Some Kind of Love

When I was a young boy sometimes my mom might give me the last piece of cake or chocolate. Even if that cake was hers. Even if she hadn’t taken a bite and I’d already finished mine, she’d probably give it to me, even if I didn’t ask. This extended beyond the realm of food, I’m sure, but as a little fat kid these are where my memories were created and endure. I often thought about these acts, which—yes I will say again—extended far beyond chocolate. I always immediately accepted the offer. It just seemed like the only possible choice. And I would always think how much of a sucker my mom was and wonder what the hell was wrong with the woman. Chocolate—it’s good. Sometimes she would even claim that she didn’t like the cake or the French fries or the chocolate or whatever it was. She wasn’t going to eat it anyway. It really never made sense to me. I couldn’t fathom the lunacy of it. I certainly couldn’t fathom the real meaning of it.

Mr. Loeb,

          Thank you for teaching me English. You’ve taught me a lot besides English, like how to complain less and be more tolerant. It was a very happy time together, but you will be gone tomorrow. We might never see each other again, and there may never be another foreign teacher at Sanzhuang. Will you come back and bring your family? You are forever welcome. If you cannot come, I will come see you in America.  

        – Liu Hui Cui (Haley)

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The end of an era

The day I left Sanzhuang it wouldn’t stop raining. In fact, it hadn’t stopped for weeks. The cloud cover spread so deeply and densely silvery-gray that I couldn’t see beyond the bright pink school buildings that clung on our little mountain campus. I spent the day making decisions about what would and wouldn’t follow me into my new life. Kashmir sweater. Yeah. Toothbrush. Yeah. Punching bag. Yeah… no. The students mobbed me and seized anything they could get their hands on. I’m delighted when I remind myself that one of those London, Paris, Rome, Sherman, CT t-shirts is floating around rural Yunnan, China, being worn by someone five sizes too small. I wonder if they get the joke.

I left in late afternoon. The school—teachers, students, cafeteria women, and a few locals—broke off into two columns of about a hundred a side that snaked into campus. I walked through—getting the Mao treatment—as I rolled my suitcase behind me. Almost all students and some teachers were crying. I was crying too, of course. It was a beautiful moment, probably the most poignantly emotional of my young life. As I reached the school gate, the lines collapsed and many students came over to me, hugged me, and through varying degrees of tears told me to come visit them before middle school next year. I said, “I’ll try,” because saying more than two words risked taking me from sniffling to flat out bawling, and even though these were my last minutes here, I still felt like a teacher, and teachers can’t cry.

Mr. Loeb,

            Please be forever happy and healthy. Find a wife early. You are my best friend.            

            – Li Zhi Jie (Kobe)

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Mr. Loeb Artist: Xie Zi Xing (1st grade)

 

I left Sanzhuang and got onto a train bound for Shenzhen. 40 hours. It did feel like I was being blasted away (albeit on a sluggish Great Leap Forward era locomotive). The sheer length of the journey out of here—3 days and 7 different forms of transportation—makes the break that much sharper. It doesn’t simply feel as though I’m moving locations, I’m moving in time, too. Dimensions, really. Looking out the rain-stained window as the green-gray Chinese countryside dawdled by, I suddenly felt deeply moved by the events of the day and the years leading up to it.

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Peace

Mr. Loeb,  

            You’re leaving school soon and going home. We are sad because while you have been here we have given each other so much. You have wanted us all to be happy and care about school. I want to say thank you.

            These two years have been easygoing. You’re class is always calm and easygoing. In your class, even the students who never speak have the courage to speak. Like me. You make us feel courage in ourselves to speak.

            Before you were next to us everyday and it felt like it would always be that way. But, now we will part ways. It makes me, this happy student, very sad.

            So now, I just want to say thank you. I will miss you.

            -Duan Shun Jiang (Sally)

Some people might look at the tears and processional formation as some form of validation. I buy that way of thinking. The acts of kindness and gratitude signal that I have, in part, accomplished something worthy of appreciation. But, in those last moments and the last weeks, I really began to feel something new. For the better part of two years, I’ve been giving my cake and chocolate to my students. For the better part of two years, they’ve been taking it eagerly. This can be frustrating. But you give and give and give because that’s the only thing you can do. The thought of not giving is unfathomable.

