When I decided to go to the People’s Republic of China, my mom freaked out. An American student had recently been imprisoned in Beijing for (suspected? real?) espionage. “Couldn’t you just go to China Town?” she asked, somewhat distraught, as my ex and I packed up his pick-up truck for the drive to San Francisco. His children lived in the Bay Area and he wanted to see them before we left.
I think he was afraid, too. I know he was. When we finally arrived in Guangzhou, at the airport, away (very obviously away) from any of the things he was used to, he just collapsed, laid down on a bench in the dim waiting room. He wasn’t prepared for the reality of China, for a Russian airplane, for being met on the ground by soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army, for being questioned over whether we had religious materials with us. He wasn’t prepared for there being no one to meet us and not having any idea what to do next.
I didn’t know him very well. We married after only knowing each other four months, and I would not call a year in the PRC in 1982 an ideal honeymoon. My ex was shut down, but I was also flummoxed. “What now?” An English speaking worker at the airport phoned our college (Hua Nan Shi Fan Xue Yuan as it was then). We’d arrived a day earlier than expected. They thought we’d spend two nights in Hong Kong. I learned they couldn’t pick us up until the next day. My job then was to get a taxi big enough to carry our footlockers (and skis).
“Where do you want to go?” asked the man at the airport.
“Bai Yun Hotel,” I said with great certainty and in Chinese. What did I know? I did know the Bai Yun Bing Guan was the closest foreigner hotel to the airport. All I knew what was what I’d read in my Fodor’s. We stayed our first night in China with our fardles in a big room in this 33 story hotel.
It was our first easily identifiable experience with totalitarianism. I am sure others had already occurred, but with such subtlety that we didn’t notice.
The hotel took our passports and the letter from my college when we checked in. I’m sure that they phoned the Wai Shi Ban (foreigners office) at the school to confirm our legitimacy. On our floor was a “watcher” seated at a velvet covered table. She had the keys to our room. When we left the room, we gave her our keys. When we returned, we retrieved them, opened our door and took them back to her. I wondered why we even had keys. My feelings about this might have been different from those of my ex, I don’t know, but I felt that this was the price I had to pay for being where I wanted to be, for fulfilling my dream.
Dinner was “joak,” a rice gruel often made with chicken or with fish and served with cut up fried bread and green onion on top. Our first joak also had “thousand year old eggs” which are pretty shocking to the unwarned, uninitiated foreign eye. As we ate this strange meal, Jim noticed a large rat skulking along the wall. To me the rat was just a promise of more adventure. To Jim it was an added dimension to a nightmare.
When morning came, there also came a “mien bao” or Toyota van (mien bao means loaf of bread which the Toyota vans of the time really did resemble) from our college to take us “home.” I was excited and happy. I do not know how my ex felt. We rode in the mien bao — in silence? Talking? I don’t remember. At our college we were met by Xiao Huang, our watcher. This lithe, slender, skinny young man of 27 or so lifted each of our footlockers up onto his back and carried them up three flights of stairs to our “flat” and there we were. Home.
I remember that first afternoon, standing on the balcony of our large furnished apartment and looking over the fields of the agricultural college that was behind us. Under an ingenious structure that was both his shelter and food storage, stood a water buffalo. All my childhood, girlhood and young womanhood dreams came true in that moment. Whatever they were to be, I accepted the terms of the alien world that contained this vision and had opened itself to me.
I was alone on an exalted plane of acceptance and curiosity. For the rest of the world in which I had so recently arrived this was no exotic place. It was not the realization of their dreams of adventure. For my husband it was a relentless nightmare. For my students, faculty colleagues and friends it harbored dark memories, fears and anxiety over the future.
It is very difficult for a teacher to get a class of Chinese students to participate in class discussion. A Chinese student will seldom volunteer an answer to a question. Chinese teachers prepare seating charts and call on each student, one by one. The Chinese perspective is that if someone voluntarily speaks out in class, he or she is “putting him/herself forward.” This is offensive, not only to Communist ideals but to Confucian ideals. It was not li (the Confusion word for “dignified;” the proper behavior for an educated person) to behave in that way. Confucianism also stressed obedience to teachers. The student so single dout has no choice but to obey the teacher, stand, and give the proper response. Even if the answer is very brilliant, the student is not putting himself about his peers.
I had seven classes and five of them became comfortable talking. One class actually felt “liberated” by the new system. Their discussions began before I arrived in the classroom. Another class in the same grade (seniors) never spoke unless they had to, but their written work was always excellent. On paper each of them could freely express themselves to only me. The monitor of the class explained, “You will have a hard job getting them to talk. They’ve been silent for four years now.” That was so funny to me and to the class that we all laughed. From then on, I just looked forward to their essays.
There is Confucian residue in the way students answer questions. Even the Cultural Revolution could not eradicate “old customs” completely. Related to the “not-putting-oneself-forward” theory of learning is what we call plagiarism. How can a simple college student improve upon the thoughts of a famous critic? Chinese academia can resemble the practice of law. Students find the “precedent setting” criticism and then “copy the language.” When I marked the first mid-term I gave the seniors, I discovered that more than half had “used” the language from the book. What wasn’t in the book, they found in the department reading room and copied from a larger critical anthology. I couldn’t flunk everyone, especially since it looked like I was the one out in left field. From then on, I just gave questions no book could help them answer. I gave them examinations that made them answer from their own imaginations, thoughts, understanding.
