What They Don't Teach You in Teaching School

In most non-coastal cities in America, area blackouts are about as common as getting struck by lightning or becoming infected by West Nile Virus.  If it happens once or twice in your lifetime, you might count yourself among the victims of random chance and move on, and any more than that, you'd probably start looking for a new place to live.  They're so rare in fact, that the simple mention of a date and place alone can often conjure up memories of an exact moment in a person's life.

In Taigu, area blackouts occur about as frequently as trips to the dry cleaners or paying a utility bill.  Rare is it that a few weeks pass without our breakers going haywire and the school losing power to one half or the other of its campus.  If we're lucky, we're spared the wrath that propels convenient stores and student dorms into total darkness on the north-side, but just as often, it's the paths and streetlamps that line our locality that turn off and our houses that go dim.  Sometimes that loss of power is just for a few hours, and at other times, for an entire day or more.

In these moments without power, there comes a harkening back to an older time, when sunlight was the sole arbiter of sleep cycles and the intensity of a given workday.  Blackouts, especially in the evening, find us in one of two situations: one, going to sleep early for lack of suitably engaging activities; or two, attempting to offset our boredom with our own fun—in other words, trying to make the best of a difficult situation, often involving a few candles, a case of beer, and a board game at our disposal.

The latter is where we found ourselves on the latest occasion without electricity.  It was about 7pm, still early enough in the spring to be able to sit in my living room with the front door opened and the blinds drawn, and subsist from the modest amount of light that was bleating through the glass panes before sunset.  Four of us were there making small talk and generally passing the time, a scene reminiscent of the front stoops outside of walk-up brownstones in my neighborhood back home.  Though the sun was still out, we knew that it would not last long, and began to make preparations.

What would help more than anything in the case of a blackout would be forewarning, some time to prepare beforehand both one's mental and physical state, as well as a few items of utility—a flashlight, some water, perhaps a portable music player to listen to—but like most forces of nature, it is precisely this time that is governed by the tides of chance.  When one minute you could be taking a shower and the next losing power is anyone's guess.  You just have to hope that, despite the suddenness, it doesn't catch you at an inopportune time.  The same can be said of a particular group of students heading into exam period.

At the end of every semester there are those students—their numbers comprising a very small minority of the total, but a population nonetheless—who have attended less than a handful of classes all year, but who are convinced of their entitlement to a passing grade.  Despite it being an Oral English class, whose very purpose is to instruct students in the ability to speak and understand English with more competence and fluency, most of this subset of students can barely spout more than the most common English stock phrases, nor understand the things that I say in class.

Last semester, it was less of a problem because the campus was locked-down for two months of the year due to the H1N1 epidemic, and I forgave students who used it as an excuse for not being able to return to school—whether or not I thought it was true.  This semester there was no such calamity, and the students who didn't show up did so at a much more alarming rate—attendance for all of my classes dropped by about a-third to a-half, and those offending students nearly stopped coming altogether.

Disheartened and frustrated, I gave a warning to all of my students.  I told them that those who didn't start regularly attending class would receive a zero for a final grade.  For the first week following my announcement in May, attendance spiked, but it wasn't long before it began to stagnate again.  Finally, at the end of the month I instituted a cap for attendance: those who attended less than 20% of my classes all year—an incredibly minimal requirement considering that attendance is the crux of my grading policy—would not be allowed to take the final exam.

When I set out this final measure, I didn't think there would be much, if any, push-back on the part of my students.  Surely students who had never come to class and who had never handed in a single homework assignment knew that they would be failing my class.  I had laid out all of the class guidelines at the beginning of the semester, and had taken my students on a step-by-step breakdown of their grades.  Still, I took for granted one simple fact: that this was China, and students who got into college—regardless of what they did therein—were destined to pass.

Most were well-versed in this unwritten rule of the Chinese educational system: that passing the final is means for passing the class, regardless of attendance record.  But when suddenly I wrenched that single chance from their hands, they were forced to confront a much more grave predicament.  So the reaction I got from these students wasn't surprising.  They begrudgingly returned to class, most with a mixed demeanor of shock, embarrassment, hostility, and desperation.  After I explained, again, my rationale, each time with another third of the class watching, I thought I had finally put the issue to rest.

But like the blackouts that wreck unforeseen havoc on my living quarters, so too did that subset of students who one-after-the-other came to discuss the matter more fully at my house.  Unannounced and uninvited, they dropped by at all hours of the day and evening.  Most brought gifts, or the prospect of future gifts—a lavish dinner, a trip to the massage parlor, beautiful girls at a nightclub.  One came with a “translator”—one of the better students in the same class—and another with a Chinese friend of mine who thought he could use that relationship with me to improve his grade.

I surprised even myself by my own lack of sympathy.  I was ready to hardline to the death on this, what I considered to be the most basic requirement to ask of a student.  Without coming to class, there was no way to have learned anything I taught, so what could they possibly contribute to the exam?  I got all kinds of excuses for missing class—full-time jobs in other cities, experiments that lasted for months—but none of them got at the real issue.  Finally, I told them that if they could explain to me in English why they thought they deserved the chance to take the exam, I would let them take it.  None of them did.

