At long last, I staggered into the staff room of my new school.
Due to the stringencies required for visas, I arrived in China roughly two weeks after training for the new school year had begun. Frantic emails were shunted in my direction every day from secretaries, from principals, from coworkers offering help and condolences and desperate pleas that I maybe get a move on.
My picture had clearly been passed around, as my principals shook my hand, the other grade one teachers gathered to celebrate my foretold arrival, and dozens of others cooed their appreciation at this droopy, wide-eyed newbie. Suddenly I was on a team of people discussing how best to perform sports hall duty at lunch, and whether or not paper was allowed, and how there was always paper to be picked up during PE class, and how that was not on, but maybe if they brought colouring books, or what if they wanted to write, and when did we blow the whistle exactly?
An ocean of information crashed upon me. Schedules and curricula and class lists and furniture arrangements and duty rosters and names and names and names. I met nearly 50 people that day, and would remember the names of maybe four. I arrived in my classroom, Spartan and clean and mine, and was told to prepare.
How would I prepare my classroom? How would I organize our space for the coming year? How would I decorate my second home, how would I organize the flow, how would I maximize learning time and movement and calm, peaceful space? I took barely a moment before I began moving furniture, slamming tables and bookshelves and chairs in every direction, and then slamming them back as I decided they were in the wrong place. Suddenly another task would appear requiring my attention and I would dash off to the printer, or go to prepare my new school computer, or run to get something laminated, or need to locate and organize all of the classroom resources, or check which board markers still had ink, or locate where all of the magical teaching energy juice was located, because I was beginning to maybe go insane.
I had roughly two days, interspersed with regular visits to a hospital, a police station, and the help desk of my school to sort out if I was actually allowed to really be in China. I jogged the kilometre-long hallways of my school, burst up and down flights of stairs, ran to make buses and cars and appointments. For every task I set myself, there were another dozen being set up by others that I would need to fulfil now now now.
My two days came and went, and Friday loomed close and loud.
Parents suddenly verged into my sanctum, with tiny tow-headed tots quivering before them. I took the kids for a task, set them to it, and began talking to the parents. With every fibre of my being I tried to maintain a semblance of confidence, of laissez-faire coolness about the coming school year, about my utter conviction that their children were in good hands. Had they ever met a teacher so effortless, so prepared, so clean-shaven and neat and keen? I had arrived fully-formed out of a children’s picture book, gleaming and shiny and trying desperately not to appear terrified.
In reality, sweat poured down my face, my hands trembled at my sides. The classroom was no longer in shambles, but I couldn’t say the same for my own psyche. Jetlag had ravaged my sleep patterns, and lack of access to viable supermarkets or actual restaurants meant that I was subsisting mostly on peanutbutter toast. My clothes were still creased from their long journey wedged into my suitcases. If any parents noted my quivering state of unrest, they were polite enough to reserve their comments.
The parents, of course, barraged me with questions about the coming school year, about policies, about snack time and school buses and recess. I diverted when possible, fudged my way through those precious few structures that had actually been explained to me, promised dozens of emails to be sent to dozens of people once the information fell into my lap. I would become a channel, a sluice of globules of data handed down from on high, and I would give people the answers as soon as someone got around to giving the answers to me. I wasn’t knowledgeable, no, but I knew other people who were.
After assuaging their fears, the new parents departed, and I prepared to take the few precious seconds bestowed upon me to eat lunch. A mother and two boys curiously wandered through our hallway, nervous and lost. This was, of course, another one of my students, and so I slammed my way through an introduction, led the family to the other son’s kindergarten class, jogged to lunch, and jogged back to my classroom just in time to catch another mother and child idly waiting by my desk, wondering where I might be.
Hours later the last six-year-old wandered out of my doorway and I sank, tired and dishevelled and slick with both terror sweat and heat sweat and all the other kinds of sweat. Paper was everywhere, and there was glitter in my nose, and I had thirty emails to find and a lot of research to complete. But I had a classroom, and I had a class of students, and I had me.
The first day of school was two days away. And I would be ready.