One great treat for the English teacher in China is that students are familiar with poetry and like it very much. There is little need to do a pitch on the wonders of beautiful language. In fact, English expressions are not beautiful enough for Chinese. They want our language to do what theirs does; they want the beautiful poetic allusion, the two words capturing forever the unwordable moment. They might also like words that resemble objects to bring the beauty home on a visual level. I emphasized poetry with all my classes because poetry takes advantage of all the attributes of words — sound, picture, and meaning.
Traditionally the most important class in language learning in China is “Intensive Reading” which might more accurately be called “Intensive Dictionary.” Students find the meaning of the “whole” by tearing it apart, using the dictionary to find the literal meaning for each word — echoes of Confucius who said that an educated man could evaluate the whole piece of cloth by looking at a swatch. Intensive reading is a slow, laborious way of reading and between the printed word and the dictionary most of the spirit of the original work is lost. A poem becomes a fractured painting that has been taped back together, with colors missing.
To combat this, I gave them poems with comprehension questions like, “What color is war?” I wanted to appeal to their intuitions, not their dictionaries. I wanted them to respond to works written in English with more than their knowledge of the alphabet. They read Chinese poetry with all their hearts. I wanted them to learn that English poetry requires the same involvement for its beauty to emerge.
One of my experiments was to have the students write Haiku or five-line stanzas (Tangkas) in English. I showed them how easy it was by explaining the rules and then writing one on the blackboard on a topic they chose. It had been raining for four months so, inevitably, the y told me to write about rain. The tight forms were familiar to them, but they had not known that English words could be used in nearly the same way as Chinese words. They were surprised to learn that Chinese poetic forms had influenced twentieth century English poetry. But, best of all, they wrote beautiful poems.
I Always Remember One night, with no stars, we sat in the unstirred darkness, heard crickets sing. — Lucy
Oh Love Oh Love cried love-bound soul like the beautiful cloud tempting, hopeful, fantastic, yet remote. — Susie
Haiku The moon shimmering on the still lake…a fish stirs becomes fragments. — Cora
Haiku For the first time I Begin, with fast-beating heart here lies a poem. — Violet
(Lucy, Susie, Cora and Violet are the English names chosen by my students to use in my class)
Sunday mornings I listen to the radio — as many regular readers of my blog might have learned in the past. I listen to the “Legends of Alternative” on Alt 94.9 in San Diego. The DJ is Steve West, a British guy who’s been a DJ in San Diego for more than 30 years. Every Sunday morning he plays songs from the late 70s, early 80s, and, once in a while, from the early 90s. I like the songs, they remind me of good (and bad and weird) moments in my life. I get to listen to DEVO, the Clash, Sex Pistols, those kinds of tunes.
The rest of the week the station plays so-called alternative hits (I see a disconnect there but Oh Well) from the current moment. These days they’re playing an ad for Trojan Condoms. It’s a radio drama, spoken by “Trojan Man.” The first time I heard it, I thought of a student years ago who stood behind me one afternoon, WAAAAYYY too close, and said “I’ll do anything for an A.”
I knew what he meant, and I was nauseated. First why would he think he had any appeal to me at all? (he didn’t) and second, why would he think I needed to pay for it? Seriously? Third, it was just wrong and icky. Fourth, I didn’t want to get into the whole sexual-harassment drama, my word against his, my boss and colleagues and on and on and on and I would lose. Nope. I elbowed him in the stomach and told him to go away.
In the fullness of time, I knew destiny would suspend a noose above him, drop it and tighten it. I even thought — with his unparalleled judgement and modesty — he’d do it himself. They had an assignment to write a commercial and perform it or somehow transform it into a form they could show to the class. In spite of their computer skills, most students opted to do a skit. This kid’s group did, too.
I sat in the back of the room with my critique sheet. His group was up, waiting in the hall. They came in. The kid was wearing a plastic bag thing over his head, hanging down to his knees, holes cut out for his face and arms. He jumped into the performance region in front of the room and yelled, “Hi everyone! I’m Condom Man.”
I thought. “That’s no costume.” The humungous, loud, infinitely long laugh that I shoved down into the depths of my being jumped out later and resounded all the way home.
I researched “Trojan Man” this morning and found that I’m late to the party. Trojan Man is a phenomenon. There are LOTS of commercials and songs, all pretty funny and salacious, but nothing like I visualized. Anything that gets that Jimmy Hat on a young guy is good with me. STDs were an epidemic on my campus.
Out of the thousands of slides my ex and I took while we were in China, only about 400 remain, and out of those, 300 were scannable. As I went through them, doing the tedious mechanical business of trying to get them centered in the frame, then uploaded, then (somewhat) refined with the photo software on my lap top, I expected to have a more intense emotional reaction. My year as a Foreign Expert in English was the experience of a lifetime. But I often thought, looking at a scene, “There are better photos of that on the Internet.”
In 1983, photos of the Forbidden City were unusual. Now?
In 1989 I was living in San Diego. When there were protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and people were killed, my Aunt Martha called me from Denver and said, “Are you happy with what you’ve done?” I laughed, but soon I realized she wasn’t kidding. I could imagine her all in a lather, her right forefinger raised in the air, prepared to deliver one of her incomparable stentorian remonstrances.
