“You’ll be in charge of class C, the lowest English level,” said Li Xiao, my contact at BaiNian, a full-scholarship vocational high school founded by Westerners. The teachers are volunteers, and the students live below the poverty line. “That’s means it’s the hardest. I know you’re Chinese is pretty good, so use it if you have to.”
“ I’ll be in charge?” I said.
“Yes. You’ll be the lead teacher. But don’t worry, it’s not a full four hours. It’s really more like three and a half, plus you get a ten minute break. ”
“Oh,” I said.
By “oh,” I really meant “three and a half hours is a long time, I’ve never taught a class before, I’m completely unprepared, I’d really like a glass of water, where’s the bathroom?”
Li Xiao didn’t pick up on the subtleties of my long-prefaced question. Still, she gestured toward the water cooler, and, when I failed to see them right in front of me, the cups, and, when I ignored the sign indicating the sex of the bathroom, the men’s room.
A few minutes later, as we sat in the teacher’s lounge, Li Xiao introduced me to my “assistants,” Chinese educators who speak fluent English and have years of experience working with language-learners. One of the assistants, Sam, began asking me about my lesson plan.
I paused, expecting my extemp skills from high school debate to kick-in. Instead, the words “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” rang through my head, and I was halfway out of my chair with a finger dangerously close to Sam’s nose before I realized he was Chinese, a fellow teacher, very friendly, and not Tom Cruise.
“I thought I would only be an assistant today,” I said, seating myself and withdrawing my finger. “I didn’t prepare much of a lesson.” I forced a very forced-sounding chuckle.
“Well,” said Li Xiao, “We want to emphasize American culture, and you’re the only American teacher we have available today. Did you have a chance to look over the curriculum I sent you?” she asked.
“I couldn’t open the file.”
“Well, today’s class is about elections. So have the class elect a president and a vice-president.” I nodded and sat back in my chair. “You might want to get started preparing,” she said. “Class begins in 10 minutes.”
And it was almost as though, as she spoke, I was already in front of thirty silent, uniformed sixteen and seventeen year-olds, backs straight, notebooks out, eyes crawling all over me. My shoes squeaked a few times as I walked toward the center of the room. I picked up a piece of chalk, put it down, faced everyone, turned away, picked it up, put it down, and then faced everyone again.
“Hello,” I said. Thirty pens attacked thirty notebooks. “No need to write that down.” My Chinese assistant, Joanna, translated. The pens jumped up again, this time scratching out the last note.
“My name is Rick, and I’m from New York.” I smiled, and began walking through the aisles, trying to imitate some of my more engaging teachers. “I’m really looking forward to teaching you. I know you have a lot of potential, and if you work hard, you’ll really make a lot of progress. Now, today we’re going to have an election. That means all of you can vote for one classmate who you think will best represent you. So you should pick someone brave, responsible, engaging, friendly, and, most important, good-looking.”
Nobody laughed. I’m used to that. No one said I wasn’t funny or told me to stick to my day job, but I figured I could chalk that up to being the teacher. “Who would like to run for class president?” I scanned the room and saw blank, worried faces.
I needed to slow down. These were beginners, and I was speaking a foreign language. It occurred to me that these kids, from poor, mostly uneducated families, must have been very nervous. They spoke no English, had probably met very few Americans, and may have felt out of place in this formal, academic setting.
I felt my poise returning. The situations may have been different, but I had spoken without notes in front of crowds before. And this time—more than at any time during debate—I knew my stuff. I looked at the clock: three hours and twenty minutes left, and plenty of time to start from scratch.
“Hello, it’s nice to meet you,” I wrote on the board.
The rest of my time blurred away. I was speaking slowly, but dancing around the room, calling on students, having them ask each other questions and make statements. My “assistant teachers,” guided me through, suggesting points I might want to review and other possible games or activities.
As I lightened up, the kids did, too. When a student understood and constructed a sentence, I had the class give a round of applause. Soon, they were applauding each other—sometimes a little sarcastically, as when one student said “I am good Bob at Basketball Bob.”
My paycheck for the day didn’t come on a piece of paper. Instead, it came in the form of my student’s weather predictions. “It’s probably going to rain,” was the general consensus, and a gloomy forecast will never again sound so good.