Where it would have been much easier to give in, I stayed firm.  I lied at first, saying that it was a rule my boss had imposed, then finally owned up to it myself.  I wanted to teach them a lesson that I felt as graduate students they should have learned a long time ago.  It wasn't long before word spread and students in classes that weren't even my own began to find out.  Other students tried to petition for their struggling classmates—pleading with their own foreign teachers to get me to change my mind.  But my decision was final.

My goal as a teacher is to reward effort.  It doesn't bother me if a student's English level is not high so long as he or she makes some kind of an effort to improve—coming to class, following the lesson, asking questions if he or she doesn't understand.  My only hope is that the student's English level at the end of a semester is better than where it started.  It was clear from current performance, as well as looking at the grades from the past semester, that this wasn't the case for these students.  But all the while, I was beginning to doubt myself.

On the day of the blackout, I had already sunk into my own well of self-pity.  James caught me shirtless in my room, lying sprawled out on my bed and listening to Habib Koite at the highest volume my speakers could reach, the swoops and crashes of the African drum beats washing over my body like waves.  I told him that I wanted to cleanse my entire being, as if this music—other worldly as it sounded—could scald my skin down to its core and regenerate it anew.

I could hardly live with myself.  I was devastated by the belief that I had ruined these students' lives—that because of the stubbornness of my own principles, their paths could be unilaterally changed for the worse.  It didn't matter that I didn't believe they deserved a second chance.  They hadn't grown up in a culture and an educational system that enforced this way of thinking, so perhaps it wasn't fair that I was subjecting them to something so utterly foreign.  Their excuses would have been valid for most Chinese teachers, so why not for me too?

As the hour neared to when we would have to start lighting candles, there came a rap at my screen door.  By then the room was filled with a soft pale glow and most objects and faces were dimly distinguishable from one another, accented only by occasional movement.  I immediately recognized the figure at my door as my student, Susan.  Unlike my other flunkies, during the previous semester she had performed at the top of her class, but this spring I had seen her but a few times all year.  Despite my esteem for her as a student, I had an obligation to be fair.  I asked her friends in class to tell her that due to her absences, she would not be allowed to take the final exam.

She came to my house alone, a single silhouette in the door frame.  Outside, the sun had set, and already a grainy fog was filling in the sky like the backdrop to a film noir.  In her hands was a bundle of bananas—a bribe-of-sorts, but one that somehow felt more genuine than most.  Her eyes would hardly meet mine at first—oscillating between her shoes and the horizon in the distance behind my house.  Despite a cordiality to come in, she preferred to keep a certain distance.  As the others inside the house engaged in conversation, I went to greet her at the door.

Like most girls here, she wore plain clothes, no make-up, and kept her hair in a simple ponytail.  She began to explain the reason for her disappearance from class.  I was surprised by the degree to which she could still make herself understood in English, despite the long hiatus.  Her speech started slowly, then grew fast like a confession.  In the beginning of March, she got pregnant.  Her boyfriend, also a graduate student, was still legally single at the time.  A child out of wedlock in China was cause for scandal, so her parents wanted a marriage.  But first was the issue of the baby.

The couple discussed at length the measures they should take.  On the one hand, abortion was a relatively cheap and easy solution, but with it came a host of other moral dilemmas.  She herself came from a farming family, her parents the conservative devotees of Mao.  So the decision they made was to keep it, to bring the child into the world (her words).  And so, a marriage was in order.  Her parents made preparations for the shotgun wedding (my words).  Her boyfriend, as well as his parents, were amazingly obliging through the entire process, though everything about the pregnancy was kept under wraps.

The marriage was held in May, a small ceremony with just their closest friends and family.  Following that, she returned back to school, and began briefly attending class again—a story that checked out with my own attendance records.  But then there were the complications from the pregnancy.  Waking up feeling sick every morning, wanting to throw up.  Her parents wanted her to return home and not come back to school.  Not knowing the alternative, she agreed.

By now, the night sky was cascading hard across her face.  Activity along the small bypaths outside my house had slowed to a pitch.  I could tell by the creases in her eyes that Susan was on the brink of tears.  This was an incredibly embarrassing thing to admit to anyone, not least of which to a foreign English teacher.  She told me she would be taking the next year off from school in order to give birth, and afterward, might not come back to finish her degree.  If I had to guess, I would speculate that very few people knew about her predicament.  I asked her but one question: Why now?  She explained: I wanted to tell you earlier.  I just didn't know how.

As I looked out at the swirl of gray and black behind her, the entire scope of human experience became clear to me for a single instant.  Just one year earlier she was a child.  Now standing before me she was a mother-to-be, four-months pregnant, waiting for me to hand down my judgment.  She was just barely older than me but looked years younger.  I could only think of her in class.  Susan in the fourth row.  Susan in the stretchy dress, hands clasped around her stomach like a life preserver.  She was the first pregnant person my age that I had ever met.  Given the right circumstances, it could have happened to any one of us.  I took a long breath before responding.  Ok, I told her.  You can take the exam.