“I just taught English, Aunt Martha.”
“But look at what’s happening in Peking!!! You should have left China alone!”
I loved my aunt for thinking the little person that I am had that kind of power.
I thought of my little anthology of American literature and its possibilities as a subversive text. I thought of arguments I’d had with graduate students over the individualism (selfishness) expressed Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” I thought of the city-wide lecture I’d given on the lost generation. “We’re a lost generation, teacher,” said one of my graduate students. “All of us.” When I asked them what they meant they explained that they were going to university only to have to return to their villages. Neither they nor I could know that by the time they were my age NOW (they were my age then) China would have launched stuff into space or that Guangzhou would have hosted the Asian Games. Their villages (most were in Guangdong) would be filled with skyscrapers. Electricity wouldn’t be “iffy” there would be consumer goods for everyone. None of them knew that some would come to America to live forever. Others would come to study and they would return to China. They couldn’t know that their one child would probably study abroad.
While my Aunt Martha overestimated the power of my classroom lectures, she was right in a way. During Mao’s “reign” China remained closed. When it opened to more foreigners, China changed and could never go back. That the young people took to the streets to protest China’s economic policies, only to learn that the iron fist remained clenched, was sad, but, to me, not surprising. Neither Rome nor Modern China could be built in a day.
Last night I woke up realizing that the slides are just a “shard” of a huge adventure that isn’t bound by time and that in a very small way, I became part of the history of China, far more than I am a part of the history of my own country.
* The featured photo is a shard of Anasazi pottery a friend of mine picked up near her home in Arizona. She left it for me, a small gift. I found it on my desk at San Diego State atop a stack of papers-to-grade. Once upon a time, this shard was a shallow bowl, I think, from the way the painted surface is concave and the top edge is finished. Someone took a lot of time to dig the clay, prepare the clay, mold the pot, grind the pigment and paint it onto the surface before firing it.
Being a Foreign Expert in English at South China Teachers University was my first teaching job. I was thirty. I’d gotten my MA three years earlier and, after five years in the clerical jungle, I wanted badly to be in the classroom. However, I wasn’t going after a PhD and I was not the greatest student in my masters program (I was essentially thrown out) so what was I to do? Someone said, “Become a Foreign Expert in English in a Chinese University.”
To get this coveted position, all I had to do was send letters to Chinese universities. I started with the major ones — Beijing University on the top of my list. I got no response and essentially forgot about it, moving on with my life, then, two or so years later, I got a letter from South China Teachers University inviting me to come. One of my letters to some Chinese university had found its way to Guangzhou.
There is a lot to say on this subject, but most of it is teacherly stuff, and all of it would make a book. I don’t want to write a book here and now, so…
Classrooms were large and comfortable with windows on both sides. Guangzhou is on the Tropic of Cancer and air circulation is an issue much of the year. The teacher stood on a podium and most teachers lectured. I am not a lecturer and that was the biggest change for my students. For months they couldn’t figure me out, but as all of them were training to become English teachers themselves, they got a lesson in one of their training classes describing the “direct method.” They were very excited to come to class and explain to me that they understood now.
My biggest challenges were the radically different learning tradition they had grown up with, the indoctrination my students had experienced all their lives, and my own inexperience. I taught three classes of seniors American literature. Three classes of juniors, composition. I taught a graduate seminar in American literature and I coached anyone who came to me needing help.
My students had been in the same class with the same classmates for their entire time in college. Each class had a “head” and the nature of each class reflected that student’s personality. One of my classes was almost always silent because the “head” was a passionate Young Pioneer and a Party Member. The other two were more liberal.
A day came when I couldn’t stand the silence of the silent class any more and I yelled at them. “I’m just talking at you like you’re a bunch of empty jars I’m supposed to fill up!”
That comment made it all around the campus. The next day the “head” stood up and apologized, saying, “They’ve been silent for four years now. You can’t expect them to start talking all at once.”
“You could all try,” I said. From then on, having been criticized, they began to venture their ideas, but they were still a very reticent group.
From then on, though, it was kind of a rueful joke throughout my department; my students were empty jars. But I didn’t know — and they didn’t know — how quickly China would change and their being empty jars would be a problem for them when (and they couldn’t have expected it) they went overseas to study. At that time, almost NO ONE left China; few people ever left their village.
After reading my students’ first essay assignment, I discovered that the Soviets had written Communist literary commentary on most works in the USIA textbook I was using. An example of this kind of commentary is, “Rip Van Winkle is the story of how the bourgeois revolution did nothing to help poor peasants like Rip.” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening shows the hard life of the peasant while the rich man is warm in his house.”
In combination with Communism, Confucian philosophy isn’t conducive to original thought A good scholar is humble and repeats what the experts have said. You see how it was… When I read their first essay, 2/3 of them said the same thing. Half of the remaining third said some of that. Five out of the 75 essays offered me unique student readings.
I decided that I would write my own textbook for my literature classes. I typed it on ditto masters, sitting in the office of the Foreign Language Department secretarial pool. It was a small anthology compiled of work that wasn’t in any of the American literature books in the college library or the USIA textbook.
Chinese generally love poetry, and it’s a big part of their tradition. I love it too, so that made classes fun for all of us. I’d read a bit of Chinese poetry and sometimes dared to bring it into the discussion, not very successfully because the Chinese truly believe (believed?) that other nationalities and cultures are inferior and cannot truly understand anything Chinese.