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Roadside selfie

In many ways, it’s not that kids do not appreciate, but rather that they don’t know how to express their appreciation. It’s not like a client having a case of Moet mailed to your house at Christmas or a coach giving you the game ball. It’s much more subtle than that. In fact, sometimes their numerical success is the only testament to what you’ve done. That’s a fact increasingly true in education, and very unfortunate, but not a discussion for today. But, as I walked away that final day, I felt so full of love. And there was no doubt in my mind how real that love was. Here is a final word, from one of my most difficult students, a student suspended from school multiple times in my two years, a boy whose parents aren’t at home, who has said things to me that belong only in comment sections, who is brilliant, and who I know will forever be at odds with the system he is in. But, maybe, he’s changed a little.

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Me and the guys

Mr. Loeb,

             I know I am difficult, but you always forgive me. Sometimes people don’t forgive me. I feel grateful to you for that. These two years I’ve given you countless trouble, but you always forgave me. In all the time you taught me, I learned a lot that I didn’t know before. I’m going to add you on WeChat. Please accept my invitation. Above, I said I was really difficult, but don’t forget it’s not just me! Kobe, Jack, Jacob, and Jordan are all difficult too! Goodbye, Mr. Loeb. Wait for me to get big and grow up, maybe I will come see you in the US.

            Thank You. We Love You.

             -Li Hua Lin (Joe)

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Goodbye, Sanzhuang

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Unforgiving Progress: An Early Requiem for a Community

We’re really close to the sun here. Not in a metaphorical way or anything. You’re not about to get hit with some Icarus parallel. Like, literally—relatively—the sun is close. That’s why, especially in the winter, days are that perfect kind of weather where you don’t even notice weather and nights give you hallucinations of Leif Erickson shoving sno-cones in your face and whatnot. It also makes the morning bright AF. On cloudless mornings (and most right now are) you’ve got to mentally prepare yourself for solar beatdown. Having the complexion of a roll of unused toilet paper, it’s dangerous out there for me.

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My face, whiter than toilet paper.

Day 1 of the weekend. I told fifth-grader Yang Hua (English name Tom) that I’d meet him outside his house at 8:30 in the morning and we’d hang around his village. Stupid—that’s how I felt about that promise at 8:00 a.m. Two years ago at that time I’d have just hit stage 4 of the sleep cycle. Wouldn’t get a crack at the world until noon. I remember in college this one kid wanted to meet up for a group project at 8:30 am on Sunday. I think I must have said something like, “You’re a sick fuck, you know that?” before we kicked him out of the group. But anyways, I’m older now and I’ve created responsibilities for myself. It’s one thing to stand up an 8:30 am class, it’s another to stand up an 11-year-old kid.

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Sanzhuang Village

I got up, slunk into the brightness, and walked down the mountain to Yang Hua’s house. He lives in the first mini-cluster-village of the big-big village of WenXing (When-Shing for you foreign devils). As such, he’s attended school at SanZhuang—where I teach—since first grade because, even though he lives in WenXing, SanZhuang’s elementary school is 10 times closer to his house than the WenXing iteration. I thought that was a nice, strikingly un-bureaucratic arrangement for Yang Hua. I walked down through SanZhuang on my way. I passed a bunch of my students and this old farmer who seems to pop up everywhere in my life. Whenever I walk past, he announces to someone—or no one if someone is not there—that “It’s Mr. Loeb, the American teacher, Mr. Loeb is coming down the hill!” And laughs merrily. It’s kind of weird. I can’t tell if he likes me or he’s doing some Paul Revere type shit.

Yang Hua is waiting in front of his little village. I’m immediately washed with a pang of relief-guilt. Really happy I didn’t let myself doze. I suppose I have grown up. The way these things work: Clusters of houses, almost quite literally right on top of each other and then vast expanses of cropland before another cluster of houses quite literally on top of each other. It might make personal-space-loving Americans scratch their heads—and it took me a while to make sense of it. “But… but… where’s your backyard.” I might ask. “This is all our backyard.” Accompanied by a sweeping of the arms. Not even a single “Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again,” sign. How barbaric. Gives me the creeps, it does.

