Friday, November 12, 2010

Promises To Keep

I teach Oral English.

I would much rather be teaching Oral Spanish. Or Oral German.

... or American Literature. Or British Literature. Or Writing. Or Creative Writing - ooh, that would be nice. Hell, at this point I'd be willing to teach Business English. Or Linguistics. Or Quantum Mechanics. Or, I don't know, Home Economics.

... or better yet, English 407: Beatniks and Politics - A Psychedelic Flashback to The 1960's and a Totally Trippy Analysis of its Posthumous Reverberations in Contemporary American Culture. Or better yet, English 502: Stan The Man - An Assessment of Stanley Kubrick, His Films, and His Legacy. Or even better yet, OK Computer 543. Or Kid A 571.

... or even better yet ... well, I could dream up a long list of uber-hip elective classes that I could (and perhaps should) be teaching at China West Normal University. But Oral English is not an elective for my students, and it isn't an elective for me. Twice I have begged the director of the University for some variety in my teaching diet, but she keeps throwing Oral English classes my way. Oral English is the only class I have taught thus far, and Oral English is probably the only class I will ever teach in China.

And I'm okay with that. My students need a lot of help in the speaking department. They probably don't need any more literature in their lives. They certainly don't need to do any more writing. So I try to keep reading and writing far away from the syllabus. But once in a while, I throw some poetry at the kids to see how it hits them, just to see how it bounces back to me. Or I give them a writing assignment, as a kind of survey to figure out what, exactly, my students are thinking when they are too terrified to speak.

We watched The Joy Luck Club a couple weeks ago. My students were stoked about the film, and a couple of them rushed up to the computer after class to copy it to their memory sticks. But the kids tend to clam up under pressure; I didn't think an in-class discussion would unearth anything worth unearthing. So after the movie, I let them out a full ten minutes early and gave them writing homework instead. They weren't sure whether to cheer or groan.

The following week, I was pretty damn excited to have those hot little papers in my hands. I rushed home to read them. I was curious to see what my students would have to say about Chinese-Americans, a demographic they didn't even know existed prior to seeing the film. Would they consider Amy Tan Chinese, or would they think of her as an American? How did my students imagine the average Chinese-American lived in America? And how did they imagine the average laowai fared in their country? I asked them to write about all of those things, both because I was curious, and because it was a subject innocuous enough and ambiguous enough to hopefully inspire some real thought in my students without getting my ass in trouble. What bounced back at me, however, wasn't innocuous or ambiguous in the least. It actually kind of scared me.

1. Do you consider the second-generation Chinese-Americans in the film more Chinese or more American?

More Chinese - 96% (361 students)
More American - 4% (15 students)

All precincts reporting.

2. What difficulties might a Chinese person encounter in America?

racism - 26%
language - 19%
dutch pay - 8%
love - 4%

All precincts reporting.

3. What difficulties might a foreigner encounter living in China?

chopsticks - 28%
food - 24%
language - 20%
traffic - 4%

All precincts reporting.

I read through every last one of the 376 papers. I did not juke the stats. What you see is what my students believe. In a way, they responded just the way I had expected them to. I've been here three semesters, after all. But I hadn't counted on such an overwhelming landslide. When I'd finally hashed out the numbers, I couldn't believe them. 96 to 4? Chopsticks - honestly? My gut American instinct told me that the Republicans had fucked with the voting machines again.

I am not a Chinese-American, but I will hazard a guess that fewer than 96% of second-generation Chinese-Americans would identify themselves with the country of their ancestors rather than the country in which they were born and bred. It would be a significant slight, I would think, to refer to a second-generation Chinese-American as anything other than an American - or at least, I have never met a Chinese-American who wouldn't take it as anything less than an insult.

I am not a sociologist, either, so I won't analyze questions 2 or 3 any more than I should, other than to remark that racism and a pair of wooden sticks make for a mighty odd couple at the top of the respective lists. Chopsticks and food have been, for me, the #1 and #2 easiest things to adjust to in China. Like I'm complaining about the twice cooked pork. None of my 376 students mentioned racism as a potential problem for foreigners living in the People's Republic of China.

This week, I hit my students with some classic American poetry. Teaching is always an experiment, especially when you are not a teacher by trade. My poetry classes are the most successful experiment I have ever conducted. I didn't expect the poetry experiment to succeed in my first semester, one year ago. And I have kept waiting for it to fail in the semesters since. But my poetry class is always the best class of the semester. My students get fired up about poetry, and I have no idea why. I get fired up, too, because I am a literary hack who enjoys masquerading as a professor from time to time. Perhaps I feed off the energy of my students, or perhaps they feed off of mine. In China, TEFL may crumble, but poetry always wins.

My very best poetry classes have the same feel as my undergraduate literature courses at the Midwestern Jesuit College to Remain Nameless, back when we used to read and discuss texts instead of vivisecting them - during that fragile, Edenesque bliss before junior year English Major Bullshit rolled around and the twin spinsters of Deconstructionism and New Criticism burst into the room with their rusty meat cleavers and hacked to bits whatever pleasure there was left to be taken from reading.

