The Little Class that Could

Continued from here.

I stared at the clock and watched each movement of the bright red second hand.  My brain sunk further and further into a deep blackness.  Every unavoidable tick rotated gears underneath the cheap plastic which locked in turn with another gear or locking pin, winding the spring.  The two-hour break for lunch was almost over and I had spent most of that time silently spiraling down.

“It could be worse,” my co-teacher shrugged, “you could still be behind a desk in the States.”  His half-hearted joke fell on deaf ears.  No amount of joking could stop my decent. I was the self-pitying submariner, a trekker fully expecting never to return from loathing. “But you better collect your things.”

I moved past the bright red second hand, ripping my eyes from it as though enchanted, and focused on the hour and minute.  I would face my final class of the day in five minutes.  Part of me was embarrassed and knew I was being melodramatic.  Most of me, however…

“Thanks, man.  I have no idea what to expect from Overseas English, but I predict it to be at least as fun as Preschool English.  Wish me luck and if there should happen to be an accident in this class, just know that they had it coming.”

He barked a mirthless laugh and might have thought me to be at least a quarter serious.  I trudged through the noisy halls down the stairs to the second floor.  The moment before actually entering a classroom had lengthened each time.  Now, it was a good two minutes of soul-searching and resolve-building before I could manage.  The best I could say of my methods that day were that I remained calm during each class, drudging through with a half-smile more or less permanently etched on my face.  A cyborg’s smile of a man who wants never to teach again but must.  A mannequin’s smile.

I entered to find three girls already in the small room seated at a ping pong table which took up most of the available floor space.  The room was just about as large as my office which was directly above it and the windows took up the entire opposite wall, letting the weak golden rays that managed to pierce the constant smog of the city brighten everything.  The students turned as I entered, each face eager and beaming.  My suspicion faded to mere confusion as they waved excitedly to me.

“Hello, Mr. Brown!” and “We are excited to have you as our teacher!”

I stood speechless for a moment as the door closed behind me, cutting me off from the noise of the hallway and the bell just beginning to ring the start of class.

“This is the whole class?” I began hesitantly.

They were arranged on three sides of the ping pong table.  The taller girl with her hair in a ponytail and a straight back responded.  “Yes, there are only three of us.  We are,” she paused for a moment, searching for the correct word, “preparing for…”

“We will go to Singapore!” enthusiastically finished the short girl whose long bangs covered a round face I would later determine almost never stopped smiling.  “I’m Daisy.  Pleased to meet you.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, too, Daisy.  I’m Casey.  You don’t have to call me Mr. Brown here.”

“Like friends?  We will all be friends?” the quiet girl next to Daisy asked.

“Of course!” Her soft laugh was joined by everyone in the room.  Even my own.  We talked of our lives and I learned their names, dreams, and secrets and they learned mine.  Kathy and Daisy seemed to come from well-off families easily able to afford the expenses of the class (which I learned were large).  Then, there was Lynn, the quiet one, whose family had been struggling to raise enough for her to study in the program, which would be costly once the semester closed and they traveled to Singapore to continue their studies.  I had been laughed at many times that day.  Mocked, jeered, and ridiculed.  The girls laughed with no trace of malignancy.  It seemed like an eternity since anyone had an earnest human emotion or sympathy.  As if for the first time, a person, or three, and I connected.  Little did they know they were rekindling hope where before I had only despair.  I would later look back in amazement at how a mere five hours of emotional wear can beat one down and, even more surprising, how five minutes of earnest respect can restore one.  I was revitalized.

Some may think it petty and weak of me to be so quickly cowed and downtrodden under circumstances like I had witnessed that day.  I was ashamed of how low I had sunk in such a short time but it had already seemed as though there would be no ray of sunlight.  I had foreseen the next year of being a laughingstock in my professional life and it had seemed so very bleak.  Perhaps that is one of the niceties of being human, though.  We think we know everything when we have facts but the truth is that we’re terrible about predicting the future and anything is possible.  There will always be a surprise waiting just around the bend.  Things can change for evil or good in relatively no time.

About Casey

Casey arrived in China almost by accident in the fall of 2009 to teach English. Since then, he has enjoyed a new-found respect and interest for its people, food, and culture. He returned to teach English this fall and will provide a layman's impressions of everyday life in China.
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9 Responses to The Little Class that Could

  1. Casey, I remember several times during my first years of teaching (albeit in the US) when classes would have me nearly in tears. Then, out of the blue, that gem of a class would emerge and make everything worth it. I definitely identified with what you’ve written. I hope the rest of the year improves greatly. Jiayou!

    • Casey says:

      Thanks, Miranda. I’ve not had a teary afternoon yet since I’ve been in Nanjing! Those bad classes really made the days when things went nearly normal or almost acceptable all the more special. And the hidden gems made you feel all the richer for having found them, like a cleaning the entire house and finding that lost and valuable heirloom that’s been in the family for generations unexpectedly.

      As for the rest of the school year improving… you’ll just have to see how that went in later posts 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  2. Yaxue C. says:

    Wonderful surprise, Casey. I have been wondering, since the last piece, and getting a little worried: What is going to happen to Monsieur Casey? How will he cope?

    I don’t know how many times I have told my child that, when you sit down in a classroom, you are there to fulfill a human contract between yourself and your teacher; and that contract says he/she teaches and you learn. It doesn’t matter whether you are bright or not; as long as you show you want to learn, you are giving back what your teacher needs and deserves.

    I don’t know how well a sixth grader is taking in this piece of advice, but I am willing to say it a hundred more times. The reason I feel very keen about this is because, every time I watch the teachers in action, I am thinking, My God, that’s hard, and I hope my child to be a redeeming part of their hardworking.

    • Tom says:

      I loved this part of the story too, it is amazing how little positive feedback it takes from a student to recharge a teacher’s batteries.

  3. Joel says:

    Hi Casey,

    Wonderful post- I have been in Chengdu for about a year now and if you want to meet up or need anything let me know.


    • Casey says:

      Thanks for the support! I actually taught in Chengdu in the fall of 2009 and have since worked in the US and come back to China, though this time to Nanjing. I’ll definitely let you know if I’m back in Sichuan, though. Keep up the hard work!

  4. Warren says:

    Hey man, I just gotta’ say, you are free, and you don’t need to fulfill the obligation if it turns out to have been not what it seemed. If you know your job is the pits, I’m sure you can resign. Don’t sacrifice your mental well-being for this blog. There are plenty of more reasonable teaching jobs out there, and you could easily find an opening in a public university, for example, where the students had to pass the rigorous college entrance exam to be there. Bail out. If you have to, go to Vietnam and teach there until the next term. They are always looking for teachers.

    Your teaching job sounds like it could do long term damage to your self-confidence as a teacher, because they throw you willy-nilly into class situations you couldn’t prepare yourself adequately for. Surprise = you’re just teaching 3 students! Great, the three female students are all full of glee just to be in your presence. But that won’t last forever. You’ll need to make custom lessons just for them to prepare them for Singapore.

    Yeah, almost any job at a real public school (that isn’t a vocational school for those who couldn’t get in even the 3rd tier universities), or even a language mill (which at least should have small classes and a curriculum) is better than putting yourself through the thankless nonsense you’re going through now.

    Just my opinion.

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