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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Birfday and Class (I can't believe I have to go to class on my birthday!)

Sunday was Teacher’s Day, a national holiday here in China. It says something about a culture, and the importance they place on education and the respect conferred upon teachers, when there’s an entire day set out to honor you. But, as my friend Father Michael said, “the other 364 days belong to the students.” Oh, how right you are.

I was feeling rather ill on Saturday, but by Sunday morning I was feeling much better. I was awake early (well, for a Sunday, at least), was able to clean my apartment, and just sat down in time to be visited by a small group of students, four senior girls from my thesis writing class. They stopped by to spend some time with me (I guess they didn’t hear how boring I am ... Lawler, I need a link to that!), and they gave me a really nice, elaborate tea set.

A few more students stopped by, swelling the ranks to ten. I received a very sweet card, and a dolphin wind chime, from this group, along with a huge bundle of fruit (which I really do need to eat more of). The whind chime is outside, on my balcony, and provides some soft music as I hang my laundry to dry. In explaining how I used to work at a store (Home and Garden Culture) that sold very large wind chimes, the girls blurted out, “but that was the biggest one they had!” So somehow I managed to sound ungrateful … way to go, Teacher Matt.

My students wanted to take me out to lunch, but I knew that wasn’t fair: I had just received an 800 kuai (about $100US) bonus from the school during Friday’s teachers banquet (the banquet that made me feel awful), and I knew that the students were on very tight budgets. So I treated them to lunch.

And now today is my birthday. The big two-two. My early morning class knew it was my birthday, and I walked in to a blackboard covered in a giant colorful “Happy Birthday!” adorned with flowers and hearts. Before I peel my eyes away, the whole class was singing happy birthday and clapping. They really are the best. Of course, I didn’t bring my camera (after promising myself I would bring it everywhere), so I have no pictures to show; the class monitor erased the board (before I could stop her), so that I could use it during class. I had a big bag full of candy that I passed out, and the kids were thrilled to be able to eat the candy—gasp!—during class!

That bag of candy was supposed to last both classes, but it was empty by the time I left the first. Oh well; I just stopped by the corner shop on my way to my next class and bought a ton of cookies. This class didn’t know it was my birthday, and I started by telling them that today was the MOST IMPORTANT day in all of literature; did anyone know what it was? I was hoping someone would yell out Bloomsday (no one did), so I told them: today was my birthday. The clapped and laughed, wanted to sing, but I told them that first, they had very important class work that could cause them to fail if they didn’t finish it: eat some cookies! … right? Guys? The mock severity must have gone over their heads: they thought I was really about to give them a grade-breaking bit of class work. “OK, that was a joke, you guys,” I laughed, “you’re not going to fail if you don’t eat the cookies.” They got it, I guess, and started laughing the nervous laugh of Chinese students. They sang “happy birthday,” loud and with pride; I’m sure I was “interrupting” one of the other foreign teachers classes. Oh well. Good kids.

Kids. Ha! I told them I turned twenty two today, and they exploded in laughter. They were all mostly twenty three, some of the “young’ins” were twenty two, some were already twenty four. And I’m calling them “kids.”

Two odd things happened in class today. We were finishing The Canterbury Tales, and in a very male-dominated text (we focused mostly on the Knight), I decided to tell my classes about one of the poem’s strong female characters, the Wife of Bath. Now, I’m lucky to have three or four guys in a class of forty; my students are virtually all young women. And it was a revelation for them to be told that Chaucer, nearly seven hundred years ago, wrote of a strong, intelligent, and independent woman. As soon as I mentioned her, faces that had been slouching in boredom immediately pricked up and began to pay attention. She was an older woman (the girls shake their heads in disapproval), yet still very beautiful (nodding in agreement); she had four or five husbands (strong looks of shock and disgust, even a few hushed calls of “bad woman!”), and yet she was well traveled and wealthy (some begrudging admiration); but above all, the Wife of Bath was able to earn independence and in some respects equality with men (huge, wide-eyed agreement). To see them connect so well with a character really makes me wish for a better text book; the Wife of Bath wasn’t even mentioned in ours. And after mentioning her, it was difficult to go back to the boring old chivalric boy scout that is the Knight.

The second interesting thing happened during an activity, where I let the students break into groups, small groups of three to six; I told them we were going to write our own (brief) Canterbury Tale about spring. In the first class, it was totally unstructured. I wanted to go for at least some rhyming, but any attempt to control their energy was moot. The class constructed a pretty straightforward poem, but man, they loved it! They couldn’t stop laughing and, I guess, it was really enjoyable to voice their opinions and frustrations in class. The two poems are below.

From my 8:00 class:

The flower is smiling and the bird is singing,
I sleep on the bed and listen to the melody of the birds,
The breezing wind makes my face comfortable and suddenly my mother wakes
me up.
Although I’m tired, it is a good day to have a picnic.
I want to have a picnic, but my mother said, “Today is the start of the new
term, go to school!”
In this new term, I met my Mr. Right,
I find he’s handsome and I try to talk to him.
At that moment, I asked for his telephone number.
Because I want to have a day out with him, he refused!
So I called and said, “The most romantic thing I can imagine is holding a
small umbrella with him in a rain shower.”
Finally, we listened to the rhythm of the falling rain together.

For my 9:00 class, I “tweaked” the formula a bit: I gave each team one word that they had to use in their sentence. This dictated their topic, and cut out some of their own creativity, so this one wasn’t quite as successful:

We all like ice cream very much,
And ice cream is melting in the sunshine.
The ice cream dropped on my mobile phone!
And my boyfriend hates the mobile phone,
And he loves playing basketball.
When we play basketball, we wear sunglasses, because they are cool.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I think they’re fantastic! They have never used that many adjectives, or even alliteration, in their in-class writing. This experiment was truly as success.

So that’s a pretty good birthday so far: two successful literature classes, and some much-undeserved praise from my students. And later tonight, a big group of foreign teachers and faculty will take me out for dinner.

Yeah. Twenty two is starting out just right.


NYARCH said...

I can say that I WAS in a foul mood when I started your blog, but your blog today, on your birfday, turned me around 180...Your blog is not only informational, but gives me a
desperatley needed breath during the day.

I am not only happy for you and your (daily) successes, but astounded by your accomplishments in an unfamiliar world...a whole world away (I personally had issues adjusting to Delaware...yeah you know...2 states away...culturally similar, but I did have the language barrier with Brooklynese and all...)

Keep up the blog, you've got us all hanging on every word. YOU ARE AMAZING.

Happy Birthday!!!!


Patrick said...

Happy Birthday, Matt.
I really liked this entry. Its a shame you didn't get pics of the "Happy Birthday" drawing on the board, but, still great. I hope you had a good Birthday.