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WenXing scenery

Yang Hua and I meet up with another one of my kids—Gao ZhiBin (who I creatively named Zeben, in honor of a TFC teacher I kind of knew). And then two 11-year-olds and me walked across the entirety of the big-big village of WenXing in the infinite brightness. We village-hopped, if you will. Remember, all of these clusters are separated by big plots of rice, wheat, and tobacco. Throughout the walk—which took a few hours—we ran into pretty much all of my WenXing students. About 10-12 come to SanZhuang each year. WenXing’s own school only has grades 1-4. So, its students—like students from other surrounding rural villages—come to SanZhuang for 5th and 6th grade. WenXing is small and, like most rural Chinese villages, getting smaller.

Quick modern history/rural economics lesson: WenXing is and has always been an agricultural village. There isn’t much in the way of concrete documentation, but from what I hear from locals, it was kind of what you picture when you think about rural China back in the day—and probably a little worse, given its mountain-hugging location. Up until the 70’s, poverty was the rule, the concept of “our” was law, and life was a grind. Most people will tell you that it’s been getting better since the mid-70s. A slow, upward trajectory that has been nothing, mostly, but good. Education got better, students stayed in the system longer, a new road sprung up every few years. Most people over the age of 30 probably have four, five, six brothers and sisters. But rarely, if ever, do they have more than two kids of their own. Even though the one-child policy does not apply to farmers or minorities, economics do. The advantages of having six children have been erased by incipient prosperity.

But, now it’s clear that the prosperity curve is starting to press up against the limits of reality. Alas, an hours-long agricultural community cannot sustain economic growth forever in its own little organic semi-vacuum. To be sure, this is also the case for cities, countries, and, sorry, planets. There are essentially no #millenials here. People aged 18-30 are almost invariably working in cities, living not amongst rice terraces and family, but in tiny little cupboards in cities like LiJiang or DaLi, with 10 other young people—and, mind you, making 10 times what they’d be making if they weren’t. This is demographic engineering. Whether policy or not, like the one-child law, it seems to be the logical course of economics meets life. After all, subsistence-or-close-to-it farmers do next-to-nothing for the proliferation of societal cash-money. Move those people to the city, pay them 10 times more (still very little), make them consumers, and convert the inefficient land that they used to farm and live on to Big-Agri-Central and shit like amusement parks (and way down the line perhaps 1,000 times pricier second homes for the grandkids of the people who left the village). Show me a “developed” nation where that story hasn’t played out. I dare you.

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Students messing around in the stream

But, not today. Each village-cluster (nine in total) is still sufficiently full of life. Every time we cross a field and enter a new village it’s kind of like entering a new country. People—especially old people—speak of the villages like that. I remember one guy warning me in my first days to “never trust a person from (the village right across the street)” as though the cobblestones represented some sort of irreconcilable moralistic divide. There is a dominant last name in each village, too. This makes sense. These are generally places people move out of. Outsiders with weird names like Loeb, rarely settle down here.

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We cross into the central village—the wealthiest of the nine. The village committee building is here. There are also three small convenience stores, shelves stocked haphazardly, cash stored in a creaky drawer—all bills tossed in with each other, ancient-looking men sitting outside on stools sucking the life out of cigarette bongs (and, sadly, themselves), and a brand of friendliness that doesn’t exist in places with garbage and traffic lights.

I buy the kids some lukewarm “iced” tea and they lead me up a side-alley to Zhang LiPin’s house. They pound on his door and scream his name. This is actually how people coordinate rendezvouses! I always thought Charles Schulz was full of shit when he wrote about this kind of stuff. Moments later an irritated old-woman-voice echoes from the other side of the door. “He’s not here. He’s ‘being an honored guest.’” The kids shrug and we keep walking. “Being an honored guest,” a phrase that carries with it that unnecessarily inherent formality that a lot of Chinese phrases do, is always hilarious in this context. First of all, because everyone is friends around here, people are always going over to other people’s houses for events—from funerals to weddings to liver-destructions. So, this is a super common reason for someone being unavailable. But, the word/phrase is used interchangeably for kids and adults. The idea of an 11-year-old, let alone a four-year-old “being an honored guest” cracks me up.

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Alleyway in WenXing

Zhang LiPin wasn’t home, so we walked to the next cluster. We called on another kid, Yang JianWei, who was home. His dad, shirtless and roundbellied, scrambled to receive us. He frantically looked for a teacup, and when he couldn’t find one, emptied, washed, and refilled his own tea-bottle and offered it to me. He ran into the courtyard and grabbed a few sticks of milky-ice (cream) from the freezer and handed them to the boys. The spontaneous acts of hospitality, incredible. We stayed for a moment—not long enough for my tea to cool—and walked back toward Yang Hua’s house. We would eat lunch there.

