the same in my final class ever; the insufferable Sales Force Management (at Tulane) except by then the digital clock on the top right hand corner of my MacBook had replaced the clunky analog from 7th grade math—an all-time clock-watching event. When I wasn’t watching the minutes tick, I suppose I was learning. A great deal of things I was taught in school now escape me, but I think at least 51% of the stuff is still in my head.
I spent 20 years watching the clock, launching spitballs at nerds, and doing a rather healthy dose of actual learning stuff in between. Every kid in every classroom knows that they are in school on the pretense of education. They are there to learn, right. If I asked each of the billions of schoolchildren on earth, “Why are you in school?” I’d get billions of variations on, “I’m here to learn and get an education,” along with reasons why that’s supposedly important to them. But I think, learning, the process of being classically educated, is often a passive byproduct of school for kids. School is where they discover what it means to live in a civilization. I wonder how society would be different if everyone was home schooled. I shudder. Kids make relationships, develop crushes, figure out who fits where on Darwin’s ladder. I’ve often said recess is the ground floor of humanity. Just utter chaos. Dog eat dog.
As such, teachers’ roles become amplified to the nth degree. Such a fact is even truer of boarding schools. I think the word teacher is too often accepted at face value. Or further, accepted at face value incorrectly. People want to view teachers as “math” teachers, “English” teachers, “art” teachers. But, it is in no way that simple. Schools, and by that logic teachers, are the foundation, the base level of society. Parents have as much, if not often more influence on individual children, but parents only get one, two, maybe three or four shots. Teachers get thousands. Not to mention, your parents, they went to school too once.
As much as I want to avoid, cliché, I can’t not reiterate that I never felt this way before the roles were reversed. I saw teachers as roadblocks, rather than bridges. What’s more, I think I always thought I was smarter than many of my teachers, or at the very least, that I would be smarter than them when I acquired a little more knowledge. I often looked down on teachers, because frankly, that’s kind of what society does (“If you can’t do, teach…”). If I hadn’t become a teacher, I’d almost surely still feel that way. Teaching is an under-respected profession, when it probably should be the most respected profession of all. Anyways, you’ve heard that song and dance before.
What absolutely blows my mind though, is that I spent 20 years staring at clocks, texting my friends in class, and often disrespecting my teachers, and now, immediately after my student career is over… I’m on the other side of the classroom.
In 8th grade basketball practice I missed a shot. “Shit,” I exclaimed under my breath. The infamous Sherman School tattletale called me out to our coach (total uncool move). The coach reamed me for a minute, told me that “that kind of language is unacceptable,” yada yada yada. It probably took a lot for me not to break out in tears (read: I cried profusely).
Every night after dinner (literally right after dinner, which is just an all around poor decision) I play basketball with the kids. It’s usually me vs. a bunch of them. If there’s an exceptionally large number, I’ll take a very reluctant teammate. It’s unstructured and chaotic, but I’m the closest thing to a basketball coach they have. The kids usually speak in local Baizu dialect. I’m sure they’re talking trash, making fun of me, whatever. But, it’s not worth my time to figure it out. What I don’t know can’t hurt me kind of thing. I know next to no Baizu, but I know one word: “Ni ma bi.” It’s kind of the equivalent of “Fuck your mother,” but it’s more ubiquitous (generally, the equivalent of “fuck”). Either way, it’s a “bad” word. I used to hear it a lot, but since learning it’s meaning, I’ve eradicated it from my classroom. I’ve cracked down on “ni ma bi,” and I’ve cracked down hard. The other day, a kid missed a shot, and he exclaimed that 6-letter word. I immediately stopped the game, grabbed him, and took him to the principal’s office. He cried, I felt a smidgen of remorse, but mostly, I was angry with him.
What gives? Ten years ago I was that same kid. Furthermore, after I made him cry, I surely went back to my room and sent an email to one of my friends with multiple “fucks,” “shits,” and “rump-holes.” I find myself in this situation all the time. I’m imitating the exact same behavior that I was subject to for all my years as a student. Not only am I a teacher four months after I ceased being a student, I’m a teacher in a country that’s yin to my country’s yang. So, at once, I’m a freshly minted specimen with tons of “negative” behavioral habits, and I literally do not even know what acceptable behavior looks like in this new society.
