Yours truly, with highly venerable Scottish ladywolf colleague
The full-body pig suit was incredibly hot.
Pink and gelatinous and topped with a great cardboard-and-felt monstrous head measuring a half-metre in diameter, the costumes were pretty magnificent. I had planned ahead and thought to wear only gym shorts and a t-shirt, and thus my wretched porcine swaddling was not quite so torturous as it might have been. Even still, as we waddled down the hall, unable to walk astride because of the width of our encasements, the bulk and claustrophobia started to feel like a sauna buried deep below the earth.
We wandered into the library, where our children had been deposited minutes before. The librarian had read them the 3 Little Pigs, and we were those pigs, having recently fallen out of our storybook, concussed and bewildered and unsure of our connection to one another. Shrieks of joy assaulted us as we approached. Some tried desperately to figure out who was trapped within each piggy of lupine disguise, while others were just willing to go with it and accept the magic.
The studied among you may have gleaned that my writing is sparse, laboured, and frighteningly irregular lately. Alas I have faltered in my daily writing goals, those regulated flows of verbiage that I feel help to calm the raging flatulence and oh-look-a-pretty-sparkly-thing distractions of my weary being. I often feel like these words are my steam valve, the coal exhaust of keeping the engine of my heart working each day.
But sometimes even the exhaust gets exhausted, most particularly when real life intervenes. Some of you may recall that I am now a gainfully employed person. Thought my demeanour and usual writing topics may imply that I am shiftless bon-vivant surviving on nothing but smiles and summer wine, I do actually work for a living, and we are rapidly approaching the end of the year.
The end of year: a time of tumult and assessment and grading. A time when the students get used to the phrase “please be independent” as I call over this or that child to add or count or read or tell me their thoughts on inventions. A time of murky, sticky hot summer days that stretch out into forever. A time for dreaming of an ice cream truck. A time of goodbye, a time of preparation, a time of reflection. A time when the children shake like unbound electrons, barely contained within four walls, so prepared are they for Grade 2, for summer, for all the sunshine and freedom they can possibly imagine.
It’s also a time for report cards.
While I am on the road, I thought I would share with you a few snippets from life as of late, both in China in general and in particular in the wild world of teaching Grade One.
My contribution was paper-and-popsicle-stick medal of courage.
Did we talk about Halloween at all? Timed just before Halloween, my school held Book Week, which we all took Very Seriously. As was apparently tradition, our team needed to dress up in a theme, which meant a story with six decent characters that would allow for costuming. Our Wizard of Oz crew looked pretty stunning, mostly through the careful, thoughtful work of other people. A speedy seamstress stitched together my custom lion onesie for the equivalent of 45 Canadian dollars. One of our ESL teachers followed me around outside smearing untold amounts of paint across my face. Another teacher invited me into the studio he set up in his classroom to shoot my get-up in full glory. Continue reading
Smoglife is a series of vignettes relating to various things that happen when the air in China gets mad murky.
The smog in Suzhou had settled like an unruly houseguest, and was eating all of the good chips and cookies and never making the bed. The air began to taste sulphurous and metallic, always with the tinge of carcinogen and burning computer parts. People would squint to make out objects in the middle distance and try to not think about the weeks and years slowly being peeled off the end of their lives with a China-shaped paring knife.
One of the side-effects of this acidic haze was the necessity for indoor play. Much as throwing children directly into a volcano or a sewage pipe would be seen as inadvisable to their health, it was deemed inappropriate to allow our various charges to careen about in the toxic slurry that we were all conspiring to call air. Their tiny, fragile lungs being susceptible as they are to incredibly hazardous levels of choking coal smoke and industrial chemicals, it was thought that for their safety, the children should stay inside on a smoggy day.
At first all was well. A day of indoor play is an excuse to unearth old toys, different parts of the classroom and the school left unexplored. It is reason to connect with new friends, with old chums, with new games and with creativity. Necessity is the mother of invention; boundary is the foundation of innovation.
But in time, the confines proved too constricting. In time, indoor play drove the children to extremes.
I’m sure setting up a classroom will be no hassle at all.
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.
Kindergarten: tiny adults in training.
It was a local news story about Halloween safety. Stock footage of adorable tykes marching up and down halls played: Spidermen and fairy princesses and home-made crafty monstrosities constructed by invested parents. Soon we rushed to a classroom where concerned grade ones looked into the camera and handed down safety advice to their peers so that they could enjoy their Halloweens in comfort and without fear. You never know which piece of candy is filled with razorblades and spider eggs, their shining eyes seemed to say.
Suddenly the camera cut to Charlie. Charlie was a kindergartener I had taught two years before – a Chinese immigrant who spoke only Mandarin at home. A respectful tot in the midst of a silent phase, he showed his appreciation for our snack choices, enjoyed Wednesday afternoon baking projects, and loved the water table. He looked into the camera, wizened almost, as though passing down knowledge from generations past, unearthed from ancient tomes in tongues only he could read. “Always make sure your parents check your candy.” He gave a serene, concerned nod. Don’t fear. Charlie knows what you need to do. Charlie has lived some life. He’s been in the shit.
Things are very nearly settled into their summer gear here at SUF HQ, which, as you may recall, is the dining chair in front of my laptop where I eat ice cream in my underpants. The sun is shining, the air is thicker than oil, and the tropical storms and monsoons have begun to cleanse the roads of puke like some vengeful god drowning away our sins. The day of release from our constraints is nigh, and everyone I interact with is essentially checked out. Children, adults, teachers and students, Korean or foreign: it’s time for summer vacation.
As a teacher, you develop a lot of useful abilities and habits. You know how to run a room full of children, you know how to scaffold learning, you know how to lead a herd of horses to water and how to cajole them, carefully and fitfully, to drink the damn water. You gain responsibility, a sense of reciprocity and generativity with the next generation, and a deep investment in the future of society through your work with the tiny people who will make that future. You learn how to seem bigger and more powerful and more mature and more sensible than you really are, and you learn how to be something that is somewhere nebulously between parent, textbook, coach, and judge.
You also pick up a few weird other things along the way.
For obvious reasons, I can’t share photos of my kindies. Enjoy a stock photo of some little Buddhist figurines!
It was probably one of the most rewarding and exhausting work experiences of my life, running a kindergarten class. It was my first practicum, and I was fresh-faced, desperate for a good recommendation from my teacher and principal–and thus a rabid boot-licker, and just high-energy enough on a regular basis to power space travel. It fell to me to basically keep a room full of children from falling victim to their own selves: from attacking one another or unwittingly ingesting food they were allergic to. Making them regularly get to the bathroom so they didn’t soil themselves. If I wasn’t keeping a close enough eye on them, it was entirely possible that one or more of them would have drowned in the sand box. I was a human petri dish, my pockets were filled to the brim with mucus-encrusted tissues from the kids, and it was my duty to teach them colours and numbers and how to read. And to make sure they didn’t die.
“Michael,” my coworker quavers. She is clutching a notebook in her hands, and she only uses this tone when she is about to say something she knows will upset or infuriate me. She has steeled herself for this conversation, has thought of every permutation. She has maybe practiced it a few times before a mirror, to rehearse. “The teachers had a meeting yesterday with the Vice Principal. About English education. They have some ideas that they want you to do…”