Maybe they’re right, but American literature did not prove to be so inscrutable. 😉
One of the most beautiful and memorable teaching moments of my 35+ year career was teaching Longfellow’s poem, “A Psalm of Life.” Maoist propaganda was all about inspirational BS, but none of it looked at the struggles of an individual against personal despair (all despair would end when they reached Communism). That doesn’t mean that personal despair wasn’t part of being Chinese. Non-Maoist Chinese literature is full of it. It was that in the collectivist world view, personal anything is at odds with “serve the people.” I believe that serving the people is a good mission. But you need to be healthy yourself, and life demands the individual courage Longfellow writes about. Plus, I knew the poem by heart.
So I taught it, all over the chalkboard, pictures to illustrate the journey of the poet. I used a piece of marble as a metaphor for a person’s life, something we, ourselves make. One of my students suddenly said, “Teacher, you mean Rongferrow says we must carve our stone, even when it is very hard, to make our life as beautiful as possible so others will be inspired.”
Their first, non-Soviet mediated moment with American thought, American literature. My “empty jars” were learning to engage directly with ideas on a page. I have tears in my eyes thinking of that moment, the moment my class — for those students — became an adventure.
And “Rongferrow” became forever my secret name for a poet I love very much. In Cantonese, R and L are difficult sounds. More than once, on a picnic, a student asked to borrow my “life” meaning my Swiss Army Life. ❤
I was always happy in my classrooms. Life in a place like China (as if there were another place like China) was a dream come true for me. I loved teaching. You can imagine that I was deeply, deeply happy. I went to class every day smiling.
Then came a time when I learned the difference between a smile of happiness in Colorado and in my Chinese classroom.
“Teacher, why are you always smiling? Do you think we are funny? Our English is funny?”
“You’re English is good. And no, you’re not funny. I’m smiling because I’m happy.”
“Why are you happy?”
“I’m in China. I’m teaching. I love both those things.”
My students were amazed. They were all going to be teachers, but they hadn’t chosen it. The government had compelled them to become teachers. One boy asked, “You love China?”
“Yes. I love China very much.”
“Do you love America?”
“Yes. I love America.”
“How can you love both countries? Don’t you miss your family?”
“Yes, I miss my family.” I didn’t but I thought of the Rocky Mountains as my family. “I miss the mountains. I miss a lot of things, but in China I get to be a teacher and I love teaching. And, I love you all. I love everything I learn every day here. It’s beautiful.”
My students were stunned. That was the end of that class. There was no where to go from there. They’d asked a question, expecting to be humiliated and got that instead. The “head” got up and addressed his classmates in Cantonese (they’d figured out I might understand if they spoke Mandarin). When he finished, my students collected their things, and he said, “Come on, teacher. We’re going to show you something.”
They took me to see some of the future of my village, Shipai. A new park was being made out of a blasted out slum. The grounds of a large garden had been laid out. Some had been built and planted. There was a brand new moon gate through which the little mountain behind the college was framed. Above the arch of the moon gate were four characters. “Sky, wind, clouds, mountain.”
“Can you read it, teacher?”
“Yes but what does it mean?”
“It’s a famous poem.” Some Chinese poetry is like that. Very, very spare, part of its beauty comes from the characters and the scene. I looked through the arch. All that was missing was “wind.”
A Psalm of Life BY HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.
Tell me not, in mournful numbers, Life is but an empty dream! For the soul is dead that slumbers, And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal; Dust thou art, to dust returnest, Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow, Is our destined end or way; But to act, that each to-morrow Find us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting, And our hearts, though stout and brave, Still, like muffled drums, are beating Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle, In the bivouac of Life, Be not like dumb, driven cattle! Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant! Let the dead Past bury its dead! Act,— act in the living Present! Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us We can make our lives sublime, And, departing, leave behind us Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another, Sailing o’er life’s solemn main, A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing, With a heart for any fate; Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labor and to wait.
P.S. The sign in the featured image is funny. It should say, ‘Hua Nan Shi Fan Xue Yuan” but “h” and “n” do kind of look alike. Chinglish was one of the best thing about daily life in China. But I made mistakes, too, all the time. Communication was a huge source of laughter for all of us.
P.P.S. South China Normal University now has three campuses and is a prestigious university with more than a thousand international students. It looks NOTHING like it did when I was there.
At the top of the third flight of stairs was an office looking out on the campus. An arched window faced west. The floor was piled high with neatly stacked punch cards and books. In front of a big desk, also piled high but this time with papers, books and a pair of large Wellington clad feet sat a lanky red-haired man with a very British/Nordic face (kind of like the real Lawrence of Arabia), a large nose and very blue eyes. He looked to be in his twenties — but to me at 18, he was a GROWN UP a PROFESSOR, a little scary, even. I’d never sought out or spoken to a professor. Hell, I’d only be at college two days.
“Excuse me. Are you Mr. Preston?”
“Yes. How can I help you?”
“I want to take your class, Middle English Verse Romances, but I don’t have the prerequisites. I’m just a freshman and I haven’t taken Intro to British Literature.”
Already at 18 I had a resistance to survey courses…
“Do you have your paper?” He swung his feet off the desk and turned around in his creaky old swivel chair.
“Yeah.” I handed it to him.
