Classroom Melodies, an ode to Seamus Heaney

If I had to describe the transition from college to professional life in one word, it would be “silent.” One of the saddest realities of contemporary office culture is the slow, perverse death of the spoken word. Whilst so many indigenous languages, from Australia to the Amazon, are perishing out of lack of a written form, our own, world-annihilating culture and language seems to be evolving in the opposite way. With so much text-based technology, we’re putting our voice boxes on mute, replacing them with our fingers as our primary mode of communication. This virtually-enforced silence means that one of the most refreshing parts of returning to the classroom is its sounds.

We live under the hegemonic death grip of Outlook, the dictatorship of the keystroke. Undoubtedly, the internet and the subsequent rise of new media are wonderful, democratizing things. But I do believe that our lives, enacted increasingly before screens more so than off of them, are disconnecting. Whether it’s cube farm chattel sending one line emails or google talk chatting, or the millions of teenage boys enacting their lives virtually in massive multiplayer online role playing games, the marvelously complex, intricate layers of social interaction our ancestors assembled are being rewritten, all too often on a spectrum of black and white, in the language of 1s and 0s.

There is something painfully unnatural about having relationships with colleagues in which you do not exchange words in person, not even by the water cooler, but in which group emails are filled with obligatory words of impersonal warmth. It came to represent my post-collegiate life in America, the hyper-social chatter of the campus and the zeal of classroom debate replaced by the sterile solitude of rush-hour commutes from my office PC to my personal laptop, the majority of the spoken language which entered my ears being piped in, of course, as songs via my iPod. It felt hollow, and I wanted out.

And so I have re-entered the classroom, this time though as teacher, my pupils a blanker slate of Chinese children, simultaneously rowdy and sweet. Of all the official religious buildings that Chinese faithfully tour during their holidays, the one most commonly visited largely goes unacknowledged. I refer, but of course, to the classroom. From centuries past, when passing the Civil Servant entrance exam was a peasant child’s sole ticket to a better life, through to the present, where the GREs and TOEFL lead even further out toward the hallowed climes of Cambridge and New Haven, education has in many ways served as the national altar of an atheist China. In this post-Mao, helter-skelter period of “Capitalism with Chinese-Socialist Characteristics”, this seems true, now more than ever.

It is with this understanding that I entered the two schools at which I teach. Both of them are thoroughly modern boarding private schools, where homeroom teachers call sleepy pupils out of bed, where tuition runs parents a tidy 20,000 yuan per semester, and where they can afford to hire expensive foreigners to improve their spoken English. One of them, a full K-12 school on the outskirts of Chengdu, with its gleaming glass cafeteria and immaculately sculpted pathways, resembles an American college campus. A lofty soundtrack of classical, Chinese vocal, and, rather humorously, fierce tango music is broadcast by speakers throughout the school, signaling the end of periods, energizing morning group exercise and synchronized eye massage. During the two hour lunch siesta, we foreigners are provided with a large six-bedded room in which to nap, and we have our own office, whose sign above the door reads: “Foreign Teaches The Office.”

The traditional relationship between teacher and student may be enshrined as one of Confucianism’s special relationships, but the social etiquette in place is quite different for “Foreign Expert” English teachers, such as myself. Given their immense workload, the lack of a robust grading system for this particular class, and the fact that they see me only once per week, it is natural for my students to provide a less than obliging audience. As such, I approach my lessons as a mix of performance, theater and, most importantly, all-round embrace of the spoken word.

“Oh yeah?!” I have one half of my fourth graders shout to the other half of the class. I lead them, palms upward, eyes thoroughly furrowed.

“Yeah!” the other half replies, fists a-pumping, as if China had just scored in the women’s soccer world cup.

They call is Total Physical Response, or TPR, and it goes a surprisingly long way when you’re teaching a foreign language to six year olds who will parrot anything you say, from “Raise your hand!” to “No, don’t copy me!” This may not be Shakespeare, but it is the gateway to him. Though I may not not training future thespians, I am committed to training future confident English speakers, ones whose “A’s” extend as gracefully as Ian McKellen, whose “R’s” evoke more Connie Chung than Jackie Chan. I enjoy the parallels in our experience: as I lead a stammering second grader through “Her pen is blue” during the day, my tutor will later lead her equally unsure student through “Women dou shi Yuyan Xueyan de xuesheng.” Our small victories are won together, our struggle one of personally-drawn empathy. Perhaps one day I will respond to the occasional student’s ceaseless Mandarin questioning, which once in a while ignites into a fully-raging classroom chant–“Are you Chinese?! You can’t be a foreigner!”–in their native language, as opposed to my current practice of ignoring them. They will tell me their Chinese name and I might write it on the board in characters, as I have had them read my own off of it.

But for now, I cherish the mere sound of it all. As a spoken English teacher–they have a Chinese teacher to teach them English grammar and vocabulary–I am privileged to partake in their delight in forming the letter Z with their bodies, to extract their full concentration as they distinguish between “this”, “that” and “with.” Though I may not be able to compensate for my inability–utterly incomprehensible to them–to communicate in our common ancestor’s language, I continue to try, by imparting upon them the melody and sonority of the English language. It remains, at present at least, the only one in which I can do so.

Last week, my secret weapon was a cardboard box, whose contents–a pen, pencil, marker and chalk–I kept a coveted secret through much dramatic peeking and hiding on my part. When I rewarded the students who correctly answered questions with the chance to extract an object, eyes closed, having just been spun around several times, they grasped for the stationery with such eager, youthful hands. And though their peers’ faces did not hide the disappointment in discovering that the objects I’d worked them into a tizzy over were so mundane, I wondered whether a few of them might realize the much bigger prize that my instruction is teaching them to grasp for.

“It’s a black pen!” I beamed, with faux-revelatory delight.

“A black pen!”, they screamed back in disconcerted unison.

It was musical in its own disheveled, childish way. Though the noise of the school can feel overwhelming and exasperating at times, I cherish how human and alive it feels, against the cold click of the office keyboard. And I leave the school at the end of the day with a fulfillment that gleans joy from its achievement, verbalized, and–until now–untyped.


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