Back to School: Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, Boom!

Campus shops2They were a tough crowd. I introduced my first two literature classes to my concept of learning as a journey. At first their faces were impenetrable masks. Then I told them, “Even in America we know about Chair Mao’s famous Long March, and the founding of the People’s Republic of China.” Their faces lit up with pride. That’s when I knew my students understood me. “So this is an honor for me to be here on the China’s 60th anniversary, and be your guide on another journey. And it is an honor to be part of your education in the beginning of the Chinese Century. Of course, this journey will not be as hard as the Long March, but it will challenge you nonetheless.”

It was the first day of a two-semester class on American and British literature for junior English majors attending Xiangnan University in the city of Chenzhou in southern Hunan province. In the summer months prior to my arrival, I had known that I would be teaching literature, and that I would have the freedom to create my own curriculum. I was told that there was a text book and that the students were acquainted with some English literature such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Earnest Hemingway. Furthermore, I was told that I should feel free to bring my own books from American because the government-issue textbook was, “Maybe not so good.”

But it was not until the day before school, that I actually met heads of the English Department, given the schedule and textbooks, and asked, “Would it be convenient for me to teach Drama as well?”

Now it is only the first week of school and my third week in China. My one year in China is as much an experiment in living as Thoreau’s life at Walden Pond in Concord, MA. My modus operandi is to never say no—or in Thoreau’s words, “…to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…,” and as the Romantics say, “seize the day.” So when I was asked to teach Drama, I told the dean that I would be very happy to teach drama.

Now it was the first day of class. The students already knew me as Teacher Matt. “But what if they wanted to get my attention? Sometimes students will see me downtown or walking around campus reading a book, or maybe I’m just wandering around in another world thinking, dreaming, and planning my next lesson. Sometimes when I am in this state of being it is hard for me to hear people. It is not because I am ignoring you or because I cannot hear.  It is because I am in another world. I am a traveler.  I saw in your information cards that many of you enjoy traveling.  But many of us cannot afford to go to other countries.  And most of us do not know to how to time travel or travel to other worlds. But I do. My goal during this journey is to teach you how to travel to other worlds, other places, and other times. These worlds are found in literature, stories, and poetry.”

I paced the aisles and strode before the class like a tyger burning bright. Some students nodded. Others looked at me with blank faces. One student took off her glasses and laid her head down on her desk. I looked around some more. Many students focused their gaze on me. “So if you see me outside the classroom and you want to speak with me, if you want my attention, then be bold and gain my attention by saying this,” and I sounded a barbaric yawp to the four corners of the classroom, “’Oh Captain, my Captain!’ And you will have my undivided attention.” There was laughter and the class seemed to recognize this line from a famous American movie as some repeated it. Maybe one or two even recognized it as the title of one of Walt Whitman’s famous poems.

Then I launched into some poetry readings from Shakespeare, Robert Frost, and Langston Hughes. And if you were not one of students already resting after a long summer break, then you would have seen me dance around the classroom like a wild shaman chanting Vachel Linday’s “The Congo” [I read a politicaly correct version meant for middle schoolers].  I read this last poem to emphasize a point that poetry is meant to be read aloud—that it can be both dramatic and performed.

Classes were 1 1/2 hours long. The students took breaks in the middle of class. During which, students asked more about me, and various pop music songs competed throughout the classroom as students pumped up the volume on their cell phone/hand-held entertainment centers.

They seemed glad that I was their teacher. But already I knew that I had been talking too much. It was only the first day and it was my goal to talk less and listen more. But talking today was a necessary evil in order to orient the students to experiencing a Western-style class on literature.

After break I told my students that all summer long I had been thinking of them. Though I had yet to meet them, I had been thinking of them and how I was going teach this literature class. But I knew next to nothing about China except that it is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, that Chair Mao who founded modern China, and that now Shanghai and Beijing are two of the world’s greatest and most modern cities. And of course I knew about the Great Wall and the terra cotta warriors in X’ian. But other than all this I knew very little of China or her people.

So I did some research to get to know my audience better. This was necessary to build rapport. Of course, there were many perspectives concerning current and historical events in Asia.  And I thought that if I had been taking a Chinese History class in America, one taught by a visiting professor from China for instance, and that if she began her class by denouncing the Vietnam War as an imperialist American invasion in which millions of Vietnamese were killed, then I would resent it, and begin the journey with a negative frame of mind. Such an introduction would be non-conducive to learning—regardless of whether there was any truth to such matters. So in order to establish rapport, I decided to tap into patriotism, celebrate our differences, and share our commonalities.

I told the class that I had learned about Chair Mao and The Long March during my research, and that, “This was a great honor to be teaching English in Mao’s home province on the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. And I was inspired by the Long March—when all the people—how many, twenty-five thousand?—when all the people worked together and were led by Mao over 12,500 kilometers [8,000 miles] through rough countryside, and over mountains and rivers to fight the Japanese and create a new nation.

“After reading about all this, I was inspired to design the class with The Long March in mind: We would go on a long march ourselves. This class was a long march—it was a journey. In the following weeks we will read many texts, and this will seem like mountains beyond mountains. Of course this semester will not be anywhere as near as tough or grueling as the real Long March. But we will all be challenged nonetheless. As students you all will find the territory difficult. The texts will demand your time and energy. And as your guide, it will be my challenge to keep you motivated, and stay on the path of learning. It will be a great hardship, but together we all will get through this semester.