“Why do you want to take this class?” he asked as he signed it.
“I’m interested in Middle English Verse Romances.”
No I wasn’t. I wanted to take the class because I didn’t think I needed any freshman courses. I was the shit. I was smart and advanced and perceptive and a great writer and I didn’t need to jump the hoops. I could take a senior level English class my first semester of college and ace it.
“OK,” he said. “There’s a lot of reading. So who are you?”
“I’m Martha Kennedy,” I stuck out my hand to shake. He took it in his giant paw.
“All right, Martha Kennedy. You’re in the class. Go turn this in.”
Thinking back on that moment now, I also think of the innumerable students who walked into my classes over the years. I remember uncountable first days. I remember the shining eyes, the undaunted expressions, the certainty that they’d ace my class and go on to the next thing NO PROBLEM. I don’t know how many times I warned them, “Don’t set your sights on an A. Set your sights on learning something. You have no idea what’s going to happen during the semester. I do. Some of you are going to lose interest — you’re sophomores and there’s a verified phenomenon known as ‘sophomore slump.’ Some of you are going to have skate-boarding accidents and break something. Some of you are going to fall in love and some of you are going to be dumped by your lovers. Some of you will have family problems. Some of you will get mono or something.” I know somewhere inside I was remembering my first and second (and third and fourth) years of college and university.
I didn’t know how I would be my first time away from home. I didn’t know I’d miss my family, that dysfunctional assemblage that I had been so eager to escape. I didn’t know I’d get a very dangerous case of bronchitis and need to be in the health center hospital for almost a month. I didn’t know that my heart was still broken from the summer before. I didn’t know that rebelling against everything was stupid. I didn’t know I’d have horrible roommates (I did). I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I didn’t know…
Mr. Preston was always there, in that office with the afternoon light, the books on the floor and the computer punch cards. He was in the process of making the first ever computer generated index to a literary work — he was compiling a concordance to Chaucer.
At a certain point in the semester, realizing I was lost, I started following him around and he let me. When I was in health services, he was alerted to the fact that I was missing class because I was desperately ill. It was he who was there when I was discharged and took me for coffee, sitting and talking with me about my life and my family. That afternoon — blustery and Novembery — I went with him to the biology lab where he picked up a dozen pullets that he’d be taking to his farm between Longmont and Boulder. His black jeans were always covered with cat hair and feathers and now I understood why.
We carried the chickens to his car and he said something useful to me that I no longer remember, but it had something to do with ignoring everything that didn’t really matter. What might that have been? I’d just been in a play and gotten the only mention in the local paper for the role I played. I’d declared an art major, but wasn’t doing very well in that area, in fact, my first sculpture project had ended in my being pulled into the president’s office to give an explanation. I’d taken on an immense project for anthropology, one I couldn’t possibly do. I was always trying to find marijuana because I was determined to be a hippy. I wanted a boyfriend, but didn’t want to sleep with anyone. I yearned and yearned and yearned in vague and inchoate yearning, but? I was pushing the envelope as hard as I could without knowing why. If I had seen myself as the teacher I became, I’d have been Mr. Preston, too. In fact, I can think of several students to whom I was “Mr. Preston.”
Mr. Preston was somewhat like my father. He was brilliant, individualistic and iconoclastic. He respected things done well. He was too alive to be called an intellectual, but he definitely had an intellect. He taught class sitting on the back of a chair, his feet on the seat, a cup of coffee sloshing as he gestured. I thought he was wonderful.
I couldn’t really read Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight or anything else assigned in the class, but I managed to write a decent final paper and Mr. Preston let me take his next senior class, Restoration Drama. Second semester was somewhat better. Going home for Christmas helped; not smoking pot helped. I was a more sober and focused girl than I’d been in fall, but I was also sad and scared. My dad (who had MS) wasn’t doing well. My brother was not at home much, even though he was only sixteen. My mom? All I can say is we fought constantly and viciously.
My dorm mother (who’d decided I was anti-social, depressed and insane) had the college send me to see the school psychologist. He was a nice man and he asked me concrete questions about my life and my family. At the end of the session he said, “I don’t think you need to come back. There’s nothing wrong with you. Your family has some real problems. I think you’re scared for the future and sad for your dad. I think you’re worried about your little brother and you’ve been carrying a big load on your shoulders. You need to take advantage of being here and not at home. You have an opportunity here to learn and you should use it. Come back any time you want to talk.”
He was right, of course. I immediately went to see Mr. Preston and told him about it. He nodded in agreement through my whole recitation. He said, “Your dorm mother thinks that because you’re young you can’t have any real problems. But you have some real problems. Next year, find another dorm.” I did find another dorm, but I also remembered that being young doesn’t mean “trouble free.” That right there made me a better teacher when my turn came.
I discovered that at my school (Colorado Women’s College RIP) I could take any class I wanted. All I had to do was find one other student who wanted it and a professor qualified to teach it. I wanted to learn Greek so I could read Homer in the original language. I found another girl who wanted it and I went to Mr. Preston who said he’d teach it.
Back then, photocopies DID exist but they were expensive and the machines were few and far between. He had his text from the Jesuit school he’d gone to as a boy, and had three copies made.
“I can only do this at 8 am.”
“OK,” I said. He knew I slept until noon.
“You’ll have to be there because it’s going to mean I have to get up at 4 to take care of the animals before driving in from Boulder.”
