Three and a half years ago I met class 105 and 106. (In China the classes stay the same, with the same students taking all their classes together, for 4 years.)
Both freshman classes, new to university life, I was hesitant to say the least. Freshman not only have the worst level of English, but they have an inconsistent level, since they all learned at different schools, with different teachers and different styles. Many had never seen nor spoken to a foreigner before. I didn’t know if they would be able to understand me, much less get along with me.
Now I can’t bear to say goodbye to them.
Seniors don’t have class second semester, so for months we knew this semester would be our last together. This is something we had been talking about for years. “Someday we’ll have to part,” “Someday we’ll graduate and you can’t be our teacher anymore,” Someday. Someday. Well, that someday has arrived and gone.
I knew I had to make the last class spectacular and memorable. First up? Their final exam.
Over the years I had become known for my final exams, like the time they had to go to Shanghai to get 100, or the movies and magazines for writing class.
So for our last exam I had to think up something good. Something different and unique. I thought about it for weeks, and finally hit upon the most simple of ideas: they had to write me a letter.
That was it. That was all I told them. No topic requirements, no length requirements. Just write me a letter. Anything they wanted.
I know it was selfish. What are they going to say, how much they hated me? How boring my class was? Of course not. I knew they were going to say nice things about me. In the past, their finals had been for them, to learn something, to gain experience, but this one was all for me. I wanted proof for the future that I wasn’t just dreaming it up, or overplaying it in my head. I wanted something I could keep with their handwriting, and their thoughts and feelings.
So that was the final, what about class?
We had to have a little party, as I end almost all my classes with one. We ate snacks, drank soda (in one class they drank beer at 8am. Yes I know I am the worst teacher, but they brought it!)
Then I prepared a series of questions about memories and predictions about the future. Each student got a chance to talk, and we just chatted and laughed at our memories.
Then, because they had written me a letter, I wrote them one (which I read out loud). For each class I wrote a letter. Both different, both about 7 pages, telling them our years together from my point of view. Many of them expressed fear that I would forget them, but I told them I was afraid that they would forget me. After all, I will forever be in their “childhood,” the years of their life in school before their adult life began. But for me, I’m in the middle of my working life, and I’ll not only remember them but I’ll compare very other teaching experience with them.
Then I gave them a really big surprise. Something I had been thinking about for months, working on for weeks. A video, for each class, showing our activities from our four years.
In all, I taught them; Speaking class for 4 semesters, writing for 2, British and American Culture, British and American History, Culture Through Movies (elective class) and Newspaper Reading. That is 144 weeks (152 for those who came to my extra class), or 288 hours of class time.
And that’s just in class. Every year we had a birthday party, a Christmas party, a springtime party and others outside of regular class time. We also had dinners, nights out, walks around campus and milk tea binges. The total hours spent together is incalculable.
I know very few people will actually take the time to watch these long videos (though if you want to know what goes on in a chinese classroom you can get a good idea) but for all the parities involved, it is very touching.
To watch this on youku, click here.
To watch this on youku, click here.
And what about their letters to me?
Actually reading the letters took me quite awhile. They were so moving I really could only read one or two before I took a break. While much of what they said is too personal to share, I was really surprised by the influence that I’ve had on them. I mean, all modesty aside, I know I’ve affected their lives. I’ve forced them to do new things, and forced them to be creative and make things themselves. They’ve come to me with problems, and I’ve given advice they’ve followed. But it hasn’t been a one way street. I’ve pushed them, and they’ve pushed me. They have no idea how important they were in shaping my life, in helping me become braver and more of who I am, or who I have wanted to be.
One girl said after being inspired in my class she went out and bought a pair of shoes she has always dreamed off, but didn’t think herself worthy of wearing. Another girl said she decided to go to graduate school abroad entirely because of something I said sophomore year about the value of traveling.
But I think my favorite is from a girl who said she started school very shy, very timid and scared about doing the wrong thing. But through my example she realized how powerful she is, how she can do anything, and now isn’t afraid of the future.
And that’s what it is all about, right? A teacher is in many ways a mother. Our job is to prepare kids for the future. To give them the tools for a life without us. And in 4 short years, it worked. So as they graduate and continue their lives I’ll fade away. But just like a mom, if they ever need help, I’ll be there day or night doing whatever I can to help them.