“In the next few weeks some of you will suffer and say this class is too hard. And for some this class will be a pleasure. For those students finding it too inconvenient to go on, I say trust me and follow along as best you can. And for those students, who find this pleasurable, I say help your peers as best you can. Only by working together can we get through this journey, this semester, this literature class alive and well. Today is just the first day of a long journey. And there will be mountains beyond mountains. But by the end of this semester you will be a different person. Hopefully, by the end of this journey you will realize that you are the hero of your own story. And you will be a wiser, more confident and aware traveler than you are today.”

I had been talking too much so I asked the students to read over the syllabus. Then I asked the students if they noticed anything peculiar about the reading list. Of course nobody saw anything out of the ordinary. But my list only had one woman author. I included Virginia Woolf in my unit on The Lost Generation. Was there anybody upset with this? 95% of the class was made up of women. Nobody aired their ire.

The HobbitBut I proceeded as if acknowledging this outrageous oversight on my part. In a western classroom, I would have been lambasted for misogyny within a minute of passing out the syllabus. I promised that next semester (I teach the same students more literature next year) they will read more women authors–including Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight as part of a unit on gothic literature. If they let me teach my favorite book–the very book that made me become an English major in the first place–then I will let them pick some texts to read next semester. Of course, that book I will be teaching is The Hobbit. It was the final finale of the semester. All semester leads up to reading Tolkien’s story about a childlike protagonist who must undertake a journey, become an adult, and discover his own inner-hero. It was my goal to equip the students with an ability to read, understand and enjoy one of the most influential novels of the 20th Century.

The AlchemistTo do this, we will read two shorter and simpler novels: The Alchemist and The Giver. All three novels have similar underlying themes: A student-protagonist undertakes an arduous journey into a strange new world, learns a new language, and discovers his destiny. The Alchemist has simple, dream-like prose: Santiago, a poor but happy Spanish shepherd, goes on a journey to Africa to achieve his dream—to find a great treasure located near the Pyramids. Along the way he suffers many ordeals, gets sidetracked, and meets many interesting people. It is the perfect novel to warm-up to more serious literature after a summer break—and it is a nice allegory for being a heroic lifelong learner. Louis Lowry’s The Giver is a different story with similar themes. Whereas, The Alchemist has a magical-realistic quality and The Hobbit is high fantasy, and Lowry’s story of Jonas is more along the lines of speculative fiction, taking place in a strange but familiar utopia that may or may not be in the future. This book, taught in some American middle-schools and banned in others, raises important social issues—perfect fodder for interesting classroom conversations.

So there I was going over the syllabus and all the great literature we would read, and I was just about to tell the class how they can ace the final exam when all of sudden somebody’s damn cell phone goes off. I demanded the culprit come forth.  “Whose cell phone is that?”  I stalked the aisles with mock paternal anger. “Is that your cell phone?” I asked a student. Her dark brown eyes returned my glare and she pointed at the podium.

“It’s the alarm,” she said. I looked where she pointed and chuckled. There was the phone. It rang with an old fashioned land line ringtone.

Obama“Oh, that’s mine. Hold on a second.” The class laughed. That was another good sign. I was finding that the best way to make sure I was being understood was to use humor. This was a journey. The syllabus was the map, but I was already finding out that I had to use dead-reckoning to naviagte my way through uncharted territory.  Humor was a major landmark. “Hello, this is Teacher Matt.” I paused. It was Fiona, my Foreign Affairs Office supervisor, who called  according to script. “Oh! Hello, Mr. President.” The class hushed.

“It’s the President of the United States, Mr. Obama,” I stage-whispered to the class.

“Yes, Mr. President. I’m teaching English in China. It’s only the first day of class and I can already tell the students are very smart.” There was more laughter and a dozen conversations broke out as some students interpreted for their peers, and then the class shushed as I continued, “Yes, Mr. President. I will tell them. Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. I will do my best. Thank you for calling.” Meanwhile, Fiona had been listening on the other end cracking up.

“That was Barack Obama. He wanted me to say hello and say that he hopes this will be an opportunity for Americans and Chinese to improve relations. And he said that he respects all the hard work it takes for Chinese students to learn English. But he also told me that I have to be nice to you.” The class laughed again and they nodded their heads. A student in the front looked at me with round eyes. “Really?” she said. I left the question unanswered and told the class that they will never see or hear my cell phone in class again.

ThoreauAfter going over the syllabus, and asking some basic questions (“What is literature? Why should people–especially Chinese people–bother to read English literature, or literature any other culture for that matter?”–questions I left unanswered because another goal of mine was to enable the students to answer these for themselves & defend their answers against criticism) I ended the first class early–a Western tradition–with Thoreau’s “Reading” as their first homework assignment. I told them to pay attention to peculiar words. Like why the hell does he compare readers to “cormorants” and “ostriches,” and why would he write about the sky and stars and astrology and astronomy in an essay on reading?

All in all, it was a good class. I knew that I had talked too much and had probably pounded the journey metaphor to death and that I would have to remain vigilant against my tendency to pontificate. But it was the first day, and I had engaged the students. They had laughed and some spoke aloud their opinions. I just hoped that my questions would not become empty rhetorical ones that I have to answer myself. But it was the first day, which was the most boring day of the semester. That we had fun, and students laughed, smiled and lit up with curiosity throughout the class was an auspicious omen.