“I can do it,” I said.
“XXX (the other girl) said that works for her. All right. We’ll meet Mondays through Thursday mornings at 8 am.”
Looking back, I know Mr. Preston was — among other things — trying to get me to learn self-discipline, to put learning something above staying up all night and sleeping half the day. I also know, now, that that those habits seem to be a common among post-adolescents. Most of the kids I taught over the years thought a 1 pm class was a morning class…
Fall semester rolled around and I moved into a new dorm, which I loved, had my own room, which I loved. Other things had happened over the summer and I was a more settled girl, more focused on learning something, more focused on the future that was becoming clearer — my dad was now in a nursing home and that meant that however much longer he lived, it would not be long. MS is not a deadly disease, but it does weaken the body and the immune system as organs and muscles stop functioning as well as they should. My mom no longer had a burden heavier than she could carry. I could only hope she’d begin to build a life of her own because she’d need one soon.
Greek was great — though very difficult. We read the Odyssey. We didn’t study grammar or vocabulary, we just read Homer. It was a good way to learn. It was the way Mr. Preston had learned. Every day I went back to my room and translated Homer. I liked my classes that semester, I made friends, and moved quickly along toward that vaunted goal of graduation. By the end of my second year, I was classified as a second semester Junior.
My father died in February of that school year. After the funeral I kept to myself. I studied a lot. I spent time with Mr. Preston and quietly digested these events that most people at age 20 have not experienced. I don’t remember anything Mr. Preston said to me, I only remember having lunch in the cafeteria with him and other teachers and some of my friends, of listening to them debate ideas and laugh, of following him to his office and sitting in a comfy chair and trying to read Greek.
He was my mentor, but he did his mentoring by being himself and never closing the door to me. I am sure he gave me good advice and useful life lessons. I’m sure I used them for my own well-being and later for the well-being of the students who came my way, equally fucked up, confused and scared. The one thing I can say for sure is that his presence in my life during those troubled years was a beacon of light flashing the words, “Be yourself” against the uncertain firmament of my dark sky.
This blog post was originally published some 3 years ago. A person only has so many mentors. I’ve had three actual living people as mentors along with various and sundry dead people. There’s a difference between mentor and hero, but the line is kind of fuzzy, especially with dead mentors.
When I graduated from the University of Colorado in 1974 with a BA in English, I had the idea that the world had been waiting just for that moment, and all I had to do was walk into the local newspaper office — the Daily Camera — and say, “I’m here, the reporter of your dreams.”
I’d worked on college papers, been the editorial editor of one (a column in that paper got me thrown out of that school but a good journalist doesn’t retract a valid opinion, right?), had articles published in the university paper, had even had a letter published in a national magazine. I was obviously awesome.
“Can you type?” they asked me at the Daily Camera.
What did that have to do with being a reporter?
“Before we talk to you, you have to take a typing test.” The bar was low, 35 wpm, but I failed.
“Sorry, sweet cheeks,” they said and sent me packing. I think the door might have hit my butt on the way out.
But I needed a job. I was married to a student, and half our income vanished when I graduated. I got a job on the line at the Head Ski factory in Boulder. It paid $5.85/hour and we were (obviously) rolling in it.
Time passed. My husband graduated. We moved to Denver. He got a good job. I decided to go to grad school. I was lost, and I had a good project for a thesis so why not? But until school started, I was learning the meaning of “ennui.”
I responded to an ad in The Denver Post for volunteer tutors at a new program — The Adult Education Tutorial Program — that had been started by a nun and was held in an old red, sandstone church a few blocks away from my house, in the Highland Park area of Denver that was — back then — considered a semi-slum.
I’d never taught anybody anything. I had a lingering dislike for teachers and teaching was for losers, not incipient famous writers such as myself. Still, it was something to do until school started.
I walked to the church, went down the stairs, opened the door and took a deep breath. My palms were sweaty and my heart was pounding. What was I doing?
“Martha? I’m Sister Mary Augustine. Thank you so much for joining us. The program is new, but we think for some adults who want to go back to school but are afraid, tutoring just might work. Here’s some paperwork for you to fill out. Your student will be here at 10:30. Our sessions are an hour long.”
I met my student, a Hispanic man in his thirties named Ramón Hurtado. He lived all the way out in Fort Lupton, back then an agricultural community. I spoke a little Spanish and he spoke a high level of survival English. I asked him why he’d come to tutoring. He explained that his little girl was now in second grade, and she knew that when he read her bedtime stories, he wasn’t reading the words on the page. He was ashamed. “I didn’t go to school much,” he said. “I didn’t like it. I liked working with my family in the fields.” They had been migrant workers. “I could make money, too, and that was good.” He smiled. “But now I wish I went to school.”
We had to start at the alphabet.
We met twice a week and Ramón learned fast. He had that magical quality — internal motivation — and he had a sense of humor about himself. After three months, he was reading at a third-grade level, a little ahead of his daughter. I thought a good way to end our “class” would be for us to go to the library six blocks away and get him a library card. He was so excited to have a library card! He checked out two books to read to his little girl. He hadn’t told her he couldn’t read or that he was going to school. It was his secret.
When we met for our last class meeting, he was ecstatic. He’d read her both stories.
