Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Handwritten Note

One reason Thursdays are so terrible is that, smack in the middle of the day, just before lunch, I have the worst class I've ever had, including a group of ill-mannered future Chinese teachers of a couple of  years ago, who demanded I teach them something useful. In the end they turned out all right and grateful for my efforts.

Not that undying gratitude is my goal. I would rather see kids change from spoiled brats to thoughtful, conscientious young adults. That group I had before, they've done that. This group, I have my doubts.

There are a few good apples. Gayle, the best of the class, who I believe takes pity on me because hardly anyone participates. Loen, with her heart of gold, who wrote poetry when all the assignment called for was a bit of introspection. Serena, who, no matter how encouraging I am, bears the weight of every Chinese female before her: “You'll never be good enough; you're just a girl!”. Even though she is whip-smart, she shies away from participating in class, choosing intead to mouthe answers to questions I might pose.

And I know she mouthes them because I make it a point to watch her.

Mention, an angry and militant girl at the outset of her university experience, has mellowed into a seemingly ordinary freshman - who secretly reaches out to me. Over winter break she had taken a part-time job in a restaurant. Just before Lunar New Year, she slipped in the kitchen and shattered her right elbow. Naturally she had her parents nearby but, when she could, she was texting with me, keeping me up to date on her many surgeries and her hospital stay.

You should note that the Chinese are not big on pain killers. I can't imagine what this poor child had to endure as they manipulated her arm thrice daily, under the guise of therapy. One of the videos she sent me was of her howling in pain as the doctor repeatedly stretched and retracted her arm. Torture aside, as soon as she was able to grasp a pencil in her left hand and train it to write, she was practicing English, doing lessons that nobody demanded she complete. 

It is for students like her that I became a teacher.

Not for students like Victoria, Deana, Zoe and Major, who spend all of class time sitting in the back of the room, playing games on their phones. So little do they participate in class that I've taken to giving them a zero for that day's grade.

But the ones that really grab my goat and skin it are Gloria, Andi, Queena and Daisy. Gloria in particular.

They saunter into class late, even though they have twenty-five minutes to get there from their previous session. They also 'play' on their phone, usually sending messages on QQ and WeChat, and discussing whatever messages they get amongst each other. Not quietly.

Gloria likes to ridicule. The first time was when we were talking about money: I was illustrating the differences between Chinese currency and American. Apparently, she thought I was mispronouncing a particular denomination, even though its name is written on the bill and I can read (at least that much) Chinese.

The second time is when I was assigning their mid-term exam. I informed the class they could use any means possible to improve their presentation, including PPT (Powerpoint software). “What's PPT?” she asked.

“Do you know PPT?” I asked, pointing to the presentation currently on display through overhead projection.

She turned to Gayle, whom she happened to be sitting next to. Gayle explained, again using the term 'PPT'.

“OH! PPT! Why can't she just talk clearly?” Gloria sneered in Chinese, perhaps unaware, but most  likely simply not caring that I understood her.

I've been bullied before, and I remember distinctly how it feels. I'll be darned if I will let some teenager bully me in front of a classroom full of her peers, whether most of them focus on their phones or not. I vowed to draw my boundaries at the very next opportunity.

I don't think there will be a next opportunity.

Out of sheer frustration of trying to get this class to talk, I've taken to bringing paper to class and having them write down their thoughts. If there is time before the bell rings, they can read what they wrote out loud, but I planned to collect, correct and comment on their efforts, giving them their work back the next week.

ASSIGNMENT: Is it harder to be a boy or a girl in China?

It was meant for them to reflect on various social inequities and ponder a solution to same. A lot of their ideas were mundane – the girls have already been made scared of the pain of childbirth, for example. My lone boy, Durant, stated it was much harder to be a boy because boys are expected to be stoic and pay for everything.

The standout assertion was Gloria's: being a girl is harder. “You have a hard life until you grow old and ugly and nobody loves you, and you can only wait to die.”    

I know bullies get their meanness from somewhere. Until then, in her case, I thought it was simply that she was 'a little princess', the uniquely Chinese phenomenon where there are too many grandparents with too few grandchildren to spoil. Such children generally end up uncaring of others and totally self-absorbed.

I was forced to reconsider my rudest, meanest student. Clearly she has suffered, most likely a great deal, at the hands of some older woman. So much so that she hates older women in general.

Now I understand her attitude toward me.

What is this child facing? Her attitude will bring about a self-fulfilling prophecy: she will be continuously rejected, thus proving she is only worth the abuse she apparently grew up with. How much rage, masked in scorn, does she harbor? And, heavens forbid!, what will happen to her if it all lets loose? Even worse: what will happen to her if she continues to internalize it? 

For every other student, I wrote encouraging messages along the lines of: “Childbirth doesn't hurt that much thanks to modern medicine...”. Mention got a special message: “You are a strong, good person...” On Gloria's paper, I wrote only: “Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Gloria. I understand you much better now.”  

The very next week, much to my surprise, Gloria and her gang walked into class a few minutes before the bell rang and they all took their seats in the very front row. They stowed their phones and paid attention even though I was not firing on all cylinders (see previous post).

I put it down to the power of a handwritten note: those few words built a bridge between me and a girl who is doing her best to not seem troubled and hurt, but whose pain and rage exploded off the page she expressed it on.

We're not going to cuddle and cry together, but perhaps now she doesn't feel so all alone, even as she surrounds herself with as much noise and as many people as she can. This broken girl needed to know someone understands her, and now she has written testimony of it. And who knows? Maybe, after I am a safe distance from her, she might feel comfortable enough to chat with me via text message and open up even more.

I misstated earlier that students like Mention are the reason I became a teacher. Her ilk make the separation from my loved ones bearable and bring joy to my class, and that is indeed great.

The real reason I became a teacher is for the Gloria's who have sat in my classes over the years. Helping kids like her, even with such a little thing as a few words on a scrap of paper, making a difference to a kid begging to be validated.

To me, that's what being a mentor is all about.   

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