It didn’t really occur to me that our time here would eventually end. When you’re caught up in the busyness of middle school, going home–going back to America–is an ephemeral thought that seems an eternity away. It was only during our last week of teaching that I realized goodbyes were much closer than I would want them to be. That was nearly three weeks ago.
At the time, I dealt with my emotions the best I could by channeling them into lessons. In every single class that final week, I asked my kids to talk about their dreams and aspirations. We went around in a circle and the students spoke of their short-term goals, primarily to score well on their looming exams and eventually the zhongkao, and their long-term goals–where they wanted to be and what they wanted to do in 10 or 15 years. In the classes that were comfortable speaking English, we spoke English. In all the others, we spoke Chinese. It didn’t really matter any more how we communicated; rather, it was imperative that we communicated in the first place, that we had this conversation and that we all understood what was being said in this final class. That was important.
And so the kids talked about wanting to be cooks and English teachers and physicists and wanting to travel to France, Australia, Germany and the United States. After each discussion, I said that I had a special message for them–two sentences from Henry Thoreau (that I accidentally misattributed to Emerson the first few classes, whoops):
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”
To the stellar classes and to the mediocre ones, I shared the same quote. I read it, explained it in Chinese and had the kids read it after me.
Maybe I was afraid of saying goodbye to all of my classes because it was a preview of what was coming on July 12th. Or perhaps I was afraid of not leaving my students with anything after their kouyu ke ended and I desperately wanted to tell them, each and every single one of them, never to settle and to always keep reaching for the stars. I didn’t really know at the time why I did what I did and honestly, I’m still not sure why I decided on this particular “lesson plan.” It was cheezy to the nth degree, enough to have made people roll their eyes, but it felt like the right thing to do, you know?
Fast forward to today. Now.
I’m sitting downstairs wearing a tank top and pajama shorts while my fingers pound away on the keyboard. I see my two suitcases lying about 20 feet away, opened but barely unpacked. When I got home on Friday the 13th, I took out only the food I had brought back and my dirty clothes. Everything else I let lie in their respective places and stay untouched.
I won’t deny that I’ve missed people, places and random things (like 2% milk) from America. But I haven’t really come back. At least not yet. My heart is still miles and miles away in a city called Zhuhai that is home to a No.9 Middle School. I keep telling myself that if I refrain from unpacking, I can stay in China for a bit longer and be surrounded by the smiles of my kids.
Yet, even a cursory glance at the contents of my suitcases makes all the sticky emotions and all-too-vivid memories return. An orange glass lamp from a spunky break-dancer. A half-moon-shaped notebook with its sweet message from Isabel, whose English trumps that of all the other 7th graders I’ve met/taught. A photo album of pictures from these past two months and its accompanying letter in broken English from dear, dear Lucy. A brown puppy mug from two of my favorite journalism babies.
Journalism class. Oh my god. I’m proud of all my classes, but especially my two extracurricular classes: music and journalism/news reporting. I’m proud of my music kids for pulling everything together for the final performance: playing both Pachelbel’s Canon and Tonghua beautifully, and transitioning effortlessly on stage between pieces.
I’m also so so proud of my journalism kids and the culmination of their weeks of hard work that’s currently lying upstairs in the form of a glossy, fully-colored, seven-page magazine called Corner. Eight articles, all in English and of varying lengths, about Chinese and American education system differences, The Avengers, environmentally-friendly instruments, quirky restaurants, expensive foods and so on.
The students probably had no idea what was in store for them when they signed up for the class. Neither did I, though. We went from talking about style, formatting and ethics in news writing and reporting on the first day of class to putting the finishing touches on a magazine–that subsequently would be printed 200 times and then distributed at the final performance–on the final day. In between, we went through many arduous weeks of translating, revising and in-class workshopping. Stephen did a stellar job with design/layout and Andy basically made all the final edits before the magazine was sent to press (thank you so much, guys!).
But everything else, from the cover and magazine name to the fully-fleshed-out stories and their titles, came from them–fifteen 7th graders who liked English, writing and newspapers.
Every step of this journey has been as incredible and frustrating for me as it has been for the students, but I think we’re all glad it happened. I could go on and on about these kids, their articles and how damn proud I am of each of them for making this happen and I think it’s because they are my one class that has produced something tangible at the end of this summer–a physical reminder that something magical did happen in China and in the class. It’s something I hope they will remember and be proud of for far longer than our time together. And it’s also something that I can look back at, perhaps while I’m unpacking these next few days, and be pulled a little closer to my journalism babies, the rest of my students and Zhuhai.