Nothing in my life had ever made me so deeply and completely happy. My experience with Ramón showed me that I was a teacher, not a newspaper reporter. When I started grad school, I was most excited about my job as a Teaching Assistant, and I continued volunteering at the Adult Education Tutorial program. It was the beginning of my career in teaching, a career that made me happy for more than thirty-five years.
“Panoply” makes my teeth itch. It’s an English teacher word (not its fault; I’m not blaming it), one of those that kids learn in high school as they develop their vocabulary so they can write longer more descriptive essays. Unfortunately, as a college writing teacher, it was my job to unteach them and it wasn’t always easy. Lots of students felt betrayed. “But my high school English teacher said…” I tried to explain it as the way a giant amorphous gaseous unfocused section of the universe could collapse into a singularity of immense gravity and power, smaller and more intense.
“Panoply” goes along with “plethora.” Back in the day, when I saw either of these words little worms crawled under the skin on my arm. I knew what was ahead of me.
So who were these kids? Mostly they were kids who thought using big words (that they never heard in real life) would impress their teacher. In their mind, “English teachers like these words. If I use these words, she will like me and I will get a better grade.” That smarmy, unctuous little creature didn’t get it.
“Why didn’t I get an A? I always got A’s on my English papers in high school.”
“Well, Lamont, you didn’t follow directions. This isn’t supposed to be an argumentative essay. It’s supposed to be an observation of a place in nature. I gave you a handout. All you had to do was fill it in as you looked around.”
“You never said that.”
“OK, that’s not a conversation I’m having, Lamont. If you look at this panoply of papers here, done by your classmates, you’ll see that everyone did the assignment except you. You tell me what that means, ‘K?”
“Lamont, you want a chance to do this assignment right? You don’t deserve it, but I’ll give it to you.” I didn’t say, “Because I’m the all-powerful deity in charge of this room for one hour three times a week and from my high promontory, I can make all things new again.” It was a PR stunt. A kid like this didn’t deserve a second chance, but if I gave it to him, it would speak well of me. It might (often did) turn into a teaching opportunity for a skill more important than writing. He might learn that his homework is for HIM not for ME.
“Yeah, really. I know you know what the assignment is. It’s on the syllabus, it’s on the handout I gave you.”
“Uh, I never got the handout.”
“How’d that happen?”
“Uh, I wasn’t here.”
“Awright. Here you go. Bring your paper Monday. You’ll lose a few points, but if you don’t do this project, a lot of the stuff in class won’t make sense, OK?”
I had an immense panoply of these kids. An entire plethora.
In the drama over the demise of the WordPress Daily Prompt, I went to my old Blogger sites to see about maybe you know, switching back? I haven’t looked at those sites for years. Among them are two I developed for my classes. One of them from WAY back before I evolved and changed, way back in 2011.
At the time, I was teaching five sections of basic business communication at San Diego State and several different composition classes at a couple of community colleges. The composition classes were online, hybrid and in the classroom. Being an adjunct teacher is a lot like being the cowboy who’s told to “dance” just before the other cowboy starts shooting at his feet. You have to be ready to do any and everything at the last minute. I taught online classes for as long as there have been online classes because — unlike many English teachers — I’ve always been interested in and comfortable with computers.
Many students signed up for those classes because they didn’t want to go to school or they thought it was an easy way out. It didn’t occur to them that an online class was basically “all writing, all the time.” After a few years, I understood this well and the very first page of a very detailed (cover-your-ass-so-we-don’t-get-sued-by-little-Johnny’s-helicopter-parents) syllabus was actually MEANT to discourage people from signing up. The goal was to help those who DID take the class succeed and to direct students who would not succeed into classes where they would have a better chance. More than traditional classes, online classes depend on reading and writing fluency. There’s no one to talk things over with.
This is a very important class for building a foundation for good writing and thinking skills that you will need throughout the rest of your education and in your life. Writing is a skill everyone uses in EVERY field of work. You will need to be a good writer regardless of your major or planned career.
In any online class, you bear a large part of the responsibility for your OWN learning. This is NOT the best choice if you’re a student who hates English, who hasn’t done well in English classes in the past, and is a second-language learner without native speaker proficiency.
Q: Why do most students take online or hybrid classes?
A: Convenience! Most students who choose distance learning choose it because they feel that they can work on their own when it’s convenient for them. Great, huh?
Fact: Online/hybrid classes require MORE self-motivation than traditional, face-to-face classes. They require excellent time management skills and the ability to work without a teacher pushing or praising you. Students need to be very self-motivated and organized to do well in an online class.
It will be up to you to review lectures, take quizzes, post homework, participate in the discussion forum. You will find lectures online, information about writing online, grammar and reading comprehension exercises online and you are responsible for doing them just as you would be in a 16/17 week traditional class meeting in a classroom with the teacher standing over you waiting for you to hand in your homework.
Important Things to Think About Before Taking this Class:
If you are NOT self-motivated and willing to work very hard for the length of this class learning to write, somewhat on your own, drop this class ASAP.
If you “work well under pressure” (meaning you are a person who procrastinates) drop this class NOW.
If you think that an online writing class is a good way to “get it over with” an online class is not your best choice. Online classes involve a major time commitment and unless you are organized, motivated and focused, it is very easy to fall behind.
Your homework will be posted online where your classmates can read it. If you are uncomfortable letting others read your writing or taking and receiving constructive criticism from your professor and your classmates that others will read, drop this class NOW.