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Gao ZhiBin, Yang Hua, me

On the way back we stopped at the school to play basketball with a couple more of my students. The hoops were droopy and the ball flat. The school is only a few rooms—a real community operation. There are 43 students in total, grades K-4. My school’s own Principal, Mr. Yang, who happens to be from this very village-cluster of WenXing, said there were well over a hundred kids here 20 years ago, when his son—who know lives in the city of NuJiang—was a student here. One of the kids laments his fate as a fellow-townsman of Principal Yang. “He’s my principal seven days a week instead of five!”

We retrace past the little haphazard shops and the same ancient dudes loving on the steel cigarette bongs and the fields, fields, fields. Yang Hua and Gao ZhiBin playfully attack each other with fallen branches. I notice Yang Hua’s shirt is too small for him. Gao ZhiBin’s, too. They don’t notice, though.

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We get back to their village around two. The way back always feels shorter. On the way there, you never know where the end is. There’s an “uncle” sitting on a stool by the table. Always stools here, of course. I guess there’s a thrill in eating whilst trying not to injure yourself, or something. The uncle smokes a cigarette and nod-smiles at us. Yang Hua and Gao ZhiBin mess around with my camera for a few minutes, before a pack of tired looking middle-aged women enters the gate and sits down at the table. I look up, confused.

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Food, literally, on food

“It’s the busy season,” Yang Hua informs. “They’re helping us with our crops, so we’re having them over for lunch.” The honored guests smile and nod and continue jabbering in deep, deep dialect, far beyond my comprehension. Yang Hua’s dad comes out with a few trays of freshly picked, freshly cooked, freshly fresh dishes—the only kind there are here. Pig’s stomach, milky potatoes, corn and green beans, leek soup, whole little fishes, and that thing that starts with an r and ends with an e. He greets me and offers a Dali beer and a Yunnan cigarette. I take the beer. He tacitly impugns my nicotine-free “masculinity.”

I eat gleefully, say thank you, and walk back up the mountain in the brightness. “Come visit us anytime, anytime.” The boys say. “See you on Monday,” I tell the students—more sullenly reminding myself than them.

It’s funny whenever I do this. I feel deeply nostalgic for something I never had. I feel like I’m vicariously experiencing a lost life—one spent on private property, one spent in cars, one spent with phones and distance—a decade on. Life has been good for me, to be sure. But, it was never like this. For some reason this is how I’ve always pictured “society”—close-knit, name-knowing, honored-guest-being, continuously, endlessly hospitable… neighborly. With a fuck-ton of corner shops. As many corner shops as corners.

And this place will probably be “running its course” by the next time Halley’s comet comes through. And I wonder why that has to be. Are the concepts of prosperity (the money kind) and simplicity, neighborliness, tradition, and community really so diametrically opposed?

It’s hard to argue that they aren’t.

Why does it always seem like we can only choose one or the other? Truthfully, this sense of community is something we’re always hungering for in theory—country, religion etc.. And I suppose when you think about it in that sense, the concept of community is OK until you consider its insidious exclusivity—an apparently fundamental characteristic to its existence. But, practically speaking, real, physical communities seem to be perhaps the greatest victim, among many, many positives, of prosperity. I would never argue that Yang Hua and Gao ZhiBin are better off staying put—my alleged purpose here pretty much represents the inverse of that notion. Surely, in most ways, they aren’t better off. But, remember from time to time, that progress and wealth are not no-strings-attached plusses. There are some things you’re gonna have to lose first.

Not That Simple

Pressure is a mountain on a mountain. Every day the kids rise at 6:45. They get up, wash their feet, brush their teeth. They slouch on top of cold, rickety desks and stools by 7:10, exhaling exhausted waves of fog in unison. They hardly stop until 8 pm. They’re in bed by 8:30. They have fun, when they can, between classes, at meals, in the quiet hours before sleep when they whisper so the teachers can’t hear. They play on the weekends in spite of their schoolwork, but some don’t have a chance, and some won’t let themselves.