My students take time to read the poems, they brood on them, and they bust their asses trying to understand them. I doubt I could expect the same from a class of American undergraduates. Hell, I doubt I could've expected the same from myself as an undergraduate. I was too busy ... let's just say I was busy. But without exception, all of my students, even my very worst students respond to the poems in a thoughtful way, often in an insightful way. I don't teach them. They teach me. They might not be able to speak worth a damn, but they can analyze poetry. Poetry inspires them to speak.

I have learned a lot from my students, and I see all of those old poems in a new light because of them. But they remain rote learners - so my kids will sometimes ask me point blank to tell them what the poem means. I admit to them that frankly, I don't really know. I may perhaps underline something with my index finger, or mention that the author is a woman, or that he is black - but otherwise, I want them to follow their own noses, to chase their own lines of thought. I want to throw these poems at my students and see how they bounce back to me. Their analyses are never anything less than fascinating. But more often than not, their ideas bounce right past my outstretched glove, and go skipping out into left field.

I had my students split into six groups, and each group analyzed one of six poems: "Dream Variations" and "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" by Langston Hughes; "Loving You Less Than Life, A Little Less" and "What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why" by Edna St. Vincent Millay; "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost.

I chose those six poems because they are relatively easy to read, and because all of them are fairly literal but invite interpretation. I chose those three authors because they are a neat and tidy (and not terribly subversive) cross-section of all the rage, lust, and mystique that make American poetry what it is, whatever it is.

Before they dug in, I told my students that there were no right or wrong interpretations, that their opinions were as good as mine. That wasn't just a hollow feel-good statement to bolster my students' confidence, though it was partially that. By now, I know what my kids are capable of. They aren't much for conversation, but they can read. They've been force-fed Jane Austen since they were freshmen in high school, so I knew that Robert Frost was well within their literary grasp. The diction was not going to be a problem. I knew that they would understand the poems, and that they would have opinions about them. And I knew that our opinions would differ, as they always do, and I wanted our opinions to differ. I wanted the stony mass interrogation chamber that is Room 307 to feel more like a room with padded walls, where they could fling themselves against the barriers like crash test dummies and afterwards, as in the wake of a particle collision, we'd slowly try to piece everything together. The poem goes in, the thoughts come out - you and I scurry around the lab trying to make sense of them.

In all of my classes, the St. Vincent Millay groups maintained that the author was a male writing about a female. This, despite Millay's "unremembered lads" in the one poem, and the brown hair growing about the brow and cheek of her lover in the second poem. I explained that a "lad" was a young man, and that facial hair, under ideal conditions, does not manifest itself upon the cheeks of women. But my students insisted that Millay was a man, either because they were unacquainted with female poets, or because they were uncomfortable with the idea of females poetizing about such racy promiscuous shenanigans. Even after I made it clear that the romantic objects in both poems were men, and many different men at that, my students maintained that the poet was a man. Homosexuality was, perhaps, less shocking to them than the prospect of a female with a somewhat diversified love life. So I left it open. Perhaps Ms. Millay was writing in character as a man who had fallen in love with a bearded lady when the circus came to town. But I couldn't help myself. I couldn't help nudging them in the right direction. The poet is a woman. Her boo has a beard. Odds are, she's writing about a man. My students giggled into their hands. And I can't even describe the giggling that followed after I insinuated that "What Lips My Lips Have Kissed" might just have been referring to more than one pair of lips ...

My students fared a bit better with the Langston Hughes poems. Most of the kids picked up on the fact that the poet was black. Others I had to prod a bit.

"What kind of person do you think he is? Do you think he's white, like me? Do you think he's Chinese? Or Indian ... "
"He must be very tall."
"And very handsome."
"Maybe," I said.
"He must be very rich."
"And he must have a colorful life."
"In a sense," I said. "But what about this line: 'dark like me.' And this one: 'black like me.'"
"His heart is black."
"Kind of," I said.

The groups reading "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" relished using the word "negro," whatever it meant, and I had to discourage them from making a habit of it.

"Teacher, is it bad?"
"Er, uh," I said. "Yes. People will hurt you for using that word."

Their electronic dictionaries led them down a treacherous path of synonyms that I likewise had to stamp out.

"Teacher, I think the the writer is a n_____."
"Um. Yes," I said, "he is an African-American."
"So he is in fact a n_____?"
"Don't say that. People will kill you for using that word. But yes, he is an African-American."
"Sorry, teacher. So he is a black?"
"Yes. He is ... black."

Most puzzling and wonderful of all were the Robert Frost poems. I have never been afforded such an instantaneous glimpse into the Chinese psyche. Somewhere, Robert Frost is rolling in his frosty grave. This is not the way he would've wanted to have been interpreted. And yet, poetry being what it is, I had no means (and no desire) to cockblock the interpretations that my students offered me. I let them stand. I lavished my students with praise. I disagreed with them completely, but I am not Robert Frost, and I am not Chinese, so I listened to them for a good long while, gave them all a solid pat on the back, and moved onto the next group.