If you are uncomfortable using computers, but you still want to take an online class, take an introductory course to computers FIRST. Your experience will be MUCH better in an online class if you don’t have to learn to use computers too.
If you are not sure about your ability to handle an online class, here are two surveys you can take to assess your aptitude in this area. Answer HONESTLY. It’s for your own benefit to know yourself well and to get the most from a class.
For those mature and motivated enough, the online writing class was usually a good choice and they learned a lot. Once the mechanical agonies were over, things got good. Reading this made me happy this morning.
How to Comment on the Work of Your Classmates
When you comment on your classmates’ work, open their thread, read what they have written, then press the Reply button. That is the space in which you can comment.
Please write something more than, “I thought it was great.” The hard thing for writers is to know how their writing comes across to other people. To get credit for commenting (worth 1/2 grade point to you) really TELL your classmate what you read. Tell them when something makes sense (and tell them what it is) and tell them when something doesn’t. Comments like, “Great job!” aren’t very helpful when your teacher comes along later and writes more suggestions for correcting your homework than you wrote for your homework. Remember: writing concrete and useful comments to your classmates about their work will help your grade just as reading their comments and applying useful suggestions to your own writing will help your grade.
Things to look for:
Small grammar problems (sentence fragments, spelling)
Places where your classmate’s work doesn’t make sense
Places where your classmate’s work makes GREAT sense
Give examples in your comment so your classmate can get concrete help and encouragement from you. Ideally you will write at least 100 words.
I remembered how well this had worked out; how enthusiastically and helpfully my students usually commented on their classmate’s work. I thought of the online classes I taught that turned into communities of writers.
I cared SO MUCH about this in 2011, more than did my students, certainly more than did my bosses who just wanted a competent warm body to plug into a slot on the schedule.
That’s the thing about education. It’s predicated on the dedication of teachers. As school shooting is followed by school shooting I wonder that teachers even go to school, but there they go, trucking off with the white board markers they bought themselves, their lesson plans, their iPads, their laptops, their dreams for their students. There they are, staying up until the wee hours, worried about the kid who seems to be suffering from some secret trouble that’s affecting his/her work. There they are, staying late to help a kid understand a story, polynomial equations, the thesis statement. There they are, sitting in the bleachers, sun in their eye, perspiration running down their back in the rented regalia showing the colors of their university, during an interminable graduation ceremony because a student asked them to give him/her his/her diploma. Who does that? What other career “demands” that?
Yesterday I took my walk and on my way home, saw my neighbor outside and stopped to talk. As we were talking, my OTHER neighbor from across the street came running over with rhubarb cake for me. ❤ We were instantly in an animated and funny conversation about being pulled over for making a rolling stop and then arguing with the cop. At one point I said to my neighbor (a retired teacher) “We have that teacher look, E. We kind of scare people.”
We had to laugh. But I’ve seen her when the kids and young teachers walk by on their way to the park. Her face lights up, “School kids! Young teachers!” and she has to say hi to all of them that she knows. And that enthusiasm is really the jist of it. I wanted my students to succeed; I honestly and sincerely cared very much about that even if it meant starting the semester with a tough-love message telling them to drop my class.
Back in the day when I was a teacher, I was often called “authentic” or “real.” People said, “You’re yourself, even in the classroom!”
I found this very odd. Who else would I be? ESPECIALLY in the classroom. It was one of the many mysteries of my career that fell under the heading, “What do other teachers do?”
I have no idea. When anyone said it to me, I wondered if other teachers put on a “teacher suit” and walked into their classes every day. For that matter, anyone at any job is not 100% themselves. We all play roles at work. Here’s me teaching:
Walk into the classroom — probably early. Sit down and assemble tools for the hour or however long the class is. Get the file of this class’ work out of your bag, gather handouts if appropriate, load the slide show if there is one, answer questions from the ones who’ve learned if they get there early they get time with the teacher. Joke around with students. Class fills. Look at the clock. At the appointed hour (or a couple minutes after, depending) assuming a (usually sincerely) friendly smile, look around the room. In my eyes is a SECOND message, “We’re starting now,” and the show began.
It was a performance. Always. I haven’t done any of it ONCE since I retired.
But, there were surprises, too. Maybe my “authenticity” emerged in THOSE moments like the time a student I liked, who liked me, said, “Fuck you!” He was angry and he meant it.
How did I “authentically” handle that? “You might want to leave now,” is what I said to him, quietly knowing that the other students’ eyes were on me. What I authentically meant was, “Get out of here before I call security.”
Of course, the kid had to come BACK to class. I knew the moment would come but not when or how. Sure enough, several days later the kid was waiting for me in the hall outside the classroom.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I was…”
“I know. That kind of thing just hurts you. You have to learn to keep your shit together. Come back to class.”
Was that authentic? Yes and no. I happened because of the contract I had signed with the university that carried with it the implication of a contract between me and my students. And that contract carried the notion that “You’re going to be interacting with 19 year olds. There’s no way to accurately assess their mental states at any given moment. Wear a psychic flak jacket when you go in there, and carry vases for the roses you’ll receive.”
What was authentic? I believed in what I was teaching. That was 100% real. I liked my students. I enjoyed the classroom. All of that, authentic. Maybe that was “different,” but I’ll never know.