That(^) led to some disastrous inconsistencies in my first semester. For example, I’d say nothing if a student was eating ice cream in class (a cardinal sin at Sanzhuang Elementary) but I would flip my shit if a kid called me by my full name (customary). Some kid could tell me in Baizu that he curses my ancestors and hopes I burn in hell and I’d politely smile and give him a high five. Another kid could say something that I thought sounded like a curse word and I’d pretend—yes, I only pretend (but they don’t know that)—that I was going to get my bamboo stick and actually use it. It was just totally screwed up.
Think of a girl who gets pregnant at 16 or 17. She has no idea how to raise a kid. She’s a kid, as the saying goes. In a much less responsible, significantly more convoluted, slightly older way, I feel that way about being a teacher at my unadvanced age. I need a damn sign to remind me to make my bed in the morning (it says “Make it!”). The state of my room hasn’t changed much from college, except that I couldn’t fit as much stuff in my boxes, which means my floor is still visible (and not covered in booze scented clothes). I’m an English teacher and my handwriting still sucks. There are certain words that I am going to great lengths to remove from my conversational vocabulary. I feel like a spy leading a double life. I’m not who I say I am!
The three groups of people who probably give the least facks in the world are, three year olds, college kids, and retired people. Three year olds can literally shit their pants and it isn’t their problem. College kids are in limbo between authority figures. Not really their parents, not a boss, certainly not their professors, maybe the bouncer. I think my biggest authority figure in college may actually have been my landlord, who I saw in person one time in three years. As for retired people, well, they can literally shit their pants and it’s not their problem. All joking aside, these three groups of people either have no concept of authority, don’t have authority, or could care less about authority and don’t need it to fit into society. Students are subject to authority. Teachers are authority. I went from one pole to the other, with only a stop in limbo land along the way. My concept of authority figures stems only from my experience under them, and I obviously was never completely fond of their tactics.
So, is that what I’m supposed to become? Is that what I’m supposed to have become 8 months ago? When I tell a student not to say “ni ma bi” am I telling her not to grow up like me? Is that what all my teachers were saying? I am the second, and for some students, the first line of moral defense. Yeah, I’m supposed to teach them English, but that’s easy (well, kind of). There’s a book for that, and it says you have to do it this way. There’s a test too, and everyone gets the same one. But, the other stuff, the important stuff, there’s no standardized test for that. Do I need to teach them to stand when I say, “stand?” Do I need to teach them to put their hand on their heart when they sing the national anthem or only use swear words when I’m not there.
Remember, the second the teacher leaves, the students go absolutely bonkers.
The way I see it, school teaches students about two worlds. One is their reality, the society of their peers. This is the one they absorb not by design. The other is the ideal, the society in which they interact with authority and learn acceptable behavior. The one they absorb by design. We all learn both. These two worlds will stay with us for the rest of our lives.
Which, finally, gets me wondering. Is this concept of authority something we invented out of necessity, or is it inherent in us? Right now, I am in a position of authority, but it’s awkward and doesn’t feel right. That is, I feel like a role model, but not an authoritarian role model. When I raise my voice, it’s forced, not natural. The fact is, every bit of my new identity as administer of right and wrong is drawn from experience; what I was told as a kid. When I yelled at the student for swearing, I was tremendously angry. But, I would never yell at my friends for doing the same exact thing. Why was I angry? Because I believed I should be angry. It wasn’t the saying, it was the say-er. If that kid is going to grow up one day to, like me, hypocritically tell people not to use that word, what’s the point? It’s a massive cycle of one big silent agreement. Teach ‘em how they should act so they know how to teach other people how they should act 20 years down the road, and so on, all along flouting that very discipline at each opportunity. It’s all very confusing to me, is what I’m trying to say.
I’ll leave with this: You’re in a boardroom. You’re 28 years old, well on your nice and tidy career way. You’ve been in the corporate world for years now. You’re a boss and you have bosses, part authority part subject to it. You’re following all the rules: Paying attention, taking notes, speaking professionally, clapping when someone speaks, not shitting your pants. Then you look around, and you realize every single person around the mahogany table is someone you grew up with. You know all of them. They’re all your friends. Everyone else realizes it simultaneously. What happens? Does everyone start cursing, jumping up and down, letting out their suppressed flatulence, and throwing spitballs at each other?