"The Road Not Taken" is so quintessentially American that by now it is almost beyond interpretation. Two highways diverged in bumfuck Nebraska. One of them freshly paved, adopted by the Sarpy County Jaycees, dotted with McDonaldses and Burger Kings and Cracker Barrels, a mainline to the clogged artery of Interstate 80: boring. The other, all gravel and glass shards, like something out of Deliverance: exciting. I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.

Whatever an American may or may not be, no American would interpret "The Road Not Taken" as anything less than an ode to individualism. Robert Frost might be the last criteria we have left for Americanism. Wherever our politics may lie, however blasé our lives may in fact be, we all believe that we are following our own paths, that our road is the lonely road, that we have broken ranks with the rest of society in order to pursue our own preferred brand of happiness. Deluded or not, that sentiment, perhaps, is what makes us American. And it might just be the only unifying belief we share in common. Maybe we should include Robert Frost's poem on our naturalization test. If you find this poem somewhat uplifting, you're in. If you are of the mind that Robert Frost royally fucked up in wandering down that nasty road littered with doggie doo and backwoods sodomites, you're out.

But my students are not American. No, they universally agreed: "The Road Not Taken" was a poem about regret. They did not appeal to the text, but to their nature. The man in the poem deviated from the common road and went down the unpopular path. A grave mistake. Frost was writing the poem as a bitter old man, ruing the day he made that decision. Why, oh why, did I take that shady-ass Deliverance road? Why didn't I follow everyone else down I-80? The road not taken, according to my students, was the road that Frost damn well ought to have taken.

Above all else, I am charitable to my students. So I didn't disagree with them outright, however much I disagreed inwardly. But I tried to Ouija Board them in the right direction. Well, don't you think it's possible that the poet is happy with his decision? Doesn't this poem feel optimistic to you? Before long, though, I realized that Robert Frost had rigged his poem in just such a way that I had no evidence, no case, and no authority to even suggest that my students were wrong.

"I shall be telling this with a sigh," writes Frost, "somewhere ages and ages hence/two roads diverged in a wood, and I --/I took the one less traveled by/and that has made all the difference."

In life, there are happy sighs and sad sighs. There are good differences and bad differences. Was Robert Frost sighing in a contented way? Or was he sighing like a Notre Dame football fan? Did the road less traveled by lead him to a Conoco station, or into one of the deleted scenes from Deliverance? I could point to nothing in the text that indicated that, yes, Robert Frost was pleased with his decision. He was sighing, after all. Perhaps, after all, he had fucked up. Maybe, after all, I have fucked up, too, by joining the Peace Corps when I should've taken that five-figure recruiting gig with the University of Phoenix. But every high fructose fiber of my American being tells me that Robert Frost didn't fuck up, and that I haven't fucked up, either. My students would beg to differ. Two roads diverged in a wood and the less harmonious road is to be avoided. And this, I suppose, makes all the difference between us.

My students, all of them but one, reacted the same way to "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." It wasn't a poem about escaping from society, about reveling in solitude, about sinking into the majesty of nature if only for a short while. No, the poet just wants to go home, they said. It's cold and it's dark and he's very lonely, they said. He just wants to go home to be with his wife.

"But what about this?"
I underlined with my index finger.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep

"We don't understand," my student said. "How can the woods be dark and deep - and lovely?"
"Sometimes the loveliest things in life are dark and deep," I said.
"But he has promises to keep," she said. "And miles to go before he sleeps."
"And miles to go before he sleeps," agreed another.
"He wants to go home to be in bed with his wife."
"Yes. He wants to go home."
"The woods are terrible and scary."
"His home is cozy and warm."
"He must get out of the woods."

I nodded. I didn't quite disagree. Then, a girl in the front row lowered her head so that her hair obscured her face. She cleared her throat and she spoke.

"Maybe it's about writing," she said.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"He is a writer. Maybe he means, writing is lonely, and dark, and deep, and scary."
"Go on."
"And home is comfortable, and easy, and very relaxing."
"But he wants to stay with writing. Although it is lonely. Even though it is scary. Even though it is hard for him," she said. "He will go home someday. Everybody goes home. He will go home. But only when he is ready."

The bell rang. Time for a smoke break.

"That's a really good idea," I told the girl. "I honestly hadn't thought of it before. That probably means that you're smarter than me."

I couldn't see her face, but I could see that she was smiling. I left the room and walked up four floors to the roof of the teaching building, where I could be alone. It was evening. The sun was setting with a snarl of smog smeared across its face. I lit a cigarette and flicked the ash seven floors down. Then I planted my arms on the ledge and planted my head in my hands and I cried like a bitch. Fuck, I said. Fuck. You fool. Yes, there are students who slip through the cracks, students who survive. That is why you are here. You fool. You colossal fool. How did you not see it? Even after fourteen years of education and reeducation, there are kids who survive, whose brilliance somehow escapes unstrangled. You are here for them, you fool. So stop whining and teach them. You fool.

They exist. They slip through the cracks. They survive. Let them succeed, I thought. Let them be happy. Let the world give them all that they need. Sometimes they slip through the cracks. If only all of them could slip through the cracks. If only there were more cracks ...


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Thank you.