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Fun is an enemy. No one would ever say it, but it is. It’s a distraction from the goal. That goal, taken in a big sense, is a matter of contention. The scaled down goal, though, is an exam in the middle of January. That is your measure. That is your worth. That is your goal. From 6:45 in the morning to 8:30 at night, this is where your energies should be focused. Your ability to reach the goal, today, is something like a minor plot point in a meticulously sequenced novel. It figures to have outsize, but unforeseen, reverberations on the climax. Every moment you edge closer to the goal, the pressure gets tighter. Lost time is magnified. You’re 10 years old. Everything you want contradicts accomplishment of the goal. It’s really, really hard to make sense of it. But, you’re not supposed to.

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I’m wearing a button-down plaid shirt and a purple/navy tie. I’ve got some frosting on my sleeve. My pants are tucked in, more or less. I look unintentionally… like a clown.

It’s the last day of school. I set a big cake down on the desk and the students cheer wildly. I smack the table. They stop. Before we eat the cake I wanted to tell them about the goal.

I told them a story accompanied by a poorly animated powerpoint…     url

“Two old men sat on a bench. One on the left and one on the right. It was a nice day. The man on the left wore a suit. The man on the right wore pants and a t-shirt that didn’t fit well. His pants had holes in them. He said to the man on the left, in the suit…

‘How have you been, my friend?’

‘I’m quite busy. I am tired. It’s nice to sit here with you.’

The man on the right blurted out…

‘My friend, you know, I envy you. Your clothes are so nice. Your house is so big. You eat fish everyday. I remember when we were in school. You worked so hard. We would play and you wouldn’t come out. You have earned your success. I remember how you earned it.’

‘I worked very hard. It is true. And I have had much success. But, you know, I have always envied you.’

‘How could that be?’ The man on the right said, surprised. ‘I have little. I’ve always worked in town. Look at my clothes.’

‘You said it yourself. When you were playing outside, I was studying. You had so much fun. When you passed love notes in middle school, I was too busy for love.’”

The students snickered.

“’Yes, but that was the past. Look what you have gained from all that work. Surely, you are satisfied.’

‘I am satisfied today. But, I will never be able to go back.’”

I asked them:

“Are you nervous for the exam?”

“Yes!”

“Do you have pressure from your teachers and from your parents?”

“Yes!”

“Do you think the test is important?”

“Yes!! Of course!”

“I agree. It is very important. But, don’t forget. There will be a test next week, there will be a test next year, and there will be many, many more tests.”

They sigh.

“There will be many chances. Remember, these tests, your scores, they are nothing but numbers. They are important, but they are not so important. Work hard, but remember, there are more important things than numbers. It may be hard to understand what I’m saying today, but it’s the truth, I promise. Let’s eat some cake.”

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I’m sure they didn’t really get it. But, then again, what do kids really get? That’s their greatest attribute. I’ve seen teachers give them the business. “You cry today, laugh tomorrow. Laugh today, cry tomorrow! Don’t you care? Don’t you want to be something better?” They hear it, but they can’t totally make sense of it yet. The anger, I guess they can make sense of that. The fact is, you tell a child what matters, the values of life and education. You tell them again and again until one day they just sort of accept it. Perhaps—but more likely not—someday they’ll realize it’s not that simple.

It’s very hard, it’s really impossible, for my kids to see outside the exam. I can understand that. The margin of error in their life is heartbreakingly thin. Coloring outside the lines is dangerous. I’m gone in a few months. I can help them on the exam. But, I can’t help them on the vast majority of exams, current and future. I can’t do much for them, tangibly, in the long term. I can’t do anything. But, they’re going to hear and fear about the future a lot. They’re going to subconsciously build a belief that today only matters as a function of tomorrow. They are going to believe it, believe that their only responsibility today is to improve the abstract concept of the future. I suppose if I can provide an alternative take—a fleeting, here today, gone tomorrow dissenting opinion—I have to. It’s good to confuse them. The very thought of a teacher questioning the importance of school or tests doesn’t match up. But, if I believed that that kind of success was the most important kind, I don’t think I’d be a very good teacher.

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Bamboo: The Indispensability of Creativity

“What’s that? I told you to draw a forest. That’s not a forest.”

“Yes, it is. It’s bamboo.”

“What do you mean ‘it’s bamboo’?”

“It’s bamboo, teacher.”

I snatched the drawing and inspected it for a moment before returning it to the nervous little girl’s nervous little desk.

