20 classes, it’s a whole lot of kids. Spring term found my classrooms juggled around and whole new dynamics arose. My most advanced classes, 452 and 453, have “shrunk” to 41 students each. The rooms seemed empty at first. They still have their desks huddled together in a tight little clutch… and slowly fill all that space with books, books and more books. Students were added to other classes bringing them up to 70 students, the rooms are small enough that no more people can physically fit in. I squeeze myself sideways through the aisles, dodging the boxes of books and the long legs of the boys who’ve quickly outgrown their desks. My 1200+ students, the entire Senior 1 class here at Anren County Number One Middle School are the undisputed champions of my world here. I’ve had disputes about this with other rural World Teachers here in Hunan, but I can assure you that MY students really are THE BEST!
My last class on Friday’s is now 467. I’ve begun referring to them as my 48 girl-14 boy cheer-leading squad. They are superstars who, by and large, love English and won’t be outdone by anyone. They seem to have espoused a belief that greater volume will lead to greater English. The pronunciation exercises we warm up with have got to be louder than any other class. Even they cover their ears. Each class has a distinct character and form. The gender ratio might be greatly skewed. The students might be cultivating little plants in the windows, they might create gorgeous cartoon art in the back of the room, or maybe they just create piles of garbage in every corner.
With so many students, I have struggled to remember their names. I had them chose English names to use in class at the beginning of the year. I created a name bag that they could draw a name from, though I encouraged them to adopt their own. Sometimes they forget how to spell or say them, or forget them entirely, but I enjoy the creativity and total silliness that comes out in some of those names. One boy asked me “Can I be Barack Obama?” I said yes, of course. I loved walking into his class because each day began with him announcing his presence, “Barack Obama is here! I am Obama!”
There is Ulysses. He’s terribly shy and speaks softly, but he never misses a holiday occasion to leave a note, letter, or card on my desk. He occasionally practices singing at his desk before class, quietly of course, but I love it.
Lebeca is one of my most driven students. Her English is great and I can’t even guess how much extra time she puts into it. If I assign a short writing assignment, she will create an epic. She was distraught when I confirmed the rumor she’d heard that I would not be in Anren next year, but finally said, “Then, we must enjoy our remaining time together.”
A truly fitting name landed on Aristotle. He is bright and forward thinking. His family puts great pressure on him to succeed, but he puts it on himself as well. He insists that he must have the best English grades in his class and was distressed after an exam in the fall that saw him drop from 50th to 90th in the student rankings. During the Senior 1 New Years talent show, he and Alex-Hugh danced out in drag from side stage in his class’s play. I haven’t a clue what they were saying, but that play was my favorite of the night. It made my heart swell to see the creativity and hilarity of all these kids given the spotlight.
Or Tom, my favorite Tom out of the many I have, who gave me an apple on Christmas Eve. He apologized about the sticker on the apple. “I could not find one that said…what this says (merry Christmas), so this sticker says I love you”.
Big eyed Stanford, who for weeks before the spring festival holiday told me every time she saw me, “Teacher Sonee, I miss you already.” And how can I forget that she never once let a single opportunity to talk about Justin Bieber pass her by?
Chinese students love to give compliments. Wear lipstick. Cut your hair. Put on a dress… Sometimes just show up for class and you are going to hear it. “Wow! Wwwoooowww!” But Aubrey made it an art form for a while and every class he tried to give me some totally different compliment.
I could gush on and on about their hard work, their amazing energy and perseverance. I am touched every time one of them shouts a big hello to me as they careen down the street on their bike or how they light up any time they see me outside of the classroom. Getting to know these kids… what can I say? They have unique skills, quirks, talents, dislikes and passions. Some have an endless desire to be helpful or tremendous creative passion. The tough reality of their student life is that it is so regimented that it leaves them sparse time for hobbies, creativity, fun, exercise, or sleep. The things they’d like to be doing are often far different from what they actually can do. They shoulder a great burden of responsibility for their successes and failures; they compromise their desires with their motivation to ascend to a higher place in the student rankings, to get into a good university, to please their families. Throughout the year, they begin to acquire new dimensions on their road to adulthood. Their motivations begin to shift, they finally bust out of their shell of shyness, they get used to their first year in middle school and they get used to me. Funniest for me is when I see them wearing anything but their school uniform, they are completely transformed and I can hardly recognize them. They work so hard with little rest for distant and lofty dreams and I hope with all my heart that they find that success. To me, they already are the ‘big bosses’ and ‘superstars’ they strive to be, I couldn’t imagine 1200+ better kids anywhere.