“It’s bamboo. It’s the forest. OK.” I said. And I felt like an idiot. I walked away to go look at another forest.

“Creativity” is the annoying little brother of education—and civilization. It’s a pest. It’s difficult. It’s unimportant. It’s impractical. Most of the time, we just can’t be bothered. The problem with this little brother is inherent in his very nature. Creativity, like the emotions it inspires—wonder, contemplation, stupefaction—is impossible to quantify. That’s why it’s such a bothersome vexation. Human beings are so irretrievably disposed to quantification that we become categorically pissed off when it eludes us. We need to quantify and reason to maintain control. Being subjected to creativity when we aren’t looking for it is disorienting and angering.

The problem with the antibiotic interplay between creativity and education doesn’t need to be discussed at length. Education—to an ever-increasing extent—relies on standardization. Standardization is a nauseating word. Standardization is practicality, ease, and know it when ya see it. Lately, we’ve unleashed it on society with a vengeance. Even creativity and self-expression must be confined to neatly packaged spaces like 140 characters or a Facebook profile. In education though, it’s way way worse.

I had a rare daylight epiphany the last week when I was grading the Grade 5 Unit 2 English exam—watch TV, read books, play football (that kind of stuff). Students cheated. That’s not the epiphany. I had that one when I was 4 or 5. I asked myself, though, why are students so locked in when it comes to cheating? Why, even when I stress with sermonizing vigor that the test means absolutely nothing, will they risk embarrassment and a visit from mama and baba? Why, even after being acutely aware that the test means absolutely nothing and cheating their asses off, are they still so profoundly pleased with themselves when they receive a 90%? I for one cannot remember a time when I felt too morally contradicted to sneak a peek across the aisle. The answer to these questions is this: the score matters more than the knowledge. Plain and simple. The score gets you into college. The score makes you academically eligible. The score is the only way to differentiate kid A from kid Z. The score! We’re in hot pursuit of the score. The score is our standard.

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The reason we love standardization (the score) is because it’s explicatory. It supposedly contains a great deal of information. The problem with standardization is that it inherently lends itself towards things that are measurable—in much the opposite way that creativity does. You can measure 1+7 to equal 8. You can measure a lot of other stuff that I don’t even know how to measure. Thus, in our epic pursuit to standardize everything, we are obviously going to marginalize that which is immeasurable. Thus, creativity becomes impractical. It’s been pushed out as a deterrent, an irritating little brother to our civilization’s goals. Because, even though we might kinda sorta know it when we see it, we can’t tell you what it is. And it’s very difficult to slap a grade on.

But, I know what it is. Creativity is fearlessness. It’s having the audacity to 1). Put yourself out there and 2). Question perceived reality. Essentially, you have to give few enough shits to have your personal eccentricities on display and beyond that, to have the effrontery to suggest that everyone else might be missing something. That takes some legitimate backbone. If you’re willing to do neither you will never create. But, that’s only the case because creativity is socialized out of us. We are told about yes and no pretty early on in the game. We are told that 2 + 3 = 5 and stuff like that. We are told that we are looking at a hat instead of an elephant inside of a snake.

I’m not going to argue against 2 + 3 = 5, because original thought should always be tempered with a hint of rationality. 2 + 3 = 6 isn’t fearless. It’s trolling. However, I’ll argue that it takes a prodigious amount of cojones to say, as The Little Prince did, that it’s an elephant inside of a snake and not a hat. Such a notion personally offends people. People will go so far as to fear it—be shaking-under-the-covers scared of it—because such a proposition questions their beliefs and the very foundations of society and puts a shiver in their steady control of the way of things. Impractical is the word they use for things that make them shake at night.

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You’ve got to be long on guts to question society and/or reality.

A few minutes before I told my second grade student that her forest wasn’t a forest, I had shown her a forest—a few forests actually. I gave them six or seven examples of pictures and paintings of “forests.” Each was some variation on a landscape, set at a fair distance, with many visible trees and a predictable streak of light streaming through. Perhaps there was a fox skirting across the dirt ground. I had neatly scored the forest. I never once said, “draw these pictures.” I said, draw a forest. And that’s what they did. And that’s where their mind will surely lead their colored pencils and dark green markers every time someone tells them to draw a forest—for the rest of their lives.Forest_ligh_DAP_Landscape

But not this one girl. She made me feel like a dope. She had the audacity to suggest that it might be ok to call a magnified drawing of a few intersecting sticks of bamboo a forest. Despite everything I’ve said above, I was disturbed by her disruption, her impracticality. It questioned my supposed authority on the matter of drawings of forests. There wasn’t even a predictable streak of light. That made me very uncomfortable.

It would be supremely easy to live in a world devoid of creativity; a world where numbers and quantification reign unilaterally. We would teach our kids everything we know and they’d do the same and on and on. But, it’s imperative to have people around who will stand up and say, “No, it actually may be an oblate spheroid,” or “I know you’re not gonna like this, but your great-great-great-great grandfather might have been a chimpanzee,” or You can make nice sounds if you pluck these six strings in different ways.” Those people were probably the same ones that said, “Yes, it is a forest. It’s bamboo,” once upon a time. We can’t lose those people. We can’t standardize them away. We can’t scare them. We need them more than we know.

IMG_0317 “Forest” by Zhang XueYing

Giving Zach a Chance

              Zach is 12. Twelve is a rather young age to decide who is “dumb” and who isn’t. Zach, unfortunately, it has been decided, is “dumb.” He’s never been in love, he’s never put a car into drive, he’s never sat at the adults’ table. But, it’s been decided that he’s “dumb.” Strangely, the kids tabbed as “dumb” are given the least attention. This is a pretty precarious situation for Zach, who still has at least 4 years of school left. He’s placed at the back of the class with other students like him. If he can’t keep his hands to himself or shut his mouth, he’s encouraged to read quietly or put his head down instead of participating. He complies, because, hell, what 6th grader wouldn’t agree to that deal?

         Little does Zach know that every second he spends with his head on his desk is a second of education he will never get back. There’s no layaway for grammar points. He can’t comprehend how today’s bopping his deskmate on the head during a lesson about quadrilateral shapes is going to affect his disposable income 15 years from now. It’s impossible for him to connect the dots between an assignment on the future tense and the actual future. And, he shouldn’t. That’s not Zach’s job. That’s my job. Weeding out the “cans” from the “can’ts” is the way education is structured. Once you’ve been marked, you’re either in for an adolescence of an uphill battle or a self-fulfilling cruise toward higher education. Whether Zach’s in Sanzhaung, Sao Paulo, or Sydney, that’s the way it is. But it’s a little different in Sanzhuang.

         I teach a 6th grade class of 36 students. Based on recent history, about half of them will go to high school. Of that 18, maybe three to five will go to college. Forget The Princeton Review. I’m talking about college. Period. Eleven percent odds to go to college at all. You’ve got to be extraordinary just to do something that, if you didn’t do in most parts of the US, you’d get a lot of eyebrow raises. Factor in that 100% of students’ parents didn’t go to college. Factor in that almost all of their teachers didn’t either. Factor in that college, even if it’s totally free, still incurs a massive opportunity cost for students in rural Yunnan.

           Take this into consideration and Zach’s unjust predicament begins to make sense. At some point as a teacher, it seems, you’ve got to put your chips on the table. If you’re teaching forty students, among who four have a realistic shot at higher education and only half can make it to freshman year of high school, you’ve got to give them that chance. There simply aren’t enough hours in the school day to get Zach up to speed in long division, let alone times tables. He had his chance. He missed it. It’s over. Put your head on your desk and bask in the blissful ignorance of a disappearing education.

           Zach’s not going to college. Zach’s not going to high school. But, that does not preclude Zach from receiving a meaningful education on his terms. It’s not the system that’s screwing Zach over; it’s the system’s resources. Too many students, not enough teachers, not enough support, not enough time.

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        I’m not a great teacher, especially in this exam-intensive system. I’ll never be as good as a local English teacher who’s been through the process, knows the ins and outs, and can perceive with almost Nostradamus like efficiency, what is and isn’t going to be on the county-wide final exams. What I, and other Teach for China fellows can provide, however, is a new perspective.

        I don’t let Zach read or sleep in my class. At the very least, he has to call back vocabulary words like everyone else. He is almost illiterate in Chinese, so in English class I just tell him to do his best, but don’t over scrutinize his work. The other day I was giving a review lesson about superlatives. Taller! Older! Stronger! Bigger! On a scale of excitement, the lecture was somewhere between a James Lipton monologue and Barry Manilow’s Classic Christmas. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I actually felt bad for my students. I assigned them to copy the vocab words, which were all adjectives with –er tacked onto the end, and began to walk around the room. I looked over at Zach in the back left corner, who was uncharacteristically industrious. As I walked toward him, he quickly shoved something in his desk and looked up straight ahead.

“What is it Zach? If I was watching this class I’d be bored too.”
“Nothing…” A cheeky grin emerges.
“Fair enough.”

When the bell rang Zach approached me.

“Mr. Loeb, you can’t tell Mrs. Wang,” (His homeroom teacher)
“I wasn’t going to.”
“After all, it’s your fault.”
“Well yeah, I know, but not every class can be fun. I’ve told you that.”
“No! I was working on this.”

       He shows me an absurdly intricate drawing of a futuristic looking city. Written on the bottom in Chinese, “My Ideal Hometown.”

“I see. It’s, umm, really good, Zach, wow. Don’t worry about it. You’re free to go.”

           This year Sanzhuang’s theme for the CORE (Community Outreach Rediscovery and Enlightenment) project is “My Ideal Hometown.” Myself and my two co-fellows 张晓杰 and 赵娅楠 asked students to get into groups of five with others from their village. The groups would compete for an educational field trip to Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, at the end of the school year. Zach is from a tiny mountain village called Dongpo. Because his academic success has been low, he was apparently not a desirable team member. Because Dongpo is the smallest village of all the feeder towns for Sanzhuang, the other students said they had to take Zach on their team, otherwise they would only have four members.

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             Zach didn’t let them down. It appeared that all his restlessness and nervous energy in the classroom was being channeled toward the project. Whereas previously getting him to write his own name in English proved an almost impossible task (his favorite version is ScAh), now he was drawing elaborate diagrams of urban plans, and doing so way beyond the expectations of the project. When half of the remaining 27 teams were eliminated after the first two rounds, tiny Dongpo was still in contention for the trip to Kunming. Zach would come up to me after almost every class asking what the score of the competition was, even though I’m sure he knew each team’s point total by heart. I’d have to tell him, “Zach, we just got back from a holiday. The score hasn’t change in a week.”

“Oh, right,” He’d say.

           Last weekend we tallied the scores. Zach didn’t win. Dongpo placed sixth out of an original group of 30, a rather impressive showing considering they were competing against teams from towns 5 times their size. The winning team was made up of five incredibly motivated girls who, though it’s still early on in the game, look to be very much on track to go to high school, college, and beyond. But Zach held his own. He may score 70 points lower than them in the classroom, but his team finished a mere five spots below them on the CORE project. And you know what? He was bummed out. He asked me what set the other team apart and why his team didn’t win. Dongpo’s model was great, I said, but the winning team’s written work was exemplary. Every week Zach receives papers full of red X’s, 30% test scores, and angry looks from teachers. At this point, he’s learned to shrug it off. But not this time.

            Seeing Zach give his absolute all—and then some—got me thinking. Elementary school isn’t about prepping kids for high school and college. At least, it shouldn’t be. It’s about giving kids the chance to discover a passion. Some kids like math, some kids don’t like math but do it because they know they have to. Some kids hate it, can’t do it, and will never change their mind. That doesn’t mean they can’t be passionate about something. That doesn’t mean they’ve missed their shot at a productive obsession. Newton liked gravity, Galileo liked stars, and Zach from Dongpo likes drawing intricate constructions of his ideal hometown. Newton wouldn’t have known how much he loveeeed gravity if an apple didn’t bonk him on the cranium. Zach wouldn’t have known how much he loves drawing if he wasn’t given the opportunity through the CORE project. I mean and believe that with complete conviction. Zach’s not even close to “dumb,” whatever that means, his passions have just been on the shelf.

            The scale will never be tipped in Zach’s favor. The time, money, and political influence needed to give kids like him a high-level of education just isn’t here. But, if we have the opportunity to move the scales ever so slightly, we should give it our best shot. The students deserve it. Zach deserves it.

        I’m reaching out to everyone and anyone who reads this blog to please help me and my co-fellows reach our fundraising goal so we can make CORE possible this year and beyond. Consider the link below. Everything helps: Donating, sharing, supporting, even just